Walt Disney Studios is known for bringing many beloved stories to the screen as animated features. Though many beloved films exist thanks to the talents who worked at the studio, one of the most pivotal films to be released by the studio was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The film was the first full-length cel animated feature and among some of Disney’s earliest works.
Despite many individuals offering their vocal talents to the characters in the film, they went uncredited. Adriana Caselotti gave Snow White a voice, while Roy Atwell, Eddie Collins, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, and Scotty Mattraw voiced her dwarf comrades.
Disney’s team took it upon themselves to give each dwarf a unique characteristic, personality, and name. During pre-production, 50 ideas for the dwarfs’ names and personalities were listed in the film’s proposal. This list included all of the names that made it into the final film, save for Dopey and Doc. Dopey would be the last dwarf to be developed.
Of course, there were other names that did not make the final cut, including Awful (who “steals and drinks and is very dirty”), Biggy-Wiggy or Biggo-Ego, Blabby, Deefy, Dirty, Gabby, Gaspy, Gloomy, Hoppy-Jumpy, Hotsy, Jaunty, Nifty, and Shifty. Sneezy was a last-minute replacement for Deefy. At one point, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz once wrote that he had heard that another name considered for a dwarf was “Snoopy.” He was relieved that the had not been chosen, as it would have caused him to reconsider the name of Charlie Brown’s beagle.
This series will explore the different individuals who voiced the seven dwarfs.
Dwarf 1: Doc
Voiced by Roy Atwell
John Leroy “Roy” Atwell was born in Syracuse, New York, on May 2, 1878, to Joseph and Louisa Atwell. As a child, he organized amateur plays in a neighborhood barn with his friends, later inspiring him to pursue theater. His time in traditional schooling ended with 8th grade.
Before achieving a film career, in 1898, Atwell enlisted in the National Guard. According to the Spanish-American War military and naval service records, he was a private in the 3rd infantry.
He studied at the Sargent School of Acting and became a performer of the stage, vaudeville, radio, and screen. Atwell’s Broadway credits included The Little Missus, Oh, My Dear!, The Mimic World, How’s Your Health?, and The Firefly. He was also a member of the Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company.
When Atwell initially started working on Broadway, he had a serious role which called for his character to deliver the following line: “It is spring and all the little birds are twittering in the tree tops.” Being nervous about this early role, Atwell instead uttered: “Tis ting and the twits are birdering in the tree flops.” Mortified and expecting to be fired, he was surprised to witness that the misdelivered line drew a laugh from the audience. Instead of being dismissed, he was congratulated at the end of the performance and asked to repeat it for the next night. As a result, he soon began enjoying success as a comic actor, dubbing himself a “muddler” or character who would muddle his thoughts and words.
Though his jumbled up words were organic, many of his future characters would mix up their words and sounds, as in Snow White. Doc, the leader of the dwarfs, mixes up his words throughout the film. However, Snow White would occur a bit later in his career. Atwell was already receiving film credits by 1922 and would work with many other individuals in the industry before and after Snow White.
Moreover, Atwell was also a songwriter and joined the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1957. He wrote many songs, including “Some Little Bug is Going to Find You.”
Atwell was married three times and had a daughter, June Carol Atwell, with his third wife, Ethel Smith. He and Ethel married in Indiana in 1919. According to his World War II draft card, he considered himself retired by 1942–despite doing occasional appearances–and was living in Herkimer, New York.
In 1880, Atwell resided at 10 Jefferson St. in Syracuse. By 1900, the family moved to 328 W Onondaga St. in Syracuse. The homes no longer stand.
In 1920, Atwell resided at 52 W. 55th St. in Manhattan. Here is what the property looks like today:
By 1930, Atwell relocated again to 139 River Lane in Westport, Connecticut, and worked as a playwright. Soon after, he lived in Studio City before obtaining a divorce. After his divorce, he resided at the historic Algonquin Hotel in New York. Here is a shot of the Connecticut property today:
Atwell passed away at age 83 and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Cazenovia, New York.
Dwarf 2: Sneezy
Voiced by Billy Gilbert
William “Billy” Gilbert Barron was the son of entertainers. His parents were singers with the Metropolitan Opera. While his parents were on the road, Gilbert was born in the dressing room of the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 12, 1894. In his youth, he quit school after the fourth grade to join a successful children’s singing troupe. By the time he turned 12, he was already working in vaudeville.
During one performance in 1929, he was spotted by Stan Laurel. Laurel went backstage to meet him and later introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. Soon after, Gilbert was hired as a gag writer, actor and director. At age 35, he would appear in his first film for the Fox Film Corporation that same year.
Over time, Gilbert worked with an array of comedy stars including Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chase, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Thelma Todd. While he could play tough characters, he was also a fine comedic actor in shorts, such as The Music Box (1932), and full-length films.
In 1938, he married his second wife, Ella McKenzie. Charlie Chase was best man at their wedding.
One of his usual routines called for his characters to become so excited or nervous that they would express their energy through facial spams and, later, a massive sneeze. When he found out that one of the dwarfs’ names was Sneezy, he called up Walt Disney and gave him his famous sneezing gag. Gilbert got the part.
Sneezy’s name is earned by his extraordinarily powerful sneezes, caused by hay fever. The sneezes are so powerful that they are seen blowing even the heaviest of objects across a room.
Beyond Snow White, Gilbert appeared in many films and transitioned to television. It is said that his boisterous on-screen characters inspired Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. Gilbert and Disney would work together again for Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), with Gilbert voicing the part of the giant in a similar manner to Sneezy.
Gilbert was married twice and and had an adopted son who tragically committed suicide at age 13. Gilbert passed away from a stroke on September 23, 1971. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the rose garden of the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Today, very few locations of relevance to Gilbert’s life remain. In the 1940s, he resided at 12828 Riverside Dr. in Los Angeles. The home no longer stands. However, he is remembered with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, located on the north side of the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard.