Monday, 4 July 2011

The Evil Queen: Inspiration for Disney's Greatest Villain

Not the most thought-provoking start to my blog, and I apologise for that. But The Evil Queen off Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has mesmerised me since I was a child, and even more so as an adult. I think she is the evillest out of Disney’s wonderful cast of villains for she is the most terrifying, for example the scene where she orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart, is chilling, especially when she says it so coldly. There is no humour in her lines, unlike other villains like Cruella DeVil and Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s evil stepmother). Her voice is again, cold and hard, voiced immaculately by Lucille La Verne. She breathes real life into the Evil Queen, giving her a presence and authority that, considering this film was made in 1937, audiences probably didn’t believe was possible for an animation. Her costume mirrors her power and sternness with its dark colours, dominating collar and the way her hair is covered (we never see her hair until she turns into the hag), creates a feeling of not knowing what dark thoughts lurk in her mind. All we see is this strikingly beautiful, (but very harsh) pale face, angrily glaring back at us.

Joan Crawford 
The main point to this post is the influence animators at Disney had when creating the Evil Queen. It is widely recognised and agreed that there must have been a lot of inspiration from Joan Crawford. Crawford was one of the most beautiful women in cinema, but her features were bold and with her daring make-up on top it, made her look fierce and severe. Also her trademark exaggerated lip. Crawford was also one of the few actresses nicknamed the Queen of Hollywood. However, aside from the indisputable resemblance to Crawford, the Evil Queen’s face also possesses a remarkable resemblance to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. 

Marlene Dietrich
Greta Garbo 
The blank yet severe look in Garbo's face is very similar to those of the Evil Queen, as well as Garbo’s costume in Queen Christina. Garbo in Mata Hari, where her hair is scraped back tightly, so all you see is her face. As for Dietrich, although many actresses in Hollywood (Harlow, Lombard) had the baby doll eyebrows, highly arched, I’d say the inspiration was from Dietrich, particularly in The Devil is a Woman. One, because Dietrich’s eyes had a sultry but cruel quality- Harlow and Lombard's appearance was always sexy but funny and happy. Dietrich could give men the eye but she could also give some of the nastiest glares in cinema, second only to Davis and Crawford. The Queen's heavy-lidded make-up along with prominent cheekbones is also very Dietrich inspired I’d like to think. For me, combine Crawford, Garbo and Dietrich, and you have the Evil Queen. Ironically, Louis B. Mayer stated on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs release, “Who’d pay to see a drawing of a fairy princess when you can watch Joan Crawford’s boobs for the same price?” because although you didn’t see what Mayer was referencing too, audiences did get to see a Joan Crawford, more or less.

Helen Gahagan in She (1935)

Credit must go to Helen Gahagan in the film She (1935) where her character and costume have been credited as the main inspiration for the Evil Queen. The trailer for this film is on YouTube via this URL, go to 0:56 to see the resemblance:

Who knows why the Evil Queen, although she already had a character from a previous film to be based on, was given traits and qualities belonging to the biggest female stars of its time. Maybe it was because the Evil Queen’s harsh beauty fitted their features, maybe it was because all three were starting to age and as goddesses of the screen, still hung on to their looks hoping to maintain their former beauty and youth (like the Evil Queen). 

Don’t get me wrong Crawford, Garbo and Dietrich were not old by any means, but in an industry where image is paramount like Hollywood, and when fresh, new beauties like Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner were being groomed for stardom, the fight to be the fairest of all Tinseltown was a big part in their career’s, as it is for any actress who hits the age where she can play mother parts. The most likely reason for Disney using screen goddesses as inspiration, I believe, was that this was the first feature length animation in the U. S., therefore Disney and his animators wanted to give the characters qualities and appearances that were already very familiar with their audience.  


  1. Very original insights, Claudia! Helen Gahagan looked quite the real evil queen!

  2. R45tmax Monroe, I'm here. Now that I've seen your picture. Will you marry me. Just kidding. I'm too old. Ok, just letting you know I'm on your blog. Tom

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  4. It's a beautiful starter to your blog, Claudia and we all recall the first time we watched Snow White and loved it! I've always seen it dubbed in French and the funny thing is that Snow White has been dubbed and re-dubbed countless times for theatrical releases and VHS/DVD releases too. But I grew up with the 1962, which featured Claude Gensac's voice as the Queen and another actress voicing the witch, and the version beats the US version and the subsequent French dubbings. What a performance, but it's a shame one can't find that on the French DVD and Blu-ray, that's the only thing keeping me from getting it! Check out some clips on Youtube, you'll know what I mean. Something I find quite ironic about picking these particular goddesses as inspirations for the queen was the fact that all of them, in the late 30s, around the release of Snow White, were considered as box-office poison. It was also an age in Hollywood cinema when audiences were through with the fatal vamp figure that had been introduced since silent cinema. Sure, they were still mesmerized by foreign exotic beauties, thus the use of Hedy Lamarr, but they definitely wanted someone less bold, less androgynous, less threatening, less masculine and less vampish. Perhaps that reflected in the creation of the Queen. I remember being puzzled by the Queen's costume when I was little, I found it so cool you could never see her hair, she wore dark cloaks and all. what do you think?

    1. Hi Steph! I will definitely check those clips out on YouTube. It's funny you mention about finding the Queen's costume weird when you were little. Thinking about it I felt the same. The fact you couldn't see her hair was unusual! What you say about box office poison... maybe that's why there are similarities and possible inspiration for the Queen? She was evil, we aren't supposed to like her, she tries to poison Snow White. A vampish look makes Snow White look even more innocent in comparison. Also the reason of vanity... these actresses were the image of glamour and stardom, but Dietrich, Garbo, and Crawford had all been in the business a good few years by the time Snow White was released. I'm sure their vanity took a knock when upcoming beauties and starlets were popping up in Hollywood. Therefore that would match the vanity of the Queen and questioning her Magic Mirror every day.

  5. I've been fascinated for quite a while by the Evil Queen. I found this very interesting. I'm glad I found your blog and your YouTube channel.