Lucille La Verne: The Remarkable Career of Disney’s First Villain, the Fairest One of All

In the Canon of Disney villains there is one that has always stood out to me as head and shoulders above the rest – the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). On becoming a self professed Disney nerd, I often attributed her status of Supreme villainy due to Walt Disney’s immersive involvement in the project.

As a child, I could deal just fine with the elegant Maleficent, the flamboyant Cruella de Vil, and the austere Lady Tremaine, but when it came to the Evil Queen transformed into the old hag, well, that was a different story.

What is it about this character that makes her so imposing and her evil so palpable? Sure, the artists had designed and animated a sinister, frightening character, but there was a dynamic force behind those masterful drawings bringing it all together.

Then it dawned on me – it was her voice.

As Snow White begins and the clouds draw back to reveal a towering castle, we hear Lucille La Verne’s bone chilling voice as she performs her daily ritual before her magic mirror, giving her the notable distinction of having the first speaking part in an animated feature length film.

Originally, Lucille La Verne was chosen to play just one part by Disney. But with experience that took her from stage to screen, La Verne quickly proved she could play both the composed, calculating queen and her rambunctiously wicked alter ego.

Early Life & Career

Lucille Laverne Mitchum was born on November 7, 1872 in Nashville, Tennessee. She began acting as a child in local summer stock. As she returned each year she became known as the child star of the theater and was given better parts as she grew in talent and stature.

Lucille played with small traveling theater troupes as a teenager, and at age fourteen she was praised for her performances as Lady Macbeth and Juliet, which she played in the same run.

At age sixteen, Lucille made her Broadway debut with a supporting role in La Tosca. Her versatility put her in high demand and she began touring the country with some of America’s top stock companies.

She received rave reviews in the big cities and scored many triumphs. Her stage successes included the leading roles in Notre Dame, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lady Windermere’s Fan.

By 1895, Lucille formed her own theatrical troupe and they appeared before not only Americans, but also European royalty. According to an article in the San Pedro News Pilot, Lucille gave “command performances before King George V of England, King Leopold of the Belgians and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.”

In 1898, she was appointed manager and director of the Empire Theater in Richmond, Virginia. Lucille staged many hit plays and wrote an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol which was used by other theaters in the early 1900’s. Lucille was then awarded the Woman of the Year Award by the Virginia Women’s Society in 1901.

Lucille in the pages of Vogue magazine, 1905

A few years later, Lucille stepped down from the Empire to take the stage in London in William Gillette’s Clarice (1906). The play and her performance was a hit as was her reprisal of the role on Broadway. She continued appearing on stage, occasionally directing and acting in stock productions.

Although Lucille could play any part, she became known for her character roles: tough mothers; old crones; and rough, rural folk. These would define her legacy.

Fun fact: According to the Virginia Repertory Company’s website, among Lucille’s stock company at the Empire Theater were these notable thespians:

Frank Morgan, most famous for playing the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 film of the same name; Edward Arnold, a character actor who appeared in many classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Mary Miles Mintner, a rival at the time to Mary Pickford; and John Bunny, the most popular movie star in the early 1910’s.

Personal Life

In 1912, Lucille married William Waide Scott, her publicity manager. Little is known about their union which ended in 1920. Records show that Scott was employed as a salesman in January of 1918, registered for the WWI draft, and then enlisted in July, serving six months in the US Army.

Though her obituary claims that Lucille was married more than once, additional evidence has not yet surfaced to confirm who the husbands were, nor the dates of the marriages.

What is known is that Lucille adopted a daughter, eleven year old Grace Taylor, in 1923. Through her role in Sun Up, an exploration of the lives of “mountain people,” Lucille grew an understanding and compassion for those living remotely without modern conveniences. She then became a sponsor for several “mountain schools.”

An orphan from the Tallulah Falls Industrial School, Grace toured with her mother’s acting troupe, meeting the crowned heads of Europe. When Grace reached adulthood, the two were estranged were for many years. They reunited when Grace had a child of her own, making Lucille a grandmother.

Career Highlights

1915 marked Lucille’s film debut with a minor role in the comedy Over Night directed by James Young. After a few small films with Young, Lucille began hitting her stride with D. W. Griffith.

It is apparent that she was a favorite of the pioneering director, appearing in character roles in Orphans of the Storm (1921), White Rose (1923), America (1924), and her first talkie – Abraham Lincoln (1930).

Lucille worked with the best in the business, elevating each production with her presence and professionalism. She acted alongside Gloria Swanson (Zaza, 1923) and supported James Cagney in his film debut (Sinners’ Holiday, 1930).

In addition to D. W. Griffith, she worked with esteemed directors such as Walter Lang (The Mighty Barnum, 1934), John Ford (Pilgrimage, 1933), Josef von Sternberg (An American Tragedy, 1931), and Michael Curtiz (An Alias Doctor, 1932).

Though she had glimpsed the bright lights of Hollywood, Lucille never strayed far from her first love, the stage.

In 1923, she scored one of the greatest triumphs of her career in Lulla Volmer’s folk-play Sun-Up. At age fifty-four, Lucille was already a veteran stage actress, but her role as Widow Cagle would cement her position as a legendary actress of her time.

She would go on to perform the role over 3,000 times (how, just how?!) between its Broadway run, domestic and international tours, and the Broadway revival which she also produced.

When MGM purchased the rights for the film adaptation of Sun Up (1925), who would they choose for the role of Widow Cagle? You guessed it…Lucille.

Upon the film’s release, The New York Times sang Lucille’s praises, “Her performance is tremendously effective, yet at the same time restrained. She does not over-do the makeup nor the scowling but makes a natural human being…”

In 1927, Lucille was given perhaps the greatest honor an actor of her time could receive. Broadway’s Princess Theatre was renamed after her. She became the manager and director, sadly, this was short lived.

Since her productions closed quickly and the theater lost money, the theater returned to its original name and Lucille moved to Hollywood.

Lucille still appeared regionally on stage, while appearing in such film classics as Little Caesar (1931) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

She made her last stage appearance on Broadway playing the lead role in Black Widow in 1936. Lucille received excellent reviews, but the play suffered a mixed reception and closed quickly.

After Black Widow, Lucille had one more performance to give, one that would make her known on a scale she could never have imagined and give her unsurpassed immortality.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

“She was a professional actress, and I think when she was told the Queen is a vain, imperialistic personality she visualized something. She read the lines beautifully and then when she went into the Witch with the maniacal laugh; it rang over the soundstage. It was blood curdling.

We weren’t thinking of having one actress do both parts. With the Queen’s voice, no one read with any great authority or with anything outstanding. We made a test of her voice and ran it for Walt. He said, ‘That’s it!’”

– Bill Cottrell, director for the Queen and Witch’s scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

As the first Disney feature length film, Snow White comes with a list of firsts, and Walt Disney hit it out of the park when he chose Lucille to play his first Villain, giving her two juicy parts to dig her teeth into – the Evil Queen and the Witch.

The fact that two very different voices were provided by the same person gives unity to the evil surrounding our protagonist, making the threat all the more credible and frightening, while showcasing Lucille’s incredible range and versatility.

When some were concerned Lucille sounded too old for the queen, director Dave Hand remarked, “The main point of argument is really that La Verne knows how to deliver lines. We are willing to sacrifice a little to get that correct delivery, that punch we need.”

With a statuesque figure, pencil thin eyebrows, and full red lips, the visual design for the queen was based on the 1930’s standard of beauty – think Joan Crawford with a dash of Gale Sondergaard. But for the Queen’s haggard form, no better reference existed than Lucille herself, the queen of such roles.

(Pun not intended, well…maybe)

“The Witch was conceived before Lucille was cast but I would say that she inspired the final model sheet. We picked up her expressions, which were very broad and caricatured.”

-Disney Artist, Joe Grant

Firstly, concept artist and illustrator Gustaff Tengren drew up a concept of the character, then animator Norm Ferguson took the design and infused it with Lucille’s personality. He exaggerated her most expressive features – her intense eyes, knowing brow, and mischievous grin.

In live action referencing, the animators noticed as the Witch Lucille’s stance changed and her actions became broader. You can really see Lucille’s stage experience coming through her performance, as the Witch’s movements are highly theatrical.

Just how did she change her voice for the Witch? (I hear you asking)

Joe Grant recalled, “Lucille was already a very famous stage and film actress. She was very willing and very obliging. When she first did the voice we didn’t think it was ‘witchy’ enough and then she came up with the idea of taking her teeth out.

As a result of it, it gave that wet sort of sound. Her jaws collapsed and she was the witch. She was a pro. We did not have to do too many takes with her, only to try a different interpretation. She was dressed with a cape on.”

Walt Disney paid Lucille the ultimate compliment when a writer on the film commented to him about changing some of the Witch’s lines, “All the dialogue sounded bad to me until she (Lucille) read it.”

Death

After Snow White, Lucille retired and co-owned a successful nightclub. After a decade long battle with cancer, she passed away on March 4, 1945.

