Snow White was never “Disney’s Folly”: The Creation of a Myth

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Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an international phenomenon when it premiered in December 1937.  The first full-length animated cartoon, it was the most popular movie since Birth of a Nation (though, of course, Gone With The Wind eclipsed its popularity a couple of years later).

Snow White was certainly a gamble for Walt Disney and his independent studio.  One of the more expensive movies ever made up to that time, its failure would have bankrupted the studio and likely ended Walt Disney’s career. The fact that it was a cartoon added to the gamble. For a cartoon to engage an audience for the length of a typical movie required more than just funny gags; the audience had to believe in and care about the characters. Some doubted whether a cartoon could pull this off.

So there’s no need to exaggerate the gamble that was Snow White and the scope of Disney’s achievement in creating one of the most popular movies ever. But for over 80 years, that gamble has been exaggerated in the legend of “Disney’s Folly.” Essentially, “Disney’s Folly” is the idea that “Hollywood” expected Snow White to be an expensive failure, and that Walt Disney proved his genius by ignoring the short-sighted critics in Hollywood.

As History.com states it:

During production, Hollywood gossip dismissed Snow White as “Disney’s Folly,” doubting that audiences would ever pay to sit through a full-length cartoon, let alone a fairy tale. They would be proved wrong, however, as the film went on to gross $6.5 million worldwide by 1939 (the equivalent of hundreds of millions in today’s dollars), proving the viability of Disney’s studio and opening the door to generations of animated classics.

It’s a pretty story, and one that was promoted by Walt Disney’s daughter, and apparently by Walt Disney himself. The story continues today, in many newspaper articles and books (A search of “Disney’s Folly” in Google Books yields over 1200 hits). But it’s not true. I will show that “Hollywood,” contrary to this myth, actually expected Snow White to succeed. I will also show the origins of this myth and how this myth was promoted throughout the years.

A Skeptical Hollywood Snickered

The legend of “Disney’s Folly” is noted in almost every story concerning the creation of Snow White.  Below are a few excerpts from contemporary accounts:

Back in 1937, a skeptical Hollywood snickered when Walt Disney was making a feature-length cartoon about a beautiful maid stranded in a forest with a group of tiny mine workers. They dubbed it “Disney’s Folly.” LA Times, 6/20/96

Dubbed “Disney’s Folly” by critics, this movie disproved the common belief that people were so ADD that they wouldn’t sit through a cartoon that lasted more than 8 minutes. Chicago Daily Herald, 12/28/99

In 1938, Walt Disney released the first-ever feature-length animated movie, a project that had been labeled “Disney’s Folly” thanks to the industry’s belief that its outsized ambitions would prove catastrophic. Chicago Tribune, 6/29/2015

A cartoon as a full-length feature? What nonsense. As Walt Disney painstakingly created his first animated movie over three years, and at the cost of $1.7 million during the depths of the Depression, his project was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” and many naysayers presumed that Snow White would be bloodied by red ink. Variety, 10/17/05

The media were scornful of the whole project and leading figures in Hollywood called it “Disney’s Folly.” Disaster was predicted everywhere. Disney’s Nine Old Men: A History of the Animators Who Defined Disney Animation (2014)

One author who is somewhat skeptical of the legend of “Disney’s Folly” is Neal Gabler, the author of Walt Disney (a terrific book, by the way). He states:

Walt [Disney] . . . was fond of telling how, before Snow White’s release, many in the industry and the press had disparaged the project and called it ‘Disney’s Folly, which one paper actually did,” but this was most likely just more self-dramatization of Walt overcoming another purported hurdle, since there seemed, if anything, to be tremendous anticipation of the film almost from its inception.

Gabler is right. Snow White was never known as “Disney’s Folly” prior to its release.  I have been able to find no indication that anyone in the industry was concerned about its costs or that fact that it was a cartoon. By the time Snow White was in production, Walt Disney was already a legend. He had created Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and had taken the cartoon form farther than anyone had imagined.  The expectations in Hollywood were high for this new venture.

Instead, I believe that the legend of “Disney’s Folly” was created by an obscure columnist on January 10, 1938 (a few weeks after the release of Snow White). This notion was picked up by a more established columnist a few weeks after that, and then was picked up by Disney himself as a way of dramatizing the hurdles he had to overcome in making the movie.

A Christmas Gift to the Children of the Nation

I have been able to find the term “Disney’s Folly” in thousands of books, magazines, and newspaper articles, but none prior to January 10, 1938. However, that doesn’t mean that Hollywood insiders were not skeptical of Snow White prior to its release. So I examined all of the references to Snow White that I could find in the trade journals and in the Los Angeles Times. I found approximately 200 references, most of which were merely factual (e.g., ” Already Walt Disney is at work on “Snow White,” with “Gulliver’s Travels” penciled in as a follow-up.”). A few articles did hint at the anticipation of Snow White, and they were all positive:

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Equally impressive were articles that pointed out that Snow White was experiencing issues such as cost-overruns and scheduling concerns. These articles provided the perfect opportunity to indicate that Snow White might be a failure or a folly, but none did.  These articles were almost all factual in nature, with no speculation as to the future success of the film:

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Premiere of Snow White

CarthayIf Hollywood was expecting Snow White to be a failure, then the premiere of Snow White would have been quite different from what actually happened (given that the premiere would have confirmed that Disney was in over his head). Instead, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the premiere was highly anticipated and attended by some of the biggest names in Hollywood (unless all of the stars were showing up to hate-watch, but I think the phenomenon of hate-watching was not a thing in the 1930s). “Stars in attendance [included] Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Herbert Marshall, Barbara Stanwyck, Warner Baxter, George Raft, Gary Cooper, and many others.”

Snow White premiere

The origins of Disney’s Folly

So where did the idea of Disney’s Folly originate? The first reference I could find was in the Chillocothe, Ohio Gazette from January 10th, 1938 (three weeks after the movie premiered), from an obscure columnist named Obera H. Rawles, a “Central Press Staff Writer” whose byline mostly appeared in Ohio newspapers:

With a mixture of doubt and anticipation, the motion picture industry has been waiting for this million-dollar animated feature cartoon from the Disney studio. It is being hailed as the greatest advance in film entertainment since talking pictures. Behind Disney’s back, Hollywood referred to this seven-reel cartoon as “Disney’s Folly”; now, with an expansive smile ’tis said “Well, Disney’s done it again!

Notice the lack of specificity to her claim that Snow White was “Disney’s Folly.” Her article was picked up a couple of days later by the Hammond (IN) Times, with a nice headline to accompany it:

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The same article found its way to McAllen TX on January 18, with an even better headline:

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And there it might have died, except that “Disney’s Folly” was then taken up by Harold Heffernan, a very popular syndicated columnist whose work appeared in many national newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Miami Herald, and many others.  On February 11th, he made a brief reference to “Disney’s Folly” at the end of his column. Again, note the lack of specificity:

First runs on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” are running such high grosses that Walt Disney will be “off the nut” and into the profit column by midsummer. His Hollywood chiders, many of them important producing tycoons, now studiously avoid discussing the former “Disney’s folly.”

Then, on March 15th, Heffernan devoted most of his column to “Disney’s Folly,” with a nice headline and graphic, a picture of Disney, and a byline of “Hollywood”. I think it was this column that crystallized the myth:

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The Disney family buys into the myth

The whole idea of “Disney’s Folly” was a nice narrative and seemed to fit into a certain storyline that Walt Disney himself wanted to promote.  The recent biography by Neal Gabler (see above) states that “Walt [Disney] . . . was fond of telling how, before Snow White’s release, many in the industry and the press had disparaged the project and called it ‘Disney’s Folly.”

Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller also picked up the story. She wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1956 called “Disney’s Folly”.  In it, she told a story about Walt Disney and Hal Horne discussing the notion and how to combat it:

When Snow White was still in the works, it was smart in certain circles to call the film, “Disney’s Folly,” although nobody knew what Dad’s “folly” really looked like. Dad and Uncle Roy had left United Artists and gone with R.K.O., but Hal Horne was still their friend. They met occasionally at luncheon, and the talk got around as to the “Disney’s Folly” gossip. How could it be combated?

Mr. Horne told Dad, “Let them call it that if they want to. The picture itself is going to be the pay-off. Your best policy is to keep everybody wondering. If they keep wondering, they’ll keep talking. In that way you’ll have free promotion based on sheer curiosity.”

I don’t believe that Diane Disney Miller (or Walt Disney) just flat-out lied when telling this story. We all tell stories to make sense of our past, and some stories have more resonance than others. I think the myth of “Disney’s Folly” resonated because of certain truths at its core: that Disney was an outsider and that his Snow White was a huge gamble based on his unique vision. That it happens not to be true is an interesting historical fact, but takes away nothing from Walt Disney’s achievement in making Snow White.

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