Fire Breaks out at Carthay
by Jeff Provine
says: what if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a commercial failure?
muses Jeff Provine's on his excellent blog
This Day in
Alternate History. Please note that the opinions expressed in this post
do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).
On December 21st 1937,
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icon to follow us on Facebook.never before or since has Hollywood
seen as terrible of a disaster as it did on the night of the premier of
the ill-fated "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Created by Silly
Symphonies animator Walt Disney, the film's doom seemed to be prophesied.
Hollywood executives, as well as Disney's own brother Roy and his wife,
Lilian, tried to talk him out of the notion of a full-length animated
feature film as they were certain no audience would want to sit through
something so ridiculous as a cartoon dwarf movie.
Disney persisted, however, even mortgaging his own home to pay for the
$1.5 million production costs, astronomical for the day.
"Props for the "Towering Inferno" reference" -
reader's commentsThe film was set to premier at the Carthay Circle
theater, which was growing in popularity with premiers such as Romeo and
Juliet and The Life of Emile Zola in the last two years. The theater was
Spanish Colonial Revival style, featuring an exterior of painted concrete
and a bell tower sporting a colossal neon sign. As the star-studded
audience sat waiting in the circular auditorium, an electrical fire from
the neon sign began atop the roof. It went unnoticed for some time,
spreading behind the walls raised above the roofline to create a tent
effect. Survivors said that they smelled smoke, but it was blamed on a
number of cigarettes and cigars.
Rumors say that Disney, desperate not to let a small technical fire ruin
the premier of the film into which he had thrown his whole life, preempted
the warning and stopped ushers from beginning an evacuation. The truth
will never be known as Disney's body was found after the fire in the
projection room, apparently trying to save the film reels, the same that
ignited in the burst that would be the first signal of danger to the
auditorium. By the time fire alarms began to ring, the fire itself had
spread over the roof and destabilized the theater's famed tower.
Moviegoers began to flee toward the exits when the roof collapsed and
flaming debris instantly killed dozens. Over a hundred more would be dead
by the end of the night despite the race by rescuers to pull trapped
victims from under the inferno.
"No Disney would mean that a lot of classics would
not suffer Adaptation Decay, as we TV Tropes frequenters call it. " -
reader's commentsAmong the victims of the Carthay Fire were Disney
himself, radio comedian George Burns (whose wife Gracie Allen would go
immediately into retirement, saying, "The act is over"), young singing
sensation Judy Garland, It Girl Mary Pickford, columnist Ed Sullivan, and,
most famously, Clark Gable, who, after making certain his girlfriend
Carole Lombard had gotten to safety, returned to the fire and saved
Shirley Temple. He escaped the fire itself but died the next morning due
to complications from smoke inhalation.
It is said that the Golden Age of Hollywood ended with the fire, but the
town recovered and continued to produce. In a move that many considered
poor taste, the Carthay Circle was rebuilt, hoping to open for the premier
of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Shirley Temple, starring as Dorothy Gale,
refused to set foot in the building again, and the premier was moved.
Instead, the first new show at the Carthay Circle was the notorious flop
Gone with the Wind. Gary Cooper had passed on the film's role of Rhett
Butler, which came to Errol Flynn. While his acting was defined by critics
as superb, too many audience members expected sword fighting, and the
film's budget of $4 million ruined MGM Studios as the box office did not
Whether out of respect for the disaster, because Disney was no longer
living to push for the genre, or from a simple lack of public interest, it
would be decades before another full-length cel-animated feature film
would be attempted, gradually coming into mainstream out of the
underground comix movement. Few films would be seen as largely profitable
until 1986's Oscar-winning animation Howard the Duck restarted the genre
with its biting social commentary, though overall moviegoers would care
more for monster films featuring costumes and camera tricks, robotics, and
In 1974, the acclaimed disaster film The Towering Inferno would give a
semi-fictional account of the evening with Paul Newman as Gable and Steve
McQueen as Charles Chaplin, who was partially crippled when a beam crushed
his leg. Critics and Hollywood historians alike routinely name Inferno the
best disaster film of all time.
says in reality Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a hit. The
Animated Classics genre would be born to great applause, literally a
standing ovation from the star-filled audience. Disney and his dwarfs
appeared on the cover of Time less than a week later, and he would go on to
revolutionize the entertainment industry with his film and TV productions,
innovations, and amusement parks. The Carthay Circle soon premiered another
great hit, Gone with the Wind, in 1939. To view guest historian's
comments on this post please visit the
Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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