Saturday 16 June 2012

What Walt Disney Learned From Snow White

Here’s a full-page feature story that ran in Every Week Magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement that apparently was put together by the National Enterprise Association. That’s who Paul Harrison worked for, and he’s the author of this piece that I found in the Laredo Times of January 16, 1938.

A couple things surprised me here. One is that Paramount got in the way of a Rip Van Winkle feature that Disney was planning with Will Rogers. One wonders if Rip was suggested as a feature to the Fleischer studio during its Paramount release (there was a short, “Popeye Meets Rip Van Winkle,” in 1941). The other is Disney’s pledge he had given up on combination live action/animation features. He was making them by the mid-‘40s. So much for that.

At least two other wire services released feature stories on “Snow White” the same day. One has Uncle Walt busy at his desk. It appears his P.R. people were even busier.

The pictures below accompanied the original Harrison article. I don’t know anything about the guy who drew the long shot of Snow, the Prince and the dwarves. It almost looks traced.

What Walt Disney Learned From Snow White
By Paul Harrison
BACK in 1928, when Walt Disney introduced the little character which subsequently became the world’s No. 1 rodent, that single-reel cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” was made for less than $1000.
Disney's first full-length feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” now ready for national release after four years in production, has cost nearly $1,300,000 to date. All the duplicate Technicolor prints which must be made for exhibition in theaters will add another $300,000 to the total.
“We’ve worked hard and spent a lot of money, and by this time we’re all a little tired of it,” Disney said. “I’ve seen so much of ‘Snow White’ that I am conscious only of the places where it could be improved.
“You see, we’ve learned such a lot since we started this thing! I wish I could yank it back and do it all over again.”
And right there you have a pretty fair idea of why Disney is Disney, why he has received more prizes, citations, plaques, medals, scrolls, certificates, foreign decorations and other tributes than anybody else, probably, in or out of Hollywood. His name is synonymous with artistic integrity. He believes that “Snow White” is a good picture and that critics and public likely won’t notice many of the faults, partly because no film ever has been made with which it could be compared. This is of no great comfort to Disney, though, because he doesn’t like an undiscovered fault any better than an obvious one.
He said, “I hope it makes a lot of money so that we can go ahead. But whatever happens, I’m going to get out our second feature, ‘Bambi.’
“You couldn’t possibly realize all the things we had to learn, and unlearn, in doing ‘Snow White.’ We started out gaily, in the fast tempo that is the special technique of short subjects. But that wouldn’t do; we soon realized there was danger of wearing out an audience. There was too much going on. A feature-length picture has to deal in personality and character development instead of trying all the time for slapstick and belly-laughs.”
THAT few people know is that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was begun as a one-reeler. That was about the time of the “Three Little Pigs,” when Disney craftsmen were busy with other fairy tales, among them “Hansel and Gretel” and “Babes in the Wood.” “Snow White” had been a favorite story with Disney ever since his newspaper carrier-boy days in Kansas City, when he had seen the silent version starring Marguerite Clark.
Here in Hollywood he several times had given quite a bit of thought to making a feature-length animation. Mary Pickford wanted him to produce “Alice in Wonderland,” with herself as Alice, but with all the other characters hand-drawn.
“She was also going to put up the money,” Disney recalled. “Golly!—I can still remember how awed we were when we figured that it would take $400,000 or $500,000 to do a good job. It wouldn’t have been too difficult in black-and-white—just a lot of intricate process shots. I worked out a plan. Then Paramount came along with a production of ‘Alice,’ and that knocked out our idea.”
Another time, Disney revealed, he and Will Rogers conferred on a filming of “Rip Van Winkle,” with the little men to be done by animators. Paramount wouldn’t release its rights to the story, so nothing happened.
“I’ve got that combination flesh-and-ink idea out of my system now,” Disney said. “After this we’ll work only to develop our drawing and advance our own medium. And it is a medium, not a novelty. It’s capable of conveying some pretty heavy emotional stuff, as we found out in ‘Snow White.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d cry a little with those little fellas. I hope so, anyway.
“We’ve had a few touching sequences in some of the short subjects. Remember the one about the mouse that wanted to fly, and the fairy gave him a set of bat wings? The poor little guy was in a hell of a shape, being neither mouse nor bird nor bat. All the animals laughed at him until the fairy came and took his wings away, and after that he was happy just being a mouse. Lots of people have told me they got a tremendous emotional boot out of that little story.”
Disney believes that “Snow White” is the sort of story that just couldn’t be done convincingly with human actors. Casting difficulties, especially with the dwarfs, would have been insurmountable. Paradoxically, you see, the purer fantasy of drawing lends a stronger feeling of reality.
“Snow White” also was the sort of story that refused to be tossed off in a single reel of eight minutes. The studio staff took more than ordinary delight in developing the ingratiating characters of the dwarfs. And the story department was torn by dissension when conferences were held to pare the tale down to short-subject dimensions. Pretty soon Disney realized that here was the material—action, comedy, emotion and suspense—for a venture in feature production.
Not even the statistical-minded publicity department can estimate the effort that was poured into the project. It has been a labor of pride for an organization in which everybody is young and where the big boss is called “Walt” to his face.
Disney must be the proudest of all, but he leans far backward in an effort to be matter-of-fact. He said, “It’s no wonder we have a different sort of feeling here; we’re an entirely separate little industry. In our work, we have nothing in common with Hollywood people, and we don’t live the Hollywood life.
“You take an ordinary studio and it’s full of people doing those things that are necessary for them to get ahead. There are executives who know nothing at all about making pictures. They worry about the prices of picture company stocks. They’re in it for the dough. In this outfit, every nickel’s worth is owned by my brother and myself.”
To safeguard their balance, and as a precaution against head-swellings, the studio’s myth-makers never see the articles written about their work. Disney himself sees only digests of significant critical opinion, and no fan mail except excerpts containing suggestions.
WITHOUT hoopla and with some misgivings, Disney launched “Snow White” on an initial appropriation of $250,000 and a staff of less than 100 people. His first release date was equally optimistic—early in 1936.
No great technical obstacles were encountered. The increasing delays and mounting costs mostly were due to discoveries of possibilities for improvement. Then they’d go back and make changes. The multiplane camera, developed at a cost of more than $50,000, was one of the improvements. It is a device which permits the photographing of characters and backgrounds on different plattes, exactly as players and props stand out in perspective on a stage.
Not only because of her voice, but her face and figure, Snow White herself was the most difficult member of the cast. This is Disney’s first representation of a normal human being. She had to be beautiful, and graceful in movement. At the same time, she had to be fairly simple in design because elaborate detail in facial lines and coloring produces a jittery image on the screen.
Snow White also sings. There are eight musical numbers in the picture and all are the work of Frank Churchill and Larry Morey of Disney’s staff. “Some Day My Prince Will Come” is the picture’s theme song.
So attached have Disney’s men become to the dwarfs, through years of developing individual personalities for them, that he has been petitioned to keep the little characters alive in future pictures. But Disney says no, they’ll have served their mission and he doesn't want them chiseling in on the popularity of his established stars.
The grotesque little men already have proved that they're expert scene stealers, and the studio animators have had a hard time suppressing some of them. Even now, for example, Disney is worried lest Dopey walk off with the picture, or at least with more than his due share of audience attention. Dopey is voiceless and wears oversize clothes. He’s always up to something with the mad singleness of purpose that makes Harpo Marx appealing.
DOC is the pompous, jittery, self-appointed leader of the band. Watching rushes of the film, Disney soon discovered that Doc was stealing scenes by the old familiar stage trick of “fly catching.” That is, he was making too many motions with his hands.
Happy is a fat little man with a perpetual smile and a cheery voice. Sleepy is always yawning, talks little, but is smarter than the others realize. Real boss is Grumpy, who’s actually teader-hearted but pretends to be opposed to everything, especially “wimmin an’ their wicked wiles.” Bashful is shy and fidgety, and poor Sneezy suffers terribly from hay fever, always managing to kerchoo at embarrassing times.

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