Lucille La Verne was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Inglewood Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

Nearly 75 years later, the lovely folk at Silence is Platinum organized a fundraiser to give this legend a proper headstone. And in 2020, their project was completed. Read more about Silence is Platinum and the project here.

Legacy

Snow White remains and forever will be Lucille’s lasting legacy. What better finale could there be for an actress who’s career had thrived in nearly every medium of visual entertainment available during her lifetime – stage, silents, talkies, and animation. Arguably, perhaps no other actor has enjoyed such a wide range and scope for their talents.

Even those who never hear her name or see her face will hear that voice and be captured by her work.

Lucille set the standard for Disney villains – a standard of excellence that would forever be associated with the brand that makes dreams come true. And as Walt knew, in order for the splendor of those dreams to be fully realized, there must first be nightmares.

Fun Facts & Trivia

  • Snow White wasn’t the first time the Mouse came knocking for Lucille. She voiced the Witch in Babes in the Woods (1932), a short resembling the story of Hansel and Gretel.

  • Lucille’s voice was recycled for Maleficent’s dying scream in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).
  • The Evil Queen is listed as #10 on the AFI’s listing of 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains.
  • One legend says that after the initial run of Snow White, all the seats in Radio City Music Hall were reupholstered due to the film’s terrifying effect on children.

I’d love to know who’s your favorite Disney villain? Is there a La Verne movie I’ve left out that’s a must see? Did she terrify you as a child? Let me know down below!

This post is my contribution to the What a Character! 10th Anniversary Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Paula’s Cinema Club, and Outspoken & Freckled. Thanks for hosting and having me, ladies! And congrats on 10 years of this incredible event!

Mosey on over to the above links for more about the wonderful character actors that grace our favorite movies with their inimitable personalities.

25 thoughts on “Lucille La Verne: The Remarkable Career of Disney’s First Villain, the Fairest One of All

  1. What an interesting and diverse career/life this woman had, very cool. Up until this, the only other interesting tidbit I knew about her was that when Disney and the writers were trying to figure out the Evil Queen’s voice when she took the form of the Old Hag Woman Ms. La Verne simply removed her upper dentures and the rest is history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I commend your work on this great article. What a truly fascinating woman and career! The depth of your look at her immortal Disney villain added much to my appreciation of the film. Beyond that, Lucille made a lasting impression on the young me in A Tale of Two Cities going toe to toe with Edna May Oliver. Chilling stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Paddy! I appreciate your lovely comment and allowing me to indulge in my fascination with Disney history. I should have guessed that the woman behind that voice would have been as intriguing, but alas, she took me completely by surprise! Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to see that particular film in my preparation for this article, but it’s on my list!

      Like

  3. Oh my, what a woman. Once you see her, you can’t forget her. My first encounter (other than Disney) with Lucille in the flesh, was in “Orphans of the Storm,” and, well, that’s a face you don’t forget. I bumped into her again in “Sinner’s Holiday,” and thought she might have been Ma Jarret’s mother. You did an amazing job on this post – loved every word and learning about a real actress. By the way, I love that her obit states that she was married 3 times, but none of her husbands were alive at the time of her death. Kinda makes you wonder….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, she ABSOLUTELY terrified me as a child! 😀 I was born in the late ‘80s and grew up on Disney. Like you, I could take all the villains from Maleficent to Ursula and Gaston – and I didn’t even mind Snow White’s Evil Queen – but I couldn’t handle the Witch! 😮 Her transformation is still one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen…And that VOICE. 😮

    I had several of those “books with sound” that were popular at the time – where you could push a button that matched a corresponding picture in the story to hear a sound effect. I was probably about 4 or 5 when my babysitter bought me a Disney Snow White themed one. I still remember sitting on her lap so we could read it together for the first time. I already wasn’t crazy about the picture that went with the Witch’s button, and when I pushed it…the sound was her cackle! I FREAKED OUT. Eventually, either my babysitter or my mom had the idea to blacken out the picture on her button with a sharpie, because I wouldn’t go near the book otherwise. And everyone who read it to me knew that button was never to be pushed – ever again. 🙂

    Of course, now that I’m older, I can appreciate her performance as the highly effective work of a great actress…But if I’m being completely honest I must admit that I’ve watched Snow White as few times as possible in my life. I used to babysit some children who loved it (ironically, the granddaughters of the babysitter who bought me the infamous book!). I’d watch it for them, but that’s about it. I wouldn’t even ride the Snow White ride at Disney World, until I was older and practically dared myself to. (PS – At the time, there was a moment in the ride where the animatronic Queen spun around and was suddenly the Witch, accompanied by that same cackle. I was an older teen then and STILL jumped out of my skin!)

