Marge Champion was one of the most accomplished female dancers of the 20th century. But even if you are too young to remember her performances in Showboat or Everything I Have is Yours or her dozens of TV appearances, you inevitably have seen her work: she was the model for Walt Disney’s Snow White.
Champion, née Belcher, was 14 years old when she auditioned for Disney animators so they could capture the character’s elegance and graceful motion. Her father was revered Hollywood dance choreographer Ernest Belcher, who’d worked with Charlie Chaplin, Max Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille. He taught his daughter not only how to dance, but how to be lady — the latter may have won her the job. “My father was British and he had trained me to curtsy and do things that were like Snow White would be doing,” says Champion, now 96. “At the dinner table, I had to say, ‘I’ve had an elegance sufficiency, could I be excused, please?’ and I would pick up my skirt and curtsy. And because that, I not only was trained as a dancer but I had a lot of those easy things to do that Snow White had to do.”
Back in 1933, Max Fleischer had released a Snow White cartoon short starring Betty Boop, with her big round eyes and very skinny body. Disney wanted his Snow White to be different for his 1937 movie, the company’s first major animated feature. There was a lot of trial and error, though. For example, when Champion first arrived to work with the Disney animators, they had her wear a football helmet, to better illustrate the larger head that animated characters required. “I tell you, I nearly fainted,” she says. “It was very hot underneath there and not at all what I expected. It was very limited what I could do with that big hat.”
They quickly ironed out the bugs and Champion remembers the sessions fondly. “There was no choreography: I was making it up as we went along and showing them how to dance,” she says. “They were looking for the feelings that Snow White had when she was dancing with the dwarves. [Laughs] I was told to call them the dwarfs. Anyway, we called them the little men. They really used the motion that I invented when I was dancing with them.”
Champion danced with the other actors, she danced with the animators. Sometimes, she even danced to help the artists with the other characters. “I even danced as Dopey,” she says. “They put a big coat on me and did all sorts of funny things, just like Dopey.”
Champion wasn’t paid a huge sum — about $10 per day, enough for her to purchase a new Ford — and certainly not as much as Adriana Caselotti, who provided Snow’s voice. But when the movie finally opened in theaters in 1937, Champion was essentially hidden by Walt Disney, who wasn’t sure how the public would react. “Mr. Disney felt that people might not [understand], he didn’t want them to know anything about me,” says Champion. “I think it was maybe six or eight years before I was in one of the books about Walt Disney, and he found out that people didn’t care out one way or the other. And I still get fan mail from Russia and Germany and all kinds of places.”
Champion went on to have a prolific Hollywood career, pairing with her second husband, dancer Gower Champion. “Gower and I went to MGM and we did Showboat and all those films, right at the end of the time when they were making musical films,” she says. “Then we were in New York for Bye Bye Birdie and Hello Dolly. I’m in my 96th year, and I must say that I’ve had a real interesting life.”
In 2013, she spoke to the Norman Rockwell Museum for a special exhibit on Snow White:
Disney’s classic fairy tale, the one that set the template for all those that followed, is the first release of Walt Disney’s new Signature Collection, packed with bonus features, including “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which you can see above. The new edition brings Snow White to Digital HD for the first time ever and Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA) on Jan. 19 and on Blu-ray Combo Pack on Feb. 2.