Seventy-five years ago this month, Walt Disney released his first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to rave reviews.
Snow White was an unqualified success. According to a 1956 Post article profiling Disney from the perspective of his eldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, the film earned $8 million its first time around the world, which enabled Disney to build a large studio to make even more ambitious movies like Fantasia and Pinocchio.
Today, Snow White ranks among the top 10 highest-grossing films, which makes it hard to see why it was so risky to create in 1937. But, even before anyone had seen it, Hollywood was calling it “Disney’s Folly.”
Had he known what it would take, Disney might never have attempted it. Walt and his brother Roy believed they could produce the animated feature for half a million dollars, but by the time of completion, they were more than 450 percent over budget.
He realized he’d exhaust his own money before he could complete the film. But before a bank would give him a loan, Disney would have to show someone the incomplete project.
So one afternoon, Joseph Rosenberg of Bank of America sat down in a projection room and watched the rough cuts of Snow White. Disney would show him snippets of animation, then flip through pages of pencil drawings while frantically trying to convey how beautiful it would look in final production. Rosenberg said nothing more than “Yes” and “Uh-huh.”
When they were done, Rosenberg rose from his chair, stretched, and made small talk with Disney. He walked toward his car, chatting about everything but the picture. Meanwhile, Disney was telling himself, Boy, this is bad. After climbing into his car, though, Rosenberg turned to Disney and said, “Good-bye. That thing is going to make a hatful of money,” and drove off.
With this additional financing, Disney and 570 artists continued drawing and hand-painting the movie’s 1.5 million animation cels. On December 21, 1937, the movie premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater, one of the famous movie palaces of Hollywood’s golden age, to an audience with every big-name star in Hollywood. Everyone agreed that Disney had done—if not the impossible—the highly improbable: he had enticed an adult audience into sitting through a 90-minute cartoon about a fairy tale. And they were completely charmed. A famous columnist, known for his skepticism, was seen with tears in his eyes. The movie was the happiest event since the end of the World War I. Within a week, Disney and his dwarfs were on the cover of Time magazine.
But Disney’s long road to success took more than imagination. It also took nerve.
To read more about how Disney took the biggest chance in his career and who was there to back him, see the original 1956 Post profile, “My Dad, Walt Disney” by Diane Disney Miller, as told to Pete Martin.