Sunday June 2, 2013

STOCKBRIDGE -- Among 200 young ladies in 1934 Marge Champion was the fairest of them all.

Walt Disney Pictures was looking for a young lady to inspire the movements of the titular character in the first feature-length animated film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

They found that inspiration in 14-year-old Champion, now 93, who has divided her time between the Berkshires and New York City since 1979.

"They needed to see how a young girl moved, and how her dress moved around her, especially when dancing with the dwarves," Champion said during an interview at her Stockbridge home.

The Norman Rockwell Museum will feature the exhibition "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic" beginning with a gala honoring Champion on June 8. The exhibition ends Oct. 27.

Released in 1937, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" animators used rotoscoping to implant Champion's movements and dances into the film's animation to make Snow White look and move more realistically than other cartoon characters.

"It had to be believable for an hour feature-length film to work," said Lella Smith, the creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, and the curator of the Snow White exhibition. "Marge was a beautiful and graceful young woman. They learned a lot from her movement."

Champion was one of three young dancers selected from the University of the Dance, a Los Angeles studio run by her father, Ernest Belcher.


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Throughout the city, 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 15 were scouted to audition for the chance to model Snow White, but ultimately, Walt Disney decided on Champion.

"I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "I was just doing an improvisation of whatever the animators showed me on the storyboards."

The dainty Snow White in the Disney classic was voiced by Adriana Caselotti, but the character was dainty because of Champion's movements. Champion even had to lip-sync to recordings of Caselotti's voice.

What helped Champion get the part, she said, was her father's "British training" -- instilling polite, ladylike manners in his daughter that she would use to bring Snow White to life.

"I was introduced and people would say ‘How do you do?'" Champion said. "I was not able to say ‘I'm fine, thank you.' I had to pick up my skirt and curtsy, and say ‘Nicely, thank you'."

"It was very easy for me to pick up my skirt and dance around," she added.

Still, Champion said she doesn't think she was Disney's first choice for the role.

When she was given the dress she would be modeling Snow White's movement in, she noticed it was previously fitted for another, larger model, making Champion assume somone else was originally cast to model her movements.

"I'm sure she didn't have the British training that I had, and that Mr. Disney appreciated for that character," Champion said.

Champion also had to model the Snow White movements while wearing a football helmet, she said, to allow the writers to draw Snow White's larger head. She eventually stopped wearing it since it restricted her dance movements.

There was one day, Champion recalled, where she got to cut lose and be Dopey -- literally. The animators outfitted her in loose-hanging garments and drew her movements as she danced around and modeled for Dopey, the clumsiest of the seven dwarfs.

"They just said, ‘be funny,' and I tried being funny," Champion said. "Snow White was very polite and very graceful, but Dopey was not graceful."

Champion would attend the premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in Beverly Hills in 1937. However, Champion had to stay up in the balcony, her part in the film to be kept secret.

"They wanted [Snow White] to be an illusion," she said. "They didn't want anybody to get credit for the movement. The publicity department and Mr. Disney thought it would be dangerous to the movie."

Champion's involvement in the film became known years later through an article published in Life magazine.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Champion would go on to appear in several MGM musicals with her then-husband, Gower Champion.

Disney continued to implement rotoscoping to capture realistic movements in characters like The Blue Fairy in "Pinocchio," and the hippos in "Fantasia."

Even at 93, Champion showed off some of the Snow White movements she did when she was 14 -- twirling and curtsying, even hiking her leg up on a nearby desk at one point.

Her secret, she said, is "plenty of exercise."

To reach Adam Poulisse:
apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse