One afternoon in late 1934 or early 1935, Walt Disney gave four dozen of his studio artists fifty cents each to have dinner at nearby diners and then return to work. Ward Kimball, who would eventually become one of Disney’s core animators, his so-called “Nine Old Men,” was among them. A twenty-one-year-old art school dropout at the time, he went with a handful of other young animators to a nearby greasy spoon—thirty-five cents for a meal and fifteen cents for dessert—then shuffled back to the studio’s soundstage, “a big box-like room [with] rows of seats piled up at the end.” As the studio was in the habit of leaving lights off to save money, upon arriving the men found the stage dark, except for a single spot throwing down a hoop of light in the center of the room. Kimball found a seat in the back row, leaving the front rows for more senior employees.
None of the artists assembled had any idea why they’d been summoned until Walt himself stepped out before the gathering. With his thin, excited body centered in the light, he explained that he wanted to move toward an animated feature—something that no American studio had attempted. A feature, Walt explained, had the potential to bring in more money than a series of cartoons. Also, if successful, it could give the studio financial stability and allow it to compete with larger live-action studios for feature slots on theater programs.
Walt grew quiet, looking from one man to the next, as the gravity of this announcement took hold, then his expression softened, his voice taking on deeper notes. “I’m going to tell you a story,” he began. “It’s been with me all my life.” From there, he related the tale of Snow White, as he had imagined it for the screen. It wasn’t yet broken down into sequences: it was pure narrative. “He portrayed all the parts,” one animator remembers. He jumped between scenes, discussing how drama would swell with each conflict. “He became even the queen, became the huntsman, became the dwarfs, Snow White,” his body bending into each role. One animator would later say that Walt’s acting was so believable it was as though he were changing imaginary costumes to perform each character. The presentation lasted three hours. “It was midnight when we got out of there,” animator Ken Anderson remembers, “and we were just really stunned, all of us.”
From the start, the concept of an animated feature transformed the studio. Artists struggled with new questions: Would ninety minutes of Technicolor animation, a relatively new process, overwhelm viewers? Would the public be able to set aside the comic traditions of animation to engage a dramatic story? Would an audience respond to animated characters with sympathy, excitement, and sorrow? “[Walt] was always talking about the characters, building their personalities,” Kimball observed. “And that was the key to the whole damn thing.”
To overcome these challenges, Walt hired instructors from the Chouinard Art Institute to give lessons in drawing, action analysis, and color theory. A proponent of technical and general education, Walt wanted both to prepare his animators for challenges presented by the current feature and to deepen their appreciation of art as it might apply to later films.
If Ward Kimball had any lingering regrets about landing in Hollywood rather than in New York art circles, those regrets began to leave him. With other studio artists, he attended classes on the Disney soundstage, with portable drawing desks arranged in a semicircle around the instructor. He sketched life-drawing models, striving to capture emotion in a pose. He watched live-action films, the frame-rate reduced to a flutter, to better understand the movement of the human body: the space between each image.
Up until this time, Disney animators had been roughing out characters largely based on simple geometric shapes, the circle and the oval in particular. To create Snow White, these same animators would need to better understand the form of the human body. Likewise, until now animators had used fairly hard construction lines to draw the characters, lines similar to those used in the funny pages, emphasizing the outline. The characters in Snow White, Walt believed, would require more nuanced line work, lines that could suggest a softness: the pliability of flesh, the flowing turns of fabric.
For Kimball, these classes satiated one of his many aches: he felt as though he were being returned to art school, even if the lessons were largely in service of film. The classes explored issues of timing and staging. The studio’s newly hired lead instructor, Don Graham, “taught [animators] to see what was flat on a piece of paper and what had dimension.” In short, the classes sought to adapt the techniques of traditional illustration into a medium that allowed for movement.
For the animators, these classes encouraged them to believe, however dimly, that a feature like Snow White might possibly transform the field of animation. They saw the feature as an opportunity to rake in large bonus checks, with payouts calculated for completed footage. The younger ones believed that this feature might be the place where they defined themselves as experts in this new approach to film, one that relied more on classical illustration than on simple cartooning.
