Frank Churchill (October 20, 1901 – May 14, 1942) was an American film composer who wrote most of the music for Disney’s 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work”, “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” and “I’m Wishing.” Other Disney films that he worked on include Dumbo, Bambi, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Born on October 20, 1901, at Rumford, Maine, Churchill began his career playing piano in cinemas at the age of fifteen. After dropping out of medical studies at UCLA to pursue a career in music, he became an accompanist at the Los Angeles radio station KNX (AM) in 1924.
Churchill joined Disney studios in 1930 following the departure of house composer Carl Stalling, and scored many of the company’s Silly Symphonies animated shorts. His 1933 song for The Three Little Pigs, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell, was a huge commercial success. The song struck a chord in the midst of the Great Depression, and became the Disney company’s first hit, selling loads of sheet music and inspiring numerous recordings. Churchill’s success helped change the company’s thinking about the way music was used in its cartoons, setting them on a road where popular songs became an important part of the overall business plan. Over the next few years, Churchill continued to compose songs and instrumental music for the Silly Symphonies cartoons, and although he didn’t duplicate the success of “Who’s Afraid,” several tunes were at least recorded by outside orchestras.
In 1937, Churchill was chosen to score Disney’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with lyricist Larry Morey. Disney’s stipulation was that, much like the Silly Symphonies, the songs were not simply to be showcased — they had to stem naturally from the characters, or be integrated into the story. His catchy, artfully written songs played a large part in the film’s initial success and continuing popularity. Additionally, Churchill co-composed the instrumental score with Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, and it earned an Oscar nomination. Because of the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Churchill became supervisor of music at Disney, as well as helping write music for movies like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Peter Pan when those two were in production. He shared with Jack Lawrence credit for the deleted song “Never Smile at a Crocodile” from Peter Pan.
In 1942, Churchill moved from Peter Pan to Dumbo. He and fellow composer Oliver Wallace won an Oscar in the category “Scoring of a Musical Picture” for cowriting the score for Dumbo including the bizarre “Pink Elephants on Parade.” He also shared an Oscar nomination with Ned Washington for the song “Baby Mine” from Dumbo for Best Song. Churchill reteamed with Larry Morey for 1942’s acclaimed Bambi, which featured “Little April Shower.” Sadly, after completing work on Bambi, Frank Churchill, aged forty, committed suicide on May 14, 1942, at his ranch north of Los Angeles in Castaic, CA. He is purported to have died “at the piano” of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Although there is some speculation that Churchill’s suicide was a result of negative discourse with Walt Disney regarding his latest scores for Bambi, it was more likely due to his deep depression and bout with heavy drinking after the deaths of two of his closest friends and fellow Disney orchestra members who had died earlier that year within a month of each other. He was buried in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery near Hollywood. A year later, Churchill received two posthumous Oscar nominations. The first was for cowriting the score to Bambi with Edward Plumb, and the second for cowriting the song “Love is a Song” from Bambi with lyricist Larry Morey (1905–1971).
My collection includes the following work by Frank Churchill:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Selections
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources