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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.
It used to be common practice for film studios not to 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, but she wasn’t credited in any of those films at the time. Similarly, Betty Noyes wasn’t credited for 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 dub the voice for another character in the film!). In the cases of those 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 producing feature-length animated films with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney didn’t credit any of the voice actors because he wished to maintain the illusion with the audience that these characters were real. Disney didn’t 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 continued to do so ever since.
However, with the case of the most famous character from Disney’s earliest films, Snow White, did he go even further? Did he actually prevent the actress who played Snow White from working on other projects to keep the illusion of Snow White alive?
Adriana 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, a music teacher and vocal coach, had done voice casting for Disney earlier in the 1930s. He was quick to suggest his own daughter, who auditioned for Disney and his musical director Frank Churchill in 1934 (she was one of the first actresses – perhaps even the first – to try out for the role). They thought she was perfect, but felt it was too soon to cast her. They then tried out more than a hundred actresses for most of 1935 before finally casting Caselotti, who was paid $970 for her performance in Snow White. She recalled she didn’t realize it was a feature film until much later, figuring it was just another animated short like Disney’s projects before it, if maybe a little longer.
The story about Disney keeping Caselotti out of work seems to be based on events surrounding the release of the film. Soon after the movie premiered, Caselotti performed songs from the film at the famous Los Angeles night club Trocadero. Radio star Jack Benny was in attendance and asked for Caselotti to appear on his program. Disney, however, turned down the request because it would ruin the illusion of Snow White’s performance in the film. The thing is, while studio contracts were quite common in the 1930s and 1940s, they were not the case for Disney and his voice actors. It appears Benny’s request was more of a show of respect to Disney than anything. It wasn’t until Disney signed a 10-year deal with child actor Bobby Driscoll in 1946 that he began keeping actors under contract.
I think 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 simple 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 it’s 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.
However, perhaps the most important piece of proof that Disney didn’t prevent Caselotti from doing other work 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 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.
Walt Disney Studios later hired Caselotti for a lot of promotional work connected to Snow White, as the film kept being re-released over the years, and kept her employed here and there for decades before eventually phasing her out as the voice of the character. She was also made a Disney legend in 1994, a few years before she passed away.
The legend is…
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