Ward Kimball saw these possibilities, particularly the financial and professional ones, but his strengths weren’t centered in realistic illustration. In class, Don Graham noticed that Kimball created “a little [comic] caricature of one of the models in the life class,” one that Graham found pleasing yet outside of the assignment. Upon considering Kimball’s sketches, Graham started to see “that there was an approach to the work that we should give consideration.” Moreover, he came to believe that his classes could offer “all the fundamentals of drawing [yet still allow space to develop] the work with . . . a sense of caricature.” Or to put this another way, Graham looked for ways to combine Kimball’s natural sense of cartooning and caricature with a greater depth of personality and emotion.
To improve these skills, most Fridays Kimball drove with another young animator, Larry Clemmons, to Ocean Park, where crowds gathered on the boardwalk. While perched on a park bench, they applied the lessons of the studio classes in creating personality sketches of people out for a stroll. “We sat there with Cracker Jacks and popcorn and talked about every person who came by,” Kimball recalled, “what he must do for a living. I could say, ‘How would you like to be married to that.’ . . . But what we were doing and having fun with was analyzing people: what made them tick. . . . When you are an animator, all these things have to be considered . . . What does [a character drawing] add up to personality-wise? Is the character a scheming, cunning individual? Then he walks differently. And how do you also make it funny?”
For many young animators, these were the wonder years, each week a new lesson. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright lectured at the studio, as did painter Jean Charlot. Together, animators studied emotion as expressed through gesture and personality as defined in mannerism. They began to consider the construction of animated characters in new ways: how characters walked, how they moved their hands when speaking. Though they were packed into shared offices, though they penciled out drawings long past quitting time, though their names never graced the screen, these young men started to feel that they were creating something that would be remembered for generations.
Kimball loved the artistic shorts produced at the studio, such as “The Old Mill,” an atmospheric cartoon that, if anything, embraced the breathiness of a narrative poem. “The Old Mill” related the simplest of stories: realistic field animals preparing for a storm. He once said, “A thing like ‘The Old Mill’—a beautifully written short . . . It had a soul! It [was] based on dawn and dark.” For Kimball, such films mostly bridged the world of popular and high art, a union that he hoped would come to full fruition in Snow White.
But the studio couldn’t afford to focus solely on technical and artistic experiments, however lovely the results. “Something had to come out of the Studio every two weeks,” Kimball understood, “to keep the place going!” Some shorts, such as the Mickeys, were simply a type of popular entertainment that needed to be moved through the studio to meet contractual obligations, while other films approached the dreaminess of fine illustration, a dreaminess that made Kimball believe that the studio was now something more than a business: it was a commercial art collective.
After Walt’s big announcement, Kimball remained on the shorts for months, as did other young animators, but he often visited his old mentor, Ham Luske, who now supervised the development of Snow White as a character. According to Ward, “He said how tough it was to do something like this,” to pace out her movements and expressions, refining hundreds of drawings toward something that might approach the complexities of human acting.
Kimball’s first assignment on Snow White was to work alongside Luske on a sequence in which Snow White wakes up crying, encircled by a group of forest animals. A typical audience, the studio had already learned, was far less forgiving when a human character didn’t act or speak in a way that appeared authentic than they were when a fanciful cartoon mouse or duck did the same thing. “You had to be very exact on [Snow White],” Kimball later explained. “The width of a line would change the look on her face” and make her appear slightly less than human.
Unlike many of the Mickeys and Symphonies, which were wholly built around visual comedy, the structure of the feature was based on musical tempos, alternating between moments of drama and moments of humor. As the plot progressed, the film decreased its comedic space in order to expand elements of darkness, tension, and conflict. “Walt realized a lot of these fairy tales were pretty grim,” Kimball once explained. “He realized you had to have a balance, you had to have gags and laughs to offset the pathos, the heavy stuff.” Even with his new training, Kimball found these more nuanced expressions of Snow White a challenge, one that required him to draw on emotional depths that he—now a twenty-two-year-old newlywed—hadn’t yet cultivated.
In one scene, Kimball drew Snow White sobbing as she awoke in the forest, with the emotion expressed primarily through strong movements in her upper body. But when the scene was projected as part of a pencil test reel, the action appeared melodramatic and obvious. To one interviewer, he explained: “I made the shoulders work too much.” With this, he was given directions to revise.
To another interviewer, he described the difficulty of redirecting his skills toward this scene: “If you didn’t get her eyes placed exactly right—if they were too far apart or too close together—you’d changed her personality. That’s why the animators would rather work on the dwarfs. They were very broad characters, and we didn’t have to be so careful.”
But if Kimball found frustration at the drawing board, he found satisfaction elsewhere on the lot. During these months, as Snow White muscled through production, Kimball saw the studio grow from two hundred employees to more than six hundred. He also saw his circle of friends expand. To encourage collegiality, Walt Disney held dinners and after-work parties. He screened movies, free of charge, so animators would have a better idea as to Snow White’scompetition. On some afternoons, around four o’clock, he directed traffic boys to deliver beer to animators at their desks, tall frosty mugs filled to the top.
Walt believed that artists could be motivated by money, comfort, and good will, but that most of all they were motivated by pride in their work, the hope that their drawings might be admired by other animators. Through this, Walt produced an environment in which artists not only felt camaraderie but also competition, with pencil tests screened by many animators and the best scenes acknowledged in Don Graham’s training class. To earn small bits of praise, artists toiled into the evening, not thinking of the money so much as the recognition they would find with exceptionally good work.
Though the forest sequence didn’t capitalize on Kimball’s strengths, a subsequent assignment raised him, with precision, up into the sweet spot of his abilities. Walt, in all likelihood, had been searching for a way to incorporate Kimball’s gifts into the feature, a search that eventually placed him on the Soup Sequence.
The Soup Sequence, arranged around the comic song “Music in Your Soup,” featured Snow White attempting to teach the bachelor dwarfs the way that gentlemen sip—not slurp—soup from a spoon. Though the dwarfs attempt to follow Snow White’s direction, none of them can master the movements. The sequence ends when Dopey swallows his spoon and the other dwarfs work to retrieve it.
Though in later years Kimball would relate the story in such a way as to suggest that he was the first and perhaps only animator on the sequence, he was in fact the seventh, but he excelled at the type of rounded, cartoon animation the studio employed on the dwarfs far more than he did on realistic human characters.He drew Happy, the dwarf who sang the song. He drew the dwarfs sampling the soup. He drew Dopey as he swallowed the spoon, his face mapped with surprise, then panic, then horror. He drew many scenes himself, with only the help of a cleanup man named Claude Smith to finish drawings and finalize lines.
Kimball saw this song as an opportunity to demonstrate—not only to Walt but to his fellow artists—how his animation had improved over the previous year. For this sequence, he wanted to pull personality-based humor from each dwarf, humor that was based largely in gesture and slightly exaggerated facial expressions, all of it anchored to a song. He also sought to more realistically express the movement patterns of his characters as a whole: the dwarfs’ beards would move differently than their clothes; likewise both of these elements would move differently than their relatively solid bodies. Only through precise management of these features in action would the characters appear “real.”
To better visualize and time Dopey’s actions, Kimball looked for a model who could pantomime the character’s movements and stage his frantic dance. “Some of the young animators, who were unmarried, would go down to the burlesque show to see the strippers and comics,” Kimball recalled. The venue itself was the Burbank Theater on a seedy part of South Main, a theater that used girlie photos to advertise its entertainments but that also hosted some of the best vaudeville comics in the business, including Eddie Collins, whom Kimball described as “a funny little guy with baggy pants.” Collins was able to contort his face into interesting expressions that intrigued Kimball, especially as a model for Dopey: “He had this wide mouth,” Kimball once explained, “that when he [smiled] it’d go from ear to ear. But his main attraction was—if a girl would walk by—he’d drop his tongue out and—God!—it must have been twelve inches long.” With this, Ward thought, “Hey, this guy’s great for the Soup Sequence.”