    But you are so right about how she set the standard! 😀 I’d never really thought about that before…I’d say I have three favorite Disney villains: the ultimate / scariest – which is still and will always be Lucille’s Queen / Witch, the one whose story I like the most – The Princess and the Frog’s Dr. Facilier (I just love his ending! So appropriate and chilling…Plus, Keith David is fantastic, as always! One of my favorite Disney lines ever is, “Fun fact about voodoo Larry…” LOL.), and the one I enjoy / unfortunately relate to most – The Great Mouse Detective’s Rattigan. (I just know if I were a Disney villain, I’d be that petty. 🙂 And Vincent Price has SO MUCH FUN with it. He’s evilly delightful. It’s my favorite performance of his.) But, Lucille is and always will be #1. The gold standard. The actual queen of villains (which is a distinction that seems to have been passed down to Maleficent in recent years – probably because the Evil Queen is almost TOO scary).

    I enjoyed learning more about Lucille. I had no idea that she’s a Tennessee girl (me, too!), and I LOVE adoption stories. I find her choice to adopt and her sponsorship of mountain schools admirable. (Think dirt-poor, one-room schoolhouse – and you’ve got a mountain school.) I’d never heard of Sun Up, but if it’s a talkie, I’d love to see it. And A Tale of Two Cities, too – the shot of her you used alone looks amazing! 😀

    ***

    Two off-topic things I’ve meant to tell you…

    1.) It seems the Classic Movie Hub is having issues. 😦 My account wasn’t activated until I emailed Annmarie (who I guess is the administrator?). When I wasn’t sure my application to join BlogHub went through, I emailed her again – and she said that feature isn’t working for new writers and may be down for some time. 😦 Did you run into the same trouble?

    2.) I recently went back to post a follow-up comment on someone’s entry in the Bernard Herrmann blogathon after I watched a movie they recommended – and it was only then that I realized I’d spelled Herrmann’s name wrong this whole time!!! 😮 I swear – all the research, writing, and reading I did for the blogathon, and my brain only saw 1 r. the. Entire. TIME. 😮 I even thought maybe this person misspelled his name and Googled it! 😀 Of course, I had to correct this in my own post immediately, so I’m glad I finally realized…but I’m amazed at myself. 😉 There was an actor named Edward Hermann whose last name really was spelled with 1 r and 2 ns, so I guess that’s what my brain reverted to – but I’m still shocked it took me THIS LONG to actually see that other r! 😮 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jillian, we have an accord! But I must say, that book wouldn’t even make it in my lap as a child 😂 I commend you for being so brave! I’ve heard stories about that ride. I believe now they have toned it down considerably. Maybe they received comments from distressed children’s parents or just wanted/needed a refresh.

      Ah yes, Great Mouse Detective is so underrated! I love Vincent Price’s performance as well and the fact that he got to sing!! I read that he said it was among his favorite roles.

      Side note: I see that Disney is gearing up for the live action Snow White and Gal Gadot will be playing the Evil Queen. I wonder what direction they will take the Witch in…

      I think it’s interesting how Walt Disney said he never made his movies solely for children, but for the children in all of us, and that’s especially true on Snow White. He never again made such a terrifying villain, but I believe her scariness is what made the movie work and by extension made Disney the legendary entity that it is. They also needed that gravitas to pull off such a groundbreaking work and huge gamble in filmmaking. Also, I think they were illustrating how we all have scary things in life that we must face and conquer and she represented that – in spades! The story gave hope that if Snow White could come out OK in the end, so can we. That’s my take anyways 😉

      So neat that you and Lucille share a home state! Yes, I was quite moved by her compassionate heart as well. I was looking forward to viewing Sun Up, but I fear it might be a lost film as I was unable locate a copy. Please let me know if you have any luck finding it! A Tale of Two Cities is available and looks like a gem from what I have seen.

