Obituary: Adriana Caselotti
Monday 10 February 1997
If the animated princess in the fairy tale represented a child-like innocence and naive goodness Adriana Caselotti - even well into her old age - still embodied those qualities. In our more cynical age, there were those who dismissed her as eccentric, or, worse, as plain batty. But she preserved and defended the image of the character she helped to create and took great joy in being loved for what was a unique contribution to cinema history.
She was 18 years old when Walt Disney embarked on a revolutionary project: the world's first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not only had no one attempted such a film, but no one knew whether audiences would sit through a 90-minute "cartoon". However, Disney believed that as long as his artists could create characters with believable personalities, the film would succeed.
The search for someone to speak and sing for Snow White began in 1934 when Disney's casting director, Roy Scott, sought the advice of Guido Caselotti, a Los Angeles singing teacher. His younger daughter, Adriana, picked up the telephone extension while they were speaking and heard Scott asking her father if he knew of a little girl who could speak as a child and yet could sing operatic-style songs.
The eavesdropper immediately interrupted the conversation with a request that she might try out for the part, followed by a demonstration of her best coloratura trills. She was the first person to be auditioned for the role.
Since the part was intended for a 14-year-old, Adriana Caselotti knocked two years off her age and told Disney's musical director, Frank Churchill, that she was only 16. When she sight-read Churchill's song "Someday My Prince Will Come", Walt Disney (who was listening behind a screen, so as to concentrate on the voice without being distracted by the singer's appearance) felt sure that he had found his Snow White. However, no fewer than 148 other hopefuls were auditioned, including the 13-year-old Deanna Durbin, whose mature voice prompted Disney to ask why a 30-year-old was being auditioned for the part. A year later, Caselotti was recalled and put under contract.
It was a remarkable vocal performance: her singing was exquisite and her rendition of the dialogue was full of naivete, gentleness and compassion. She was paid $20 a day for her work on Snow White and her total earnings for the film were just $970, although the film went on to earn millions of dollars for Disney. It was only when, uninvited, she managed to sneak into the film's rapturously-received premiere, in December 1937, that she realised she had taken part in something that was destined for enduring fame. However, none of the actors who spoke for the characters was credited on the film.
For Adriana Caselotti, being Snow White was a once-in-a-lifetime job; in different circumstances it might have brought her great stardom. Jack Benny wanted her as a guest star on his radio show, but Disney vetoed the appearance, preferring his heroine to have no identity other than that on screen. And, whilst Caselotti always hoped that Disney would find her another screen role, he wisely knew that the voice of Snow White was unique and should never be used again. Her only other cinematic contribution, for which she was paid $100, was to sing the falsetto line "Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo", in the Tin Man's song in The Wizard of Oz.
Later, Disney sent her on film-promotion tours, dressed as Snow White and accompanied by Pinto Colvig, who spoke for the dwarfs Sleepy and Grumpy. Adriana Caselotti confided to me that on one tour she and Colvig had a fling - the idea of a romance between Snow White with the misogynist Grumpy is certainly an intriguing one.
Gracious and generous-hearted, Caselotti lived out the role of Snow White for the rest of her life: singing "Whistle While You Work" to strangers in the street, allowing herself to be photographed in the famous costume and permitting the public cataloguing of her marriages to four Prince Charmings.
But despite making only one movie, Adriana Caselotti nevertheless secured for herself a kind of immortality. The last time I left her, she remarked that Snow White would never die; then, with a laugh, she added: "And when I'm in that coffin, d'you know what you'll hear? `Someday My Prince Will Come', because you see my voice will live for ever."
Adriana Caselotti, actress: born Bridgeport, Connecticut 6 May 1916; married 1945 Robert Chard (marriage dissolved), 1952 Norval Mitchell (deceased), 1972 Dr Dana Costigan (deceased), fourthly Florian St Pierre: died Los Angeles 18 January 1997.
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