After seeing him on stage, Kimball somehow persuaded Ben Sharpsteen, a sequence director, to catch his act later that week. “Ben was a little worried” what Walt would think of using a girlie-show comic; he was also concerned about being seen at the show himself. But after the show was over, they went around back and talked with Collins. With reluctance, Sharpsteen agreed to hire him as a paid live-action model, what was commonly known as a reference model or a movement model, to help time out action and build visual comedy into a scene.
But even with Collins’s movements captured on film, Kimball was learning that there were no shortcuts to personality animation. Dopey’s actions needed to be far broader than those produced by the comedian. The human body simply wasn’t expressive enough to plot action for a comic character. The reference footage might serve as a loose guide, but ultimately Kimball needed to craft the scenes on his own.
To one reporter, Kimball confessed that the creation of “an animated film is excruciatingly slow. A few minutes of film takes weeks or months to animate.” To another, he revealed that his work on this scene, a mere four and a half minutes, took 240 days. He worked and reworked individual drawings, looking for ways to convey a character’s interior thoughts, moment by moment, through a simple set of lines. His weekly pay was forty dollars, hardly enough to compensate him for his efforts, but the feature held out the promise of a sizeable bonus for footage included in the film.
As the scene progressed, pencil drawings were filmed and projected for Walt, the segment directors, and other animators. These sweatbox screenings were nerve-wracking, with every frame scrutinized. The screening room had “no windows, no ventilation,” Kimball recalls. “You’d come out smelling like a smoked Virginia ham.”
As the Soup Sequence progressed, more live-action footage was filmed: a young dancer, Marge Champion, modeled for Snow White, and since Eddie Collins had moved on to other cities, Kimball himself acted out the role of Dopey, with fellow animators standing in for the remaining dwarfs. Walt’s reaction to Ward’s animation was generally positive: he thought the Soup Sequence had personality and strong comedy.
With encouragement, Kimball focused in on revision, locating ways to amplify the humor. Occasionally he reviewed his scenes with Freddy Moore, a supervising animator, both for inspiration and correction. To one interviewer, Kimball explained: “You weren’t trying to be an individualist in your own drawing style . . . so when the audience looked at the picture they couldn’t tell who had done what. You had to be a team player.”
But beyond simple style matching, Kimball broadly employed the principles of squash and stretch, a strategy of exaggerated motion to expand comic elements in the sequence, pushing movement into visual territory that was slightly different from that of other animators. He looked for ways to individuate the dwarf’s personality through expression and gesture. Working with the song’s rhythms, he timed out a sophisticated series of movements and counter-movements until the sequence bristled with anxious, tuneful energy.
This type of precision—essentially method acting combined with dance and drawing—was exhausting. “One frame can take fifteen minutes to draw,” he once complained, “and it appears on the screen for only a fraction of a second.” With Kimball’s estimates, the drawings for a single second of film would take nearly one workday to complete in rough animation. But Kimball was underestimating the time it took other animators to finish the more complex drawings for the feature. Some individual drawings, particularly of the more dramatic human characters, took two or three hours. In a few cases, they took half a day. “We had never done anything like this before,” Kimball said. “The big word was believability. If this picture is going to work [the audience is] going to have to believe the characters.”
This semi-realistic feature, the animators were discovering, was far more taxing than the broadly comic shorts. On the shorts, animators focused their efforts for a few weeks, maybe a month, after which the cartoon was finished, complete with a small premiere and celebratory drinks at a local bar. There was a pattern of work and release, a reliable cadence that the men found manageable. The feature was an endless march toward a distant town; it was a boulder they pushed up a mountain; it was a race to finish between a million and two million drawings by the end of the year.
“To relieve the monotony,” Kimball once confessed, “we’d do things, like, well, on Snow White,we’d draw porno.” The first of these dirty drawings, a novelty, had appeared a couple years earlier, when the studio had been working on a Silly Symphony called “The Goddess of Spring.” But with the strain of recent work, the boys let off steam by penciling out a few suggestive drawings. “Here was this beautiful saccharine-sweet girl in the story, and after making so many drawings of her during the day, our impulse was to draw her naked.”
