Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Who's Who: Disney's First Star!

Walt Disney liked to say, "I only hope that we don't lose sight on one thing -- that it was all started by a mouse.

But, was it?

When Disney's Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc., went bankrupt in 1923, Walt used an unfinished print of "Alice's Wonderland" to land a contract for six Alice comedies from Margaret Winkler.

The star of those first  13 Alice comedies was a child actress named Virginia Davis.

The Alice comedies were Walt's "reversal" of rival cartoon maker Max Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" cartoons, where Koko the clown climbed out of a bottle of ink to interact with live actors. Disney gave it a "twist" but putting Alice (Virginia Davis) into the cartoon world. The scenes were filmed in front of blank backgrounds (including billboards draped with white canvas), and then cartoons were drawn directly onto the cells. Walt's brother, Roy Disney, was the original camera man, while Walt directed Virginia (yelling instructions to her on how to act, since his voice was not recorded as these were silent films) and then drew the cartoons.

Alice was accompanied in her adventures with a cