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.

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock’s Cinematic “Trick” or Treat?

Once upon a time there was an Alfred Hitchcock film. But not just any Alfred Hitchcock film.

This film had the distinction of dividing fans of The Master of Suspense, for The Master himself claimed he made a mistake in his choices on the production. By the time he realized it, time was no more.

The very premise of Stage Fright is based on the theater, the birthplace of artifice and illusion. And as the credits roll, the safety curtain rises on our story.

With this in mind, did Hitchcock really make a mistake or does his cinematic “trick” fit like hand in glove?

The Plot

Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress, seeks to clear the name of her friend and crush Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) while posing as a lady’s maid to the woman (Marlene Dietrich) whose husband Jonathan is accused of murdering.

The Production

Stage Fright takes its source material from the 1947 novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson and was adapted for the screen by Whitfield Cook, Ranald MacDougall, and Alma Reville (Hitchcock), with additional dialogue by James Bridie.

Stage Fright began production under Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein’s Transatlantic Pictures, founded in 1946. Their first two films, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), released through Warner Brothers were box-office failures.

Stage Fright was shot at Elstree Studios in London, with location shooting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Scala Theatre. Production was completed at Warner Brothers.

The Cast

Decked out in glistening diamonds and creations by Christian Dior, Marlene Dietrich steals the show as Charlotte Inwood, the glamorous stage actress and singer who entangles Jonathan Cooper in her seductive web.

Charlotte Inwood could have been stereotypical and dull but in Dietrich’s hands is fascinating and electric. Just when we think we’ve got her number, she unveils another layer of her personality.

The cinematography adds to this effect as the lens ambiguously caress her.

According to Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young, Hitchcock knew of Dietrich’s technical prowess and let her have free reign of her camera angles and lighting.

Because of this it almost appears as if Dietrich is in an entirely different movie than her co-stars, as her shots are in soft focus and every inch the star treatment – think von Sternberg.

Surprisingly, the effect is not jarring. It aids in our perception of her character.

Charlotte Inwood might just top Endora from Bewitched with the many names she calls Doris Tinsdale, Eve’s alias, with everything from Phyllis to Nancy.

Her disconscern with something as “trivial” as her maid’s name is both amusing and telling.

Because Charlotte Inwood is a singer and actress it gave Marlene Dietrich the opportunity to wear amazing gowns add some tunes to her repertoire.

In the film, Dietrich sings “The Laziest Gal in Town,” written by Cole Porter for Stage Fright, and friend Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” These songs would become part of Dietrich’s famous one-woman stage shows which blossomed in the mid-1950’s.

We experience most of Stage Fright through the eyes of Eve Gill.

Fresh off her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda, Jane Wyman has a likable quality that corresponds well with Eve’s character, bringing this curious, daring girl to the screen through her spirited performance.

Eve takes us along with her as she adopts a guise and Cockney accent while gathering evidence to indict Charlotte Inwood with the murder.

Although Wyman felt overshadowed by Dietrich (sources say she would break down in tears after seeing the rushes) we have to root for her in order for the story to work – and we do.

We feel the fear of her ruse being discovered by Detective Smith (Michael Wilding) whom she befriends and her confusion as she begins to fall for him.

Richard Todd convincingly portrays the confusion and mad desperation of Jonathan Cooper – a man on the run with no where to turn except to Eve and her family.

Beneath his stalwart quality, Todd gives off an unsettling edge, where one can imagine something darker.

Todd was hot stuff at this point in his career, having won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer of 1949, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the The Hasty Heart (1949).

With his talent and fame, it is clear why Hitchcock would be eager to snatch him up for Stage Fright.

See all three leads in action here – if cou can find them beneath all the feathers 🙂

The Supporting Players

Stage Fright has been described by some as Hitchcock’s family oriented picture. Eve has a loving, supportive father (Alastair Sim) who tries to help her out of the many jams she gets herself into.

Although Eve’s father and mother (Sybil Thorndike) don’t always get along, you can sense their love for Eve.

These two bring an undeniable magic to the screen in their scenes together as they address each other indirectly and show their affectionate disdain for one another.

