Hollywood Flashback: 80 Years Ago, Disney's 'Snow White' Set the Animation Standard

Courtesy of Photofest

The 1937 classic, praised as the "greatest film ever made," quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Walt Disney's masterpiece. It's as simple as that. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the theme parks, the TV behemoth and, now, Star Wars and Marvel movies — all of it pales in comparison to the artistic achievement of his 1937 animated film. 

Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet director of Battleship Potemkin (and a friend of Disney's), called it "the greatest film ever made." Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian marveled at its production technique. THR said Disney, then 36, "has carved for himself a permanent niche in the motion picture hall of fame."

Besides being an artistic success, the $1.5 million production ($25 million today) raked in a ton of money. It followed its December 1937 premiere with a Feb. 4, 1938, nationwide release, and then opened through RKO in 10 languages in 49 countries, grossing $8 million ($139 million today).

THR reported that at New York's Radio City, there was a line around the block and scalpers were hawking tickets for $2.75 to $5, which is $48 to $86 currently. (Before each screening, audiences got to see live stage performances by the Whitey and Ed Ford dog act, the Carr Brothers acrobatic routine, and three dozen dancing Rockettes). Snow White became the highest-grossing film of all time — until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939. (But with rereleases and adjustment for inflation, Snow White now tops GWTW).

"With Snow White and his next four features, Walt Disney set the standard by which animation is still judged," says animation critic and historian Charles Solomon.

To celebrate its success, Disney hosted a weekend-long party for his 1,400 employees called Walt's Field Day. Held at the Lake Norconian Resort near Riverside, California, the June 1938 party escalated into debauchery — and legend — with nude swimming, drunk animators falling out of windows and horses inside the hotel. There's never been a Disney party like it since. 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.