Disney animators have been known to draw their inspiration from many sources – from classic art to nature. But for the look for the evil Queen Grimhilde in their 1937 classic Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, they looked to another evil queen, the immortal ruler of a hidden kingdom known only as She!
Based on two of the three novels that 19th century adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard wrote about the character, 1935’s She starred opera singer Helen Gahagan as the beautiful and immortal ruler of the hidden kingdom of Kor. Apparently, though, Kor is not quite as isolated from the rest of the world as we are lead to believe as much of the city has more than a hint of art deco design to it as does She’s wardrobe, right down to the black headdress she wore under her crown in certain scenes in the film.
She was not a big hit for its studio RKO, but it did get notice by Walt Disney. (Perhaps the fact that RKO was Disney’s distributor at the time had something to do with it.) Disney was in the midst of developing his first feature-length animated film, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, based on the classic fairy tale. Although initial story notes described the story’s evil queen Grimhilde as a “fat, batty, cartoon type,” Disney was having second thoughts about that direction, thinking that it would undercut her potential menace. Finally Disney, together with storyboard artist Joe Grant hit upon the idea of modeling the character on Gahagan’s look in She (with a dash of Margarete Schön’s Princess Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen) and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
And for a bonus swipe, here’s the same deco fashion look showing up in 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain. Probably not so much a swipe than just an attempt to recreate some of the fashion of the `20s and `30s, but it still stands out.