Much of this remarkable atmosphere was generated by Disney himself and his visionary approach to animation. Everyone, as animator Ken Anderson has recalled, was carried along by Walt’s personal enthusiasm for the Snow White project: “We had no concept that we were ever going to do anything else or ever want to do anything else”.
Closely following the Grimm Brothers’ version of the fairy-tale, but with such Disneyesque embellishments as Snow White travelling through a variety of strange countries, including Backwardland and Upsidedownland, the first outline for the story was drafted by Walt Disney in August 1934.
This treatment established the concept of giving each of the dwarfs an individual personality signified by their name, and fifty possible names were suggested including Scrappy, Cranky, Dumpy, Thrifty, Nifty, Weepy, Gaspy, Snoopy, Graceful and Dirty, as well as five of the seven names that were eventually chosen: Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Bashful.
A character called Biggo-Ego (‘a pompous… know-it-all’), was developed into Doc, the fussy leader of the dwarfs, and then only one of the group remained to be christened. In the earliest treatments he was called Awful and described as “the most lovable and interesting… He steals and drinks and is very dirty”. But he gradually underwent a transformation into a well-meaning clown who didn’t speak – because he’d never tried. For a while he was simply known as “Seventh”; later, he became Dopey and, modelled on a little-known vaudeville comic Eddie Collins, became the most endearing of the dwarfs.
The trouble with Snow White as a subject was Snow White herself. The animators had plenty of experience in drawing animals and there was nothing particularly difficult about the dwarfs, since gnomes and elves had already appeared in such Silly Symphonies as The Meriy Dwarfs, Babes in the Wood and Santa’s Workshop. As for the Witch, she was a cinch, and even the wicked Queen wasn’t too hard to visualise once Disney had abandoned an early treatment of her as a “fat, cartoon-type, sort of vain-batty, self-satisfied” and settled, instead, on making her ‘a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf. But Snow White – and also her Prince – presented many problems.
By way of experiment, the studio made The Goddess of Spring, a Silly Symphony based on the Greek legend of Persephone. But although animator Ham Luske attempted to model the heroine on movements acted out for him by his wife, Persephone emerged as an unconvincing, willowy character with the kind of rubbery limbs usually possessed by comic cartoon characters.
Undaunted, Disney pushed on with the feature, while Don Graham stepped up the number of life classes which he was running at the studio. By studying figure-drawing from models, the artists’ techniques began to improve. To help with the specific difficulties of animating the characters in Snow White, live performers acted out scenes from the story before a camera, and the resulting footage was studied and used in creating the animation. Lewis Hightower posed for the Prince; a troupe of real dwarfs – named Ernie, Tom and Major George – provided their own particular authenticity; and a young dancer, Marge Belcher (later one-half of the movie dance-partnership Marge and Gower Champion), acted for Snow White.