Though Kimball drew a few naked Snow Whites, he had other ways of letting off steam. He threw himself into hobbies: his model train layout at home, now dressed with wind-up toys and miniature buildings, rivaled anything Macy’s produced at Christmas. When animators visited his house, they crowded around the train layout. He also found solace in restoring his Model T touring car. When he first brought the Model T to the lot, “the event caused a small state of pandemonium, with dozens of Disney’s artists clustered around [it].”
Kimball was an odd mix of exuberance and ambition, a perennial underdog who had a shot of making it big. He often presented himself as an extrovert—he even talked about the necessity of being an extrovert to properly understand animation—but he had an introvert’s need for solitude, for private space to create art, not just animation but the paintings he worked on at home, paintings of his family, himself, and sometimes musicians. He spent long hours chatting with friends in the corridors to give the impression, in his own bohemian way, that he saw himself more as an artist than an employee; but in his office he worked with single-minded concentration on the scenes assigned to him and was deeply involved with their development.
By spring of 1937 he had animated most of the Soup Sequence, including the musical sections and much of the comic action. Once the sequence was cleaned up, he started work on a second sequence featuring the dwarfs building a bed for Snow White. He was likely feeling the depths of his new abilities: the Soup Sequence was the most complex piece of animation he’d completed, one that would likely be a standout comic number in the film.
Then he got the bad news: he heard that Walt was going to remove the finished Soup Sequence and the partially completed Bed Building Sequence as well. “That was one of the early tragedies of my life,” Kimball would later confess.
For weeks, Walt Disney had been looking at rough cuts of the entire film, as he now had pencil animation and final storyboards for the whole picture. He wanted to feel the emotional weight of the film and review its rhythms. Pacing, Walt knew, mattered much more in a feature than it did in the shorts. As this was his first feature he was still intuiting his way into the structure of a ninety-minute story, obsessively reviewing each sequence, each scene, to determine how to effectively shift between pathos and humor. At this point in production, as Kimball recalls, Walt “was looking at the picture two or three times a day.”
Any cuts would prove expensive—a waste of thousands and thousands of dollars in labor, a significant concern for a studio already in debt. But the Soup Sequence, he started to see, slowed the film. Moreover, the Soup Sequence followed another humorous number performed by the dwarfs, “The Washing Song.” Over weeks, in the stuttering light of a projection room, he came to realize that this stretch of narrative contained too much upbeat music and comedy. At this point in the story, the film needed a quicker transition to its darker moments, the Queen standing before the mirror and deciding to poison Snow White with an apple.
The official announcement came on a pink slip of paper, probably from supervising director Dave Hand, to inform the entire production crew that the Soup Sequence would be trimmed from the film. On many levels, the news was a blow to Kimball: first, there was all the time he had spent on the sequence, then the issue of bonus pay, but most importantly the removal of his best work and the reputation it would’ve given him. “Well, there I was with my first big job,” Kimball later told a reporter, “. . . and I was just a kid. I was crushed and heartbroken. All that work. I went home and had a few rum drinks.”
To another reporter, he explained that Walt called him that night, explaining: “as much as he hated to do it . . . he had to take it out of the picture.” But the call did little to cheer him. “I felt so, not bitter, but discouraged, because I had worked so hard, and I had only been there two to three years. To have the great Grim Reaper come in and cut out those two sequences was sort of a personal blow. I took it very personally . . . I thought maybe there was something wrong with the way I animated.”
Fortified with booze, he took to his desk, where he expressed his feelings in a drawing. It was a cartoon representation of himself: in it, he sat on the ground, elbows on knees, head hung low. His eyes were pinched closed, his mouth arranged in a sorrowful “oh.” Rising from his head was a thought balloon, inside it a single can of Campbell’s soup. This was the comedian’s approach to sorrow, the sadness of life summed up as a joke. After talking with his wife, he developed a serious response to the problem as well: “I decided I was going to New York after all.” With whatever money he had, he would start his life over as a magazine illustrator and gallery artist, fulfilling the vision he had nurtured in art school.
