Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, soon to be re-released on its 30th anniversary, provided the supreme test of the ability of the Disney Studio to create characters.
Walt recognized the problem at once. He knew the dwarfs would have to carry the picture. Snow White was a charming but standard heroine; the prince appeared only briefly; and the witch was a fairy tale villainess. The dwarfs would have to provide most of the comedy and human interest.
The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale was not much help. The dwarfs were phantom figures with little definition. One play version named them Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Nick, Whick, and Quee — all rather ambiguous.
Walt set the story department to work. He reasoned that the natural thing was to pick names that were descriptive of the personalities they hoped to create. Some of the names proposed were Jump, Gabby, Wheezy, Nifty, Sniffy, Lazy, Puffy, Stubby, Shorty, and Burby.
Many voices were tried in hopes that they would suggest characters. One actor, Billy Gilbert, had a terrific sneeze and inspired Sneezy.
Others came through a process of elimination. Some were easy. Happy and Grumpy provided a perfect balance. Sleepy and Bashful came naturally. The last two took a little more thought.
Woolie Reitherman, a Snow White animator now supervising director on The Jungle Book, recalls, “For the leader we wanted a special kind of personality, a self-appointed bumbler who tries to take command but gets all tangled up. We called him Doc. It was a good handle for a person in authority, and it suited his personality. The strongly identifying names were a beautifully simple way of establishing character.”
“Dopey was the toughest of all,” remembers Ham Luske, another Snow White animator. “The boys tried to make him too much of an imbecile, which wasn’t what we really had in mind. We wanted to pattern him after Charlie Chaplin and tried many appropriate voices. The voice that came closest to what we wanted sounded too much like Doc.”
“Then somebody suggested that maybe he shouldn’t talk at all. That was the answer. We decided that perhaps Dopey could talk but that he never really tried.”
Once the characters were established, the faces followed without too much difficulty. The names dictated the facial expressions.
The dwarfs, as established, were immensely successful. Within days of the picture’s premiere, Grumpy and Dopey began receiving fan mail at the Disney Studios.
In color by Technicolor, Walt Disney’s Academy Award Classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is being re-released to a new generation of movie-goers by Buena Vista.
From the 1967 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs re-release press materials