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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.