The following morning, on the door of the director’s room, Kimball tacked the original note from Dave Hand and beside it the drawing he’d made the previous night. With this, all of the animators understood that Kimball had been laid low, his best work pulled from Ink and Paint and filed away in a room filled with discarded or completed scenes, cels no longer needed for production, a room animators would later call the morgue. It’s likely that Kimball told a few of his friends at the studio, such as Freddy Moore, that he was quitting, as he was never one to suffer silently.
Later that day Kimball went to see Walt Disney. In some interviews, Kimball explained that he was called to Walt’s office, but in one, he put it directly, perhaps more honestly: “I actually went into Walt’s office to quit.”
Though Walt directed story meetings, approved finished animation, and decided who would and would not receive bonuses, he was not a distant, judgmental boss. His office held a medium-sized desk, filled with mimeographed story notes and a few figurines of the dwarfs. On the walls were promotional images of the studio’s best-known characters, Mickey and Minnie, as well as a photo of his mother. Walt understood the problem. “It was one of [my] favorite sequences,” he said. “But we’re going to have to cut it out of the picture. It’s getting in the way of the story.”
Walt waited for the information to take hold—Kimball’s work was good, but the unity of the feature needed to be protected at all costs—then he explained that he wanted Kimball to take a larger role in the next feature. Snow White was just the first; there would be others—that is, assuming Snow White made a profit. “Even before I got to the point where I said, ‘I don’t think I should be working here,’ [Walt] took right off on me with a positive approach . . . He, perhaps, sensed that I felt lousy and why I had come to his office, and he started waxing enthusiastically about Pinocchio.”
It’s impossible to know now the exact details of the conversation that transpired in that office. In multiple interviews that Kimball gave fifty years after the fact, he claimed that Walt softened the blow by telling him: “We have this picture, Pinocchio, coming up next, and we’ve added a little character that’s right up your alley, Jiminy Cricket.” But as a literal description of the meeting, that surely didn’t happen, at least not in the summer of 1937. The Disney version of Pinocchio was so underdeveloped at this point that the story team hadn’t yet created the character of Jiminy Cricket. More significantly, Pinocchio wasn’t yet scheduled as the studio’s second feature. That honor was then held by Bambi. The conversation in Walt’s office would eventually lead to these things, but not for months.
What’s more likely to have transpired is that Walt, who was never good at complimenting artists directly, expressed how much he liked the Soup Sequence, and may also have praised Kimball’s animation on the Silly Symphonies. But more important, he likely told Kimball that for the next picture he would be promoted to the position of supervising animator, that is, an artist who contributes to the design of a character and then oversees animators who work on it for the duration of the picture. A significant promotion, this would place him as an equal with more established animators, such as his old mentor Ham Luske and his friend Freddy Moore. It also would have offered him more creative input on a picture, particularly as to how individual characters were designed and presented.
In one interview—perhaps one in which he got the details right—Kimball explained that after Walt saw the depth of his disappointment, he gave him new characters to work on—characters in Snow White, not Pinocchio. “So to make it a little easier to take,” Kimball said, “Walt assigned me to do the vultures.”
He likely left Walt’s office feeling somewhat better, though still confused and upset. His self-caricature, after all, was still tacked to the door of the directors’ room. Over time—perhaps days, perhaps weeks, perhaps months—Kimball came to see that the Soup Sequence might actually have slowed the narrative tempo in a way that was detrimental to the overall story. Eventually he would say: “When I analyzed it in my own mind, I knew [Walt] was right.” But it took a while for the good news of a promotion to wash disappointment from his mouth, all those months he sat at a hot desk roughing out drawing after drawing of the dwarfs.
In the remaining months of the film’s production Kimball only worked on the Vulture Sequence: he animated two vultures who followed the evil queen to her death, gliding through the air then circling darkly down into the mist.
