Yes. Virginia, there is an Alice

It occurrs to me that I’ve been neglecting to mention Disney cartoons in my blog. It’s time I remedied that.

When you think of Alice and Disney, “Alice in Wonderland” probably immediately comes to mind. Yet there is another Alice associated with Disney–a real-life Alice that predated her animated namesake and even predated the debut of some celebrated rodent with an alliterative name.

The “Alice” that is the subject of this post is the star of Disney’s 1920’s creation, “The Alice Comedies.” These were a series of silent shorts featuring a live juvenile actress who interacted with animated characters.

The actress in question was Virginia Davis McGhee, who passed away at the age of 90 in 2009. Disney released the films featuring Virginia under the general title, “Alice in Cartoonland.”

Walt Disney had seen the “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer, which featured animated characters interacting in the real world. The Fleischer brothers’ cartoons gave Disney the idea to create a series of cartoons which reversed the idea behind the “Out of the Inkwell” series by placing a real person in animated settings.

Disney filmed the short “Alice’s Wonderland” featuring Virginia performing in front of a billboard with a white cloth draped over it in a vacant lot. Often, Disney would recruit neighborhood children and other passersby to participate in the productions. The cast and crew often had to hide if the police approached because Disney had no permit to film the features. Disney told Virginia, who had previous modeling and acting experience, which expressions to project in the various scenes. Cartoon artists added animated characters to the scenes after the cameras filmed Virginia’s performances.

Disney originally filmed “The Alice Comedies” in Kansas City, MO, where he was based at the time and where the Davis family lived. Due to financial difficulties he faced in Kansas City, Disney was forced to leave for California and ended up in Hollywood. As it turned out, Virginia Davis faced health problems and doctors advised her parents that she needed to be in a climate warmer and drier than the one in Kansas City. The “warmer, drier climate” in this case turned out to be Hollywood, CA and when the Davises arrived there, Disney continued filming “The Alice Comedies.” An animated cat named Julius started appearing in the shorts with Virginia and the cat proved to be more popular than Virginia. Disney thus proposed a cut in pay for Virginia, which her mother rejected, so Virginia ended her involvement in the cartoons in 1924. It was not until 1928 that Mickey Mouse would make his debut.

Three other actresses played the role of Alice after Virginia’s departure and there were a total of 56 “Alice” shorts. McGhee appeared as Alice in over a dozen of these films. The end of her association with “The Alice Comedies” did not signal the end of Virginia’s involvement with Disney cartoons, however. In 1940, McGhee did voice over work for the film, “Pinocchio.”

I have attached a link to the short, “Alice Gets in Dutch” from Youtube. My reference information comes from an article about Alice Davis McGhee which appeared in the August 21, 2009 edition of The New York Times.


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February 2010
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