      I ran into the same trouble when activating my initial account, yes. I had to contact AnnMarie and she kindly activated it for me. I don’t know if there was trouble with my application for BlogHub as I haven’t heard anything, but I will check into it. Thanks for letting me know! Sorry to hear that feature is down 😟

      Oh, that’s so funny! Haha 😄 I’d love to hear what film you were recommended and what your thoughts were on it! As always, thank you for stopping by, Jillian! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eva-Joy at The Caffeinated Fangirl wrote about her Top 5 Favorite Herrmann soundtracks, and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was her #1. I’d considered covering that one myself, since I adore James Mason, but had yet to watch it after deciding to go another way. We chatted about James Mason in the comments: I introduced her to Caught (his American film debut from 1949 – in which he’s so dashing and good, he’ll absolutely steal your heart…I recommend to you, too, if you’re interested. It’s on YouTube!) She watched and loved it, and I finally watched Journey. 🙂

        It didn’t hold my interest entirely (although I’m not one for sci-fi adventures in general), but James Mason is always fun to watch. And the music was, of course, incredible. (The opening literally sounds like sinking – like their descent at the start of their journey.) And I kid you not: as soon as I finished the movie, I learned (through TCM) that Arlene Dahl (one of the stars) passed away earlier that day. 😮

        James Mason also has this line I loved about how “tired minds can’t plan”. 😀 So true! I told Eva I’m going to adopt it as a maxim. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, I’ll have to see Caught sometime…thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

        Wow, what a nice way to honor Arlene Dahl even though you didn’t realize she passed till after the movie was finished. Life with it’s crazy turns…

        Haha that is so true! Good one, Jillian 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The Evil Queen in SNOW WHITE so terrified me that I had to be taken out of the theater as a child. La Verne did a great job with that but it’s cool to see what else she did. Thanks for this post!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. totalleecrochet

    My word, what a wonderfully diverse, long and successful career she had! Such an achievement, as you said, to be able to span her talents across so many mediums. Such a presence, not only vocally, but visually too. If only we could find a way to head back and experience her charisma on the stage 💝
    Lovely to hear of the heights she reached and of the accolades and recognition she received in her lifetime, but equally as heartwarming (and slightly eye-misting) to read of the efforts to commemorate her in death as well. Such a moving and deserved tribute.
    Such a wonderful post Ari 💕👏 I learned so much. Thank you!
    I must admit, Maleficent was the one that got me as a child. The Evil Queen certainly had her moments – especially the dizzying transformation scene *shudder*. However something about Maleficent‘s calm, graceful, menacing aura gave me the willies 😅
    (Also, just quietly – Edward Arnold was quite dashing as a younger man wasn’t he 😍!)
    Again, wonderful article Ari 💝 x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doesn’t it take your breath away with all she achieved? Oh, yes that would be a must stop in the time machine, Lee! I almost fell over when I learned Lucille had an unmarked grave for close to 75 years. Just unfathomable! But I’m so glad she finally received the tribute that she so rightly deserves and by such a loving and respectful group.

      You’re right about that transformation scene. It’s right up there with the horror movies of the 1930’s, if you ask me! I’ve got the solution – I’ll take on Maleficent and you take on the Evil Queen and we will be rid of our childhood foes! 😂

      It’s funny you mention that about Edward Arnold! The same thing crossed my mind when I found his photo 😉

      Thank you very much, Lee! ❤ It’s always lovely to hear from you. I’m so glad to see you’ve joined the blogosphere!! You have yourself a new subscriber x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. totalleecrochet

        You’ve got yourself a deal! Although, if I may be extra cheeky, may I ask you to ‘take care of’ the headless horseman as well?! He scared the b-jeezuz out of me as a kid and as an adult if I’m honest 😂

        Thank you so much for being my first subscriber 🥳💕 Woo-hoo!
        I think I’m slowly getting my head around WordPress. I’m hoping to launch before the end of the year. Super excited to start penning down more movie-inspired thoughts and share in the fun a lot more 😊🍿! x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sure! I volunteered you for this deal, so that’s the least I can do 😉 Such a great one! Bing’s inclusion in that film is so wonderful ❤

        My pleasure! I’m honored to have that standing 🙂 That’s great! I’m no pro, but let me know if I can be of help in any way. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for you 🥳 x

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow – I had no idea she had such a long and versatile career, nor did I realize she played both the Queen and the Witch in Snow White. I have new admiration for her.
    Thanks for sharing all this research with us. Your tribute is so well written, as always. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. La Verne was a fantastic talent. I always remember her in her villainous roles like the Wicked Queen or Mother Frochard, but she’s a real hoot in Zaza from 1923. The part where she visits Gloria Swanson in the hospital to “comfort” her with her pet parrot had me in stitches.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so looking forward to seeing more of La Verne’s filmography and Zaza sounds like a treat! I’m trying to imagine her in a comedic role and it’s not gelling yet because I’m so used to her villainy, but I’m sure she’s a master at comedy also. Thanks for stopping by, Nitrateglow!

      Liked by 1 person

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