Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Walt Disney kept the actress who played Snow White under contract for years to keep her from ruining the illusion behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by performing elsewhere.
A common practice that films used to use was to not credit certain voice actors for their performances. Marni Nixon is now famous for doing the singing for the lead female characters in West Side Story, The King and I and My Fair Lady, while not being credited in any of the three films. Similarly, Betty Noyes was not credited for her doing the singing for Debbie Reynolds’ character in the hit film Singin’ in the Rain (as I’ve detailed in a past Movie Legend, that was particularly ironic considering the plot of that film, as Reynolds’ character is hired to do voice dubbing for another character in the film!). In the cases of these uncredited singers, the idea was to not ruin the illusion that stars like Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn and Debbie Reynolds were doing their own singing. A similar approach was used by Walt Disney when he began doing feature length animated films with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney did not credit any of the voice actors because he wished to maintain the illusion with their audience that these characters were real. Disney did not credit any voice actors for his next three films, Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). Finally, in 1943 he began crediting voice actors and Disney films have credited actors ever since. However, with the case of the most famous character from Disney’s earliest films, Snow White, Disney took any even more aggressive position to keep the illusion alive.
But how far did he go? Did he actually prevent the actress who played Snow White from working on other projects to keep the illusion of Snow White alive?
Adrianna Caselotti was 18 years old when her father, Guido Caselotti, was approached by Walt Disney for suggestions for actresses for an upcoming feature, Snow White. The elder Caselotti, an opera singer and teacher, had done voice casting for Disney earlier in the 1930s. He was quick to suggest his own daughter. She auditioned for Disney and his musical director, Frank Churchill, in 1934, one of the very first actresses to try out for the role (she might have actually literally been the first one – I’m a bit unclear). They thought that she was perfect, but felt that it was too soon to actually cast her. They then tried out well over a hundred more actresses for most of 1935 before finally casting Caselotti. Caselotti was paid a total of $970 for her performance in Snow White. She later recalled that she didn’t realize that it was a feature film until much later, figuring it was just another short feature like all of Disney’s other projects to this point.
The story about Disney keeping Caselotti out of work seems to be based on events that directly surrounded the release of the film. Soon after the movie premiered, Caselotti did a performance of songs from the film at the famous Los Angeles night club, Trocadero. The famed radio star Jack Benny was in attendance and he asked for Caselotti to appear on his radio program. Disney, however, said no because it would ruin the illusion of Snow White’s performance in the film. The thing is, while studio contracts were quite common back in the 1930s and 1940s, they were not the case for Disney and his voice actors. It appears that Benny’s request was more of a show of respect to Disney than anything. It was not until Disney signed a ten-year deal with child actor Bobby Driscoll in 1946 that Disney began keeping actors under contract.
I think that the situation was instead a matter of typecasting. In the great book, The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who’s Who of Cartoon Voice Actors, Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons spotlighted Caselotti and had a few choice quotes from the actress (who passed away in 1997). First, when she described going to Disney himself looking for more work, he told her, “I absolutely cannot use you again, and the simply reason is that your voice is too identifiable.”
She later noted, “When I tried to get a job at other cartoon studios, they would hardly pay attention to me. I ended up working at the Hitching Post Theater in Hollywood for seventy-five cents an hour. I had just gotten married and we were trying very hard to make ends meet.”
So it seems to me that it is more a case of Caselotti simply not being credited in Snow White and therefore not being famous enough to make the most of her iconic role. And in the field of voice acting, she was hurt by being too identified with her famous role.
Not to mention, perhaps the most important piece of proof is that Caselotti DID do other work! She had a very small role in The Wizard of Oz (she sang a line in “”If I Only Had a Heart”) and another small role in It’s a Wonderful Life, playing a singer in a bar. She just didn’t get a lot of work for likely the above reasons (not famous enough because she was uncredited but also too identifiable with Snow White for other voice work). No Disney conspiracy.
Disney, for their part, later hired Caselotti to do a lot of promotional work connected to Snow White as the film kept being re-released over the years and they kept her employed here and there for decades before eventually phasing her out as the voice of the character.
The legend is…
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