The PR activity leading up to the release of Snow White was substantial. For the 1937 Christmas season, department stores across the nation displayed Snow White merchandise, including “a tea set, paper dolls, a wind-up Dopey toy, Sleepy holding an egg timer, a board game, a bubble pipe, [and] a sand pail.” The Snow White story was featured in both Good Housekeeping and the weekly Silly Symphony comic that was distributed to newspapers across the country. Walt himself appeared in the film’s trailer, which was shot in the low-light environment of his office, where he appeared as a young man, hopeful that this feature would take hold with the public.
The final cels passed through Ink and Paint on November 27 and were filmed on December 1. Five days later, a chilly Monday, the studio secretly premiered the film at the Fox Pomona, a big theater in a little town east of Los Angeles, a city surrounded by farms and a liberal arts college. The audience believed they were seeing a romantic comedy with Carole Lombard and Fredric March and were surprised to learn that they would instead see a rough cut of Walt Disney’s first feature. The audience appeared excited—or at least that’s how members of the studio and the film’s distributor, RKO, perceived the situation from the back of the room. Once the announcements were over, with the film blossoming onto the screen, the audience was engaged, laughing and applauding until shortly after the halfway mark when “one third of them got up and walked out.” As these people filed out the back doors, a small production team, bused in from the studio, watched in disbelief, then they focused in on those who remained. “Everybody else kept responding enthusiastically to Snow White right to the end,” recalls Wilfred Jackson, one of the sequence directors. Still, the preview “was unsettling.”
Walt himself was so disturbed that he left the theater: “[He] decided he better go out into the foyer and listen and see what they were saying when they went out,” only to have the theater manager explain that the departing members of the audience likely had some place to go.
Two theories would emerge to explain the mass departure. A local history expert in the LA Times, years later,would suggest “a fruit frost warning” had been issued, and word spread that citrus farmers needed to “light the smudge pots.” Jackson himself would come to believe that the exodus was caused by local college students who, after the late start of the surprise feature, “had to get back for their 10:00 pm dormitory curfew.” Regardless, the partially empty theater sent tremors of anxiety through the studio, even though the RKO exit polls showed that the remaining audience had a positive reaction to the film.
In the final two weeks before the film’s gala premiere, the studio repainted a few backgrounds and reshot key scenes that Walt believed less than perfect. Everyone understood that Snow White would either make or break the studio. To this end, Walt asked animators to place posters in shop windows and on telephone poles to advertise the film’s release. “We went all over Hollywood and Los Angeles,” one animator recalls, “tacking these things up.”
Walt made one more important gesture: he announced that the studio’s next film would be Pinocchio, even though for nearly a year the studio had explored adapting Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods as its second feature. The announcement was important because it demonstrated Walt’s optimism for Snow White, predicting that its success would be large enough to warrant putting a second feature into production. It also indicated Walt’s belief that his artists and storymen were in a better position to produce another fairy tale than they were to realistically stage and animate the life of a baby deer.
By the middle of December, Kimball’s relationship with the studio was on the mend: he was his own best cheerleader and nurse, a small voice in his head prodding him on, promising him that grand things lay just around the corner.
For the Hollywood premiere of Snow White,he purchased two tickets at the exorbitant price of $5.50, twenty-two times the cost of a regular adult admission ticket in 1937. After a year of work, his only animation to be included was part of the sequence in which Snow White wakes up in the forest and a sequence in which two vultures appear briefly at the end of the movie. For this affair, Kimball rented a tux.
The premiere was held Tuesday, December 21, at the Carthay Circle Theater, one of the premiere venues in Los Angeles where major studios regularly debuted big productions. “Everybody was there,” Kimball recalled. “It was terrific, with searchlights and all the big cars pulling up to the red carpet.” The studio also provided a few attractions never before seen at a premiere. In front of the theater was a gallery of animation art, cels from the movie framed and presented under soft lights, indicating that the artistic process was nearly as important as the film itself. Milling through the crowd were actors costumed as Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck, as well as little people dressed as the Seven Dwarfs. Most impressively, on an island beside the theater, was the dwarfs’ cottage, a full-sized structure large enough to serve as a themed area for family photos.
The big question, though, after the troubling preview in Pomona, was the one that had haunted the studio for years: how would a Hollywood audience respond to an hour-and-a-half cartoon that relied on both realistic drama and comedy? “[The crowd] didn’t know what to expect,” Kimball later explained. “And in a way we didn’t know what to expect either, because this was a very sophisticated audience.”
A hush came down around the spectators as the film began, the credits and text dissolving into a castle on a hill. Almost from the start, viewers were caught up in the drama, laughing with the dwarfs, gazing up at Snow White with interest. As the film deepened to darker tones—the Queen transforming into a hag—the atmosphere changed, as though individual audience members were wired together, experiencing the film through a series of shared emotions. “At the end of the picture, after the Prince gives Snow White the ‘kiss of life’ and the two ride off together,” Kimball observed, “people in the audience were sniffling and couldn’t hold back the tears. I was sitting behind Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, and Lombard was crying.”
“I could feel the audience,” one Disney employee recalls, “the mass reaction to it.”
For the credits, the audience “stood and they clapped,” recalls another. “And they were all kids again.”
For Kimball, this was a revelation, a lesson he would carry with him into the next film: “We were trained to look for ways to make people laugh, and they laughed in all the right places. But we were surprised when they cried . . . They came out of the theater wearing dark glasses, at night, to hide the fact that a cartoon had touched them emotionally. I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got something here.’”
The press notices for Snow White were generally enthusiastic. The Los Angeles Times exclaimed that though human characters might find “a greater reality in subsequent animated features,” Snow White was a “revolutionary film” that held the audience “enraptured.” It went on to extol the film as “true poetry . . . a great screen contribution, not only for today, but for tomorrow.” The following month, after the film opened back east, the New York Times called it “Sheer fantasy . . . and altogether captivating.”
As the reviews increased, money poured in from box office receipts, more than enough to put Pinocchio into production. The money delighted the animators, as they believed a good portion of the film’s profits would come to them in the form of footage bonuses. The money delighted Walt as well, as he wanted to expand his studio with proper buildings, not just nearby homes. Some of the money even came to Kimball, though most of his scenes were buried in the morgue.
After Snow White, Kimball returned to the shorts. He animated cartoon renditions of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller for a Silly Symphony called “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.” He was back in his element, where the rhythms of jazz were combined with broad comedy to produce frenetic movement and eccentric dance.
Within a year, he was working on Pinocchio,designing the character of Jiminy Cricket, a character loosely modeled on the comic W. C. Fields. But the feeling around the studio was different than it had been for Snow White. These artists were no longer pioneers, young men working on the first feature animated in America. With confidence, they were marching toward new films, new goals, and Ward Kimball, much to his surprise, found himself out front, teaching others the complexities of personality animation, a skill he had only just learned himself.
A Note About the Sources To date, there is no book-length biography published on Ward Kimball. I am indebted to two biographies on Walt Disney, one written by Neal Gabler, the other by Michael Barrier, also to J. B. Kaufman’s critical appreciation of Snow White entitled The Fairest One of All. In crafting this essay, I have relied on over a hundred interviews that Kimball gave during his lifetime, along with interview materials from other artists who worked for the Disney Studio. I’m particularly grateful to the work of independent historians and authors who conducted many of these interviews, especially Paul F. Anderson, Thomas Andrae, Geoffrey Blum, Michael Barrier, Gregory J. M. Catsos, Christopher Finch, Didier Ghez, David Johnson, Jim Korkis, Linda Rosenkrantz, Pippin Ross, Thorkil B. Rasmussen, and Walter Wagner. Many of the interviews were published in the seventeen-volume series Walt’s People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him, and others were featured in magazines, videos, and DVDs. I’m also grateful to the magazines and newspapers where various press interviews first appeared: the Anniston Star, Daily News of Los Angeles, Disney Magazine, Evening Tribune, Filmfax, the Herald Banner, Las Vegas Review-Journal, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Sun Sentinel. Much of the information in this essay, along with the quoted