Marge Champion, dancer who modelled for Disney’s Snow White and starred in Show Boat – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·6-min read
Marge Champion - Bettmann
Marge Champion - Bettmann

Marge Champion, who has died aged 101, was a popular dancer and choreographer in Hollywood films and on the stage, and modelled for the classic Disney heroine Snow White and the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio.

With her husband and dancing partner Gower Champion, she became a celebrated dance star in the 1950s.

But she was still Marjorie Belcher and in her mid-teens when, for $10 a day in 1935, she was filmed for the benefit of Disney animators as a model for the heroine in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Although her future husband, Art Babbitt, was one of the principal members of the animating team and supervised much of the reference filming, the character of Snow White herself was animated by Grim Natwick, who had brought the cartoon sex siren Betty Boop to life on the silver screen years before.

Show Boat, lobbycard, with Marge Champion and Gower Champion (1951) - LMPC via Getty Images
Show Boat, lobbycard, with Marge Champion and Gower Champion (1951) - LMPC via Getty Images

Babbitt instituted art classes for his fellow animators, so that they would make the movements of their screen characters more realistic. But Walt Disney himself ordered that the screen Snow White should be young and innocent, essentially a child, and earlier drafts were redrawn to make her leaner, sharper, less “cartoonish” and more realistic. 

To aid the animators in realising this “sweet and graceful little girl” on the screen, Natwick shot live-action film of Marjorie Belcher.

She was intended to provide the filmmakers with inspiration, to suggest movement and behaviour, and even Snow White’s personality. Animators watched the developed film through a viewfinder and chose poses they liked.

Marge Champion, circa 1949  - Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty
Marge Champion, circa 1949 - Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

Disney himself was worried that the animators would simply replicate Marjorie Belcher’s “live” action, rather than use her movements as a guide. Furthermore, Snow White and the other human characters were proving difficult to animate well. So with time running out, the staff were forced to trace live action in a process known as “rotoscoping”.

As the studio deadline of Christmas 1937 loomed, Disney ordered that this technique be kept secret lest “people get the wrong impression”, ordering his publicity chief to say only that “we use live models for the purposes of studying action etc, but we do not photograph live action and blow up our drawings from same.” In fact that is exactly what the animators did.

Marge Champion prepares for her next scene in a Hollywood movie studio, January 1953 - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty
Marge Champion prepares for her next scene in a Hollywood movie studio, January 1953 - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

Fearing the film would not be ready in time, Disney ordered work on all other projects to cease and staff moved in to help on Snow White. Pressure grew to such an extent that some of the artists drew sketches of a naked Snow White ringed by seven tumescent dwarfs, as a way of easing the suffocating perfection Disney demanded.

In the event, the film was finished and ready to preview on December 21. Time magazine declared it “an authentic masterpiece, to be shown… long after the current crop of Hollywood stars, writers and directors are sleeping where no Prince’s kiss can wake them”.

Behind the scenes, however, Marjorie Belcher had earned the displeasure of Walt Disney by starting an affair with Art Babbitt. Disney hated Babbitt partly because he was a union activist and partly on account of Babbitt’s notorious womanising – “My attitude was if it moves, screw it!” – so when Disney got wind of the affair he prepared to fire Babbitt. In the event, Marjorie Belcher and Babbitt quickly got married, thwarting Disney’s plan.

Apparently he quickly forgave Marjorie Babbitt (as she had become), because less than a year later, in November 1938, Disney rehired her to inspire the animators of Hyacinth Hippo in the “Dance of the Hours” sequence of Fantasia (1940).

The Blue Fairy in Pinocchio - Alamy
The Blue Fairy in Pinocchio - Alamy

She was to perform on film to give the animating artists suggestions to work from in an elaborate parody of a Balanchine ballet danced by Vera Zorina in The Goldwyn Follies (1938).

Before her first marriage, as Marjorie Belcher, she had also modelled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. The fairy rewards the little wooden puppet for rescuing his creator, Geppetto, from the belly of a huge whale, by turning him into a real boy. She also did some modelling for Mr Stork in Dumbo (1941) .

Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born on September 2 1919 in Los Angeles. Starting when she was three, her British father, Ernest Belcher, an experienced Hollywood ballet master, coached her in acrobatic, tap, ballet and Spanish dancing.

Educated at Hollywood High School, she appeared in local musical productions and at the age of 13 made her stage debut at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 23,000.

Having changed her name to Marjorie Bell, she made her film debut in 1938 with a small part in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Castles. In the same year she modelled for Walt Disney, both as Snow White and as the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio.

In 1947 Marjorie Bell appeared in two Broadway musicals, Dark Of The Moon and Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, before deciding to team up with Gower Champion, a successful dancer and choreographer, and one of her father’s pupils.

Champion had been something of a teenage prodigy, having danced with a school classmate Jeanne Tyler, when they were both 16, in Californian supper clubs, billed as “Gower and Jeanne — America’s Youngest Dancers”.

Marjorie and Gower Champion made their first professional appearance together, as Gower and Bell, in Montreal in April 1947. Their New York debut came in October in of year, a few days after their marriage.

Husband-and-wife dance team Marge and Gower Champion in 1958 - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Husband-and-wife dance team Marge and Gower Champion in 1958 - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

The young couple earned national stardom two years later with weekly appearances on Sid Caesar’s television show, and in 1950 they made their first film, Mr Music, with Bing Crosby. MGM signed them on a five-year contract, and after parts in Show Boat (1951) and Lovely To Look At (1952), they starred in their own biopic, Everything I Have Is Yours (also 1952).

In 1957 Marge Champion danced for the Queen and Prince Philip in Washington, DC, an occasion marred when one of Marge’s shoulder straps broke. She later received a note of commiseration from the Royal couple, written on White House notepaper and accompanied by two green orchids.

She sometimes reflected on her early years in Hollywood, and her whirlwind affair with Art Babbitt. “In those days – it seems impossible now – nice girls didn’t go to bed with people before they were married,” she recalled. “I had been brought up by my British father. You just didn’t do that. You did not sleep with them or live with them.”

Marge Champion and Donald Saddler in the 2001 revival of Follies in New York - SARA KRULWICH/NYTNS/Redux/eyevine
Marge Champion and Donald Saddler in the 2001 revival of Follies in New York - SARA KRULWICH/NYTNS/Redux/eyevine

After retiring from films, Marge Champion worked as a dance teacher and a choreographer in New York. In 1982 she made a rare television appearance in the series Fame, as a ballet teacher with a prejudice against African-American dance students. In 2001 she appeared in a Broadway revival of Follies.

Her marriage to Art Babbitt in 1937 ended in divorce after two years. Her second, to Gower Champion, was also dissolved, in 1973, and in 1977 she married Boris Sagal. He died in 1981. A son of her marriage to Gower Champion survives her.

Marge Champion, born September 2 1919, died October 21 2020