Hitchcock was intrigued by this project since it afforded him the opportunity to return to London, his first time since leaving for Hollywood in 1939, to be near his daughter Patricia – a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Patricia did some stunt driving for Jane Wyman and also has a small part in the film as Eve’s friend, Chubby Bannister. How’s that for a name?

Conclusion

I greatly enjoy this film. It emanates warmth, charm, and wit while delivering the director’s signature mystery and suspense.

Stage Fright won’t make you hold onto your seat, but it just might surprise you as familiar Hitchcockian themes present themselves in a cleverly told manner that was very much ahead of its time.

What do you think about Stage Fright? No spoilers, please!

This post is my contribution to The Distraction Blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Thanks for letting me participate, Rebecca!

Head on over HERE for more distractions from the silver screen!

Announcing It’s a Wonderful Life Blogathon: A 75th Anniversary Celebration!!

Hear ye, hear ye! One of the most beloved movies of all time is turning 75 years old this December! What better way to celebrate than with a blogathon honoring this timeless holiday classic?

Director Frank Capra didn’t set out to make a Perennial staple when choosing his next film project after returning from WWII, he simply liked the story.

Over time, It’s a Wonderful Life grew a fascinating life story all it’s own. And it keeps on growing as more fans embrace and tune in to the heartwarming tale of George Bailey and his triumphal realization that he really does have what the title claims – a wonderful life!

This blogathon is dedicated to all things It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). You may write about anything from George Bailey’s lasso to the various parodies/homages done over the years – except for sources with potentially sensitive material (such as Saturday Night Live).

Like the film itself, let’s keep this event as family friendly as possible 🙂

You may also choose to reflect on what the film means to you personally or to analyze a particular scene.

The choice is all yours, and I’m looking forward to seeing what direction you creative bloggers choose to take!

Even if you’re not a fan of the film, there might be something here for you too! Just remember to keep your post respectful, diplomatic, and clean, please. Thank you!

Here are some ideas to get you started…

  • Pre-Production
  • Post-Production
  • The Casting
  • The Cast
  • The Character Actors
  • The Child Actors
  • The Director
  • The Writers
  • The Source Material
  • The Music
  • Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart Collabs (as long as ‘Life’ is included)
  • The Legacy of the Film
  • The Special Snow Effects
  • AFI Listings for the film: Potter, George, & More
  • Favorite Moments
  • Personal Remembrances
  • Scene Analysis
  • Noir Elements
  • Remaining Cast Members
  • Nominations & Awards
  • Any of the Books about the Film
  • Adaptations: Radio, Stage, Film & TV
  • Remakes
  • Sequels

Websites of Interest

Check out the film’s IMDb HERE

See the film’s Wikipedia HERE

Find Parodies and Adaptations HERE

The Nitty Gritty

1. For this blogathon you may write about anything pertaining to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and its adaptations, sequels, parodies, and remakes, providing they do not include potentially sensitive material (such as Saturday Night Live). Like the film itself, let’s keep this event as family friendly as possible 🙂

2. A topic may be covered no more than 2 times, however there are no limits on personal remembrances of the film.

3. I will be accepting no more than 2 posts per person. All contributions must be new material only.

4. Whatever you choose, please make sure to mention the original film in your post as that’s what we are celebrating through this blogathon. Also, please keep the posts respectful, otherwise they will not be accepted.

5. In your post, please include one of the blogathon banners and link back to my blog and the post that I will release on December 11th so that others may read the wonderful entries.

6. To express your interest in participating, simply leave me a comment below with the name and URL of your blog and your topic of choice. I will add you to the roster once I’ve confirmed your topic.

7. The blogathon will take place on December 11th-13th, 2021. Please publish and send your link to me on a day that the event is running…And that’s it!

Please help yourself to a banner from down below to include in your post and to help spread the word. I am looking forward to celebrating the 75th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life with you!

Thank you, and I will see you in December!

List of Participants:

The Classic Movie Muse | TBA

Movies Meet Their Match |  TBA

Realweegiemidget Reviews |  It Happened One Christmas (1977)

Taking Up Room |  Favorite Moments from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Caftan Woman | Bert & Ernie: An Overview of the Careers of Ward Bond & Frank Faylen

Old Books and Movies | Adventures in Odyssey’s Radio Show Remake“It’s a Pokenberry Christmas”

Journeys in Classic Film | The Use of Flashbacks & Nostalgia in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I Found it at the Movies | Personal Thoughts on It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Nitrateglow | H. B. Warner as Mr. Gower & An Overview of His Career

Kelly Kitchens hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch | My Special Connection to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Coffee, Classics, & Craziness | Top 5 Moments that Make me Cry in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The Flapper Dame | Why It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Still Matters and Always Will

Silver Screen Classics | A Study of the Themes in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Dbmoviesblog | Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life & Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Magic Time | The Noir Elements of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Hamlette’s Soliloquy | Modern Dream Casting for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Lee Mac | The Significance of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

18 Cinema Lane | TBA

The Classic Film Connection | It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – The Turning Point of James Stewart’s Career

A Person in the Dark | One of the Sexiest Kiss Scenes Ever

The Edge of the Precipice | Review of The Greatest Gift & Capra’s Inspiration

The Banners

Thank You, Bloggers!! Wrapping up The Bernard Herrmann Blogathon 2021

Hello, all! I trust you’ve had a safe and happy Halloween!

We are ready to wrap up the blogathon…well, almost! There is another entry coming in and possibly a few stragglers, so keep your eyes on this page for the last of this Halloween celebration of legendary composer Bernard Herrmann!

We’ve had everything from movie reviews to personal remembrances shared over the weekend. The tones ranging from funny, touching, and enlightening to foreboding, dark, and frightening. Just what the doctor ordered when celebrating such a man and his contrasting body of work.

Bloggers, thank you for your appreciation and enthusiasm for Herrmann and for contributing to make this event a success! You’ve not only made this blogathon possible, you’ve made my first experience as hostess a wonderful one. For that I am very grateful!

In fact, I had so much fun, I’m already cooking up my next one. Stay tuned!

Comment below if you’d like to see this event come back next year! I would be more than happy to host it once again.

To round out the bash, I leave you with Herrmann’s personal favorite of his scores and one of mine as well, the wistful and romantic The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

A perfect end to a perfect weekend. Thanks again!

Treats All Around: The Bernard Herrmann Blogathon Begins!!

Happy Halloweekend and Welcome one and all to The Bernard Herrmann Blogathon!

Are you ready to embark on this weekend full of spellbinding mystery and musical delights? I know I am!

Bernard Herrmann needs no introduction. His music is the very definition of the word iconic. From a barbaric shower scene, to ghostly cottages, to an eerie alien invasion, he did it all. And with a completely new musical landscape that nailed the setting every time.

A complex man who was known for his abrupt manner but had a sensitive side as well, he excelled at and pioneered the art of conveying psychology through music.

His powerful music is imprinted on some of the most beloved classic films and his influence is never-ending, reaching into the hearts and minds of composers and movie lovers today.

I admire Herrmann tremendously and am so pleased and honored to be honoring him with my very first blogathon.

So without further ado, thank you for joining us in this celebration! I hope you find a “new” film or two…Because one can never have too much Herrmann 😉

Check back to this post often as I will be updating as the blogathon rolls on!

Bloggers, thank you for making this a special event by lending your time and talent! I can’t wait to read your thoughts!

Please leave me a comment below when you are ready to unveil your compositions. I will add them to the programme as soon as I can!

The Programme

The Classic Movie Muse | Visiting the Maestro: The Final Resting Place of Bernard Herrmann in Elmont, New York

Realweegiemidget Reviews |  Marnie (1964)

I Found It At the Movies |  North by Northwest (1959)

Silver Screenings | 5 Fingers (1952)

Nitrateglow | On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Hamlette’s Soliloquy | Jane Eyre (1943)

Classic For a Reason |  Vertigo (1958)

Caftan Woman |  Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

A Full Rich Blather | The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Taking Up Room | The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Coffee, Classics, and Craziness | Top 5 Favorite Herrmann Soundtracks

Journeys in Classic Film | The Wrong Man (1956)

Diary of a Movie Maniac | Hangover Square (1945)

Magic Time | The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Critica Retro | The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

The Classic Film Connection | Psycho (1960)

Second Sight Cinema | Citizen Kane (1941)

The Flapper Dame | Garden of Evil (1954)

18 Cinema Lane | The Trap (1959)