On December 21, 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered to a full house at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. The audience included Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple, who posed with costumed versions of the seven dwarfs. The premiere generated rave reviews, landed Disney on the cover of TIME magazine and helped build excitement for the film’s U.S. general release on February 4, 1938.

How Disney Built America

The new series, How Disney Built America, premieres Sunday, April 28 at 10/9c and streams the next day.

Watch a Preview

Snow White was a huge undertaking: Its production took around three years, $1.4 million, 750 artists and nearly 2 million separate paintings to complete. The first full-length animated feature done in traditional, hand-drawn style, it became a huge critical and financial success. The film earned about $8 million internationally (about $177 million in today’s dollars), allowing Disney to build a new studio in Burbank, California.

With Snow White, Disney wanted “a film that was not only animated but could be put out into the commercial movie marketplace and compete with the live-action features that the major studios were making,” says J.B. Kaufman, a film historian who has written multiple books about Disney animation history. “It’s fair to say that nobody had ever seen anything like it before.”

The Making of a Classic

In the early 1930s, Walt Disney and his studio were known for animated shorts that played before the main feature at movie theaters. The studio introduced Mickey Mouse in the 1928 short Steamboat Willie, and began producing a series of Silly Symphonies in 1929. These minutes-long shorts featured animation and music. They were very popular—Flowers and Trees won the first ever Oscar for an animated short in 1933, and the next year The Three Little Pigs won the second—but they didn’t bring in as much money as a feature.

At the time, full-length animated features were virtually nonexistent, the most prominent exception being Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 silent German film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. However, that was created with a far more primitive form of animation involving cut-out silhouettes shot in a stop-motion style. After a few years of Silly Symphonies, Walt Disney set his sights on producing an animated feature that would stand out as an artistic and technical achievement—and hopefully a financial one too.

For the film’s subject, Disney picked the story of Snow White, an old, oral story the Brothers Grimm had included in their 1812 collection of fairy tales. As a teenager, Disney had seen a silent film version of the story starring Marguerite Clark, and the memory of the movie stuck with him. At one point, he also considered adapting the 1923 book Bambi, a Life in the Woods for his first feature, but he ended up saving that for a later time.

One of the technical innovations animators pioneered during the production of Snow White was the multiplane camera, a method that created the appearance of depth in animation. According to Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley, authors of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs & the Making of the Classic Film, Disney’s studio had already  experimented with this technique in The Old Mill, a Silly Symphony, released just a month before Snow White’s premiere.

The Old Mill was a critical success (it won an Oscar, too), and this helped reassure Disney that the multiplane camera technique was convincing. Yet there were still other questions about how audiences would react to Snow White. Disney knew from his shorts that moviegoers liked to laugh at animated slapstick routines. Would they also have an emotional reaction to cartoon characters experiencing fear and sadness?

Audiences Loved It

In short: Yes. Audiences responded to both the comedy and the tragedy in Snow White.

“I was sitting behind Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, and they were laughing like kids,” recalled Snow White animator Ward Kimball about the premiere. “And when the dwarfs came to the bier when Snow White was dead, I began to hear people crying and blowing their noses. We had achieved something so believable that people had a great sorrow when Snow White was poisoned.”

Kimball’s anecdote highlights an important part of Snow White’s popularity: The film was a hit with both children and adults. TIME magazine raved that the movie was “as exciting as a Western, as funny as a haywire comedy.” In fact, due to its scary scenes, the British Board of Film Classification mandated that children under 16 could not see the film without an adult.

Overall, critics were enamored. The day after the film’s L.A. premiere, Daily Variety gushed, “Snow White is the genius of craftsmanship which can make an endless series of line drawings and color washes so eloquent in human expression and trouble and antic joy, so potent in evoking audience emotion, laughter, excitement, suspense, tears. Yes, indeed—tears!”

It Received One Special Oscar—and Seven Tiny Ones

Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Hollywood, California: Escorted by two of the seven dwarfs that appear in the picture, young film star Shirley Temple is pictured arriving at the theater for the premiere of Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The event drew a large gathering of filmdom's celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr.

Snow White’s success was bolstered by a story, repeated in many newspapers and magazines after the film’s premiere, that some people had referred to the movie as “Disney’s Folly” during production because they thought it would fail. The story generated positive press for the film once everyone saw it was a hit.

Snow White received an Oscar nomination for its musical score at the 1938 Academy Awards but did not win. After the loss, the academy gave Walt Disney a special award at the 1939 Oscars to acknowledge Snow White’s significance. Shirley Temple presented the award, consisting of one regular-sized statue and seven tiny ones.