She was the voice of Snow White, the lead actress in one of the most successful films of all time. Her childlike, sing-songy vocals are still instantly recognizable more than 75 years later. You'd think she'd have become a household name and gone on to star in countless movie musicals, right? But chances are you've never heard of Adriana Caselotti -- her name doesn't even appear in the credits of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Why was such an unforgettable voice never heard again?
It is true that Caselotti wasn't credited as Snow White -- it was 1937, and Disney didn't credit voice actors until 1943 (the famously image-conscious studio wanted to preserve the idea that its animated characters were actually real). But Hollywood legend has it that Walt Disney contractually prohibited Caselotti from revealing her "secret identity" or performing as Snow White, as well as doing any further film, TV and radio work for the rest of her career. In a word, she was blacklisted.
Indeed, "Snow White" was both the beginning and end of Caselotti's showbiz career, besides one voiceover line in "The Wizard of Oz" and a tiny singing part in "It's a Wonderful Life." But was it because of an official Disney ban or simply because her voice was so identifiable? Maybe she was perfectly free to pursue other roles but just wasn't able to land jobs. Walt Disney was a very powerful figure in Hollywood, but would he really have sabotaged Caselotti to preserve an animation?
It's hard to tell. Some claim Walt Disney effectively ended Caselotti's career by putting her under contract with Disney and then never giving her any work. That's a plausible explanation, given that this was the studio system era, but Disney didn't have any officially contracted actors until 1946. Another circulating rumor is that Disney actually owned the rights to Caselotti's voice. Jack Benny said Disney denied his request to have Caselotti on his radio show in 1938 because it didn't want to reveal the woman behind Snow White [source: Sibley].
Based on what we do know of Caselotti's "Snow White" contract, the terms don't seem to have been favorable. Only 18 when she was hired, she was paid a total of $970 for about three years' work (the equivalent of about $16,000 today) [source: CPI]. In 1938, she and the actor who voiced Prince Charming unsuccessfully sued Disney and RCA (for $200,000 and $100,000, respectively) for a share of soundtrack-record profits. After this episode, though, she appeared to have been fairly loyal to Disney for the rest of her life. She received the Disney Legend Award in 1994 and never publicly mentioned a blacklisting scheme.
- Associated Press. "Disney is sued by Snow White, Prince." San Bernardino County Sun. Oct. 21, 1938. Conradt, Stacey. "The Faces Behind Disney's 11 Princesses." Mental Floss, Oct. 22, 2013. (Dec. 8, 2014) http://mentalfloss.com/article/53135/faces-behind-disneys-11-princesses
- CPI Inflation Calculator. (Dec. 10, 2014) http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=970&year1=1937&year2=2014
- Ottman, Frederick C. "Walt Disney's Lawyer Kept Busy Fighting Lawsuits." St. Petersburg Times. June 29, 1940. (Dec. 8, 2014) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=888&dat=19400629&id=dK8wAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QU0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=4188,7129640
- The New York Times. "Adriana Caselotti, 80, Voice of Snow White." Jan. 21, 1997. (Dec. 8, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/21/arts/adriana-caselotti-80-voice-of-snow-white.html
- Sibley, Brian. "With a smile and a song – Adriana Caselotti." Animator Magazine. Winter 1987. (Dec. 8, 2014) http://www.animatormag.com/archive/issue-21/issue-21-page-22/