Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hollywood Models for Disney's First Princess

Don Graham, the Chouinard Art Institute instructor hired by Walt Disney to teach his animators the finer points of figurative drawing, told the Disney Studio students that if they wanted to see how things moved in real life, they needed to study movement in motion pictures. He instructed them to watch movies.

In the late 1930s, films of all kinds were studied by the animators. "We saw every ballet, we saw every film," remembered animator Marc Davis. "If the film was good, we would go see it 5 times."

The animators took home more from their cinema excursions than just lessons on the science of movement too. Many of the renderings of Snow White bare a striking resemblance to the Hollywood stars of the day.

The New Movie Magazine was a periodical sold in the 1930s through the Woolworth dime store chain. They published an annual issue, The New Movie Album, which featured photos and info on the top Hollywood stars of that year.

Constance Bennett, remembered today as the lead actress who in 1937 appeared opposite Cary Grant in Topper, was one of the bright stars spotlighted in this early 30s edition of the Album. Although a blond, Ms. Bennett does bare a resemblance--the short wavy hair, large eyes and other facial features--to a number of inspirational illustrations made of Snow White.

Constance Bennett, The New Movie Album, copyright early 1930s.

Snow White Storyboard Sketch via John Canemaker's Paper Dreams

Snow White scan via Michael Sporn Animation Splog

It is known that Walt Disney wanted his animators to think of the Snow White character as a Janet Gaynor or Mary Pickford type. While both actors did bare some resemblance to their animated counterpart, it's possible that Walt was focused less on their looks and more on the individual persona that each tended to portray on screen--that is, their asexual qualities and childlike innocence.

In 1928, Janet Gaynor was the first ever "Best Actress" Academy Award winner. It was the only time the Oscar was given for multiple performances--three silent films--rather than one particular role. Mary Pickford won the award the following year for her performance in the talkie Coquette.

Video clip of Janet Gaynor in Sunnyside Up (1929)*; posted by stjn00.

Janet Gaynor

Snow White animation cel, copyright Disney.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford in silent era Cinderella (1914). Video and Mills Brothers soundtrack posted by jenzeppelin.

* Special thanks to Muir Hewitt for the link to the Janet Gaynor video clip.


  1. WOW WOW WOW!!! THis post was fasinating!!! AT first I thought Snow looked just like Constence but I can see some of Janet in her, too! This is so cool!

  2. Thank you Connie. There certainly was no shortage of Hollywood stars at the time from which the animators could draw inspiration from. But I think they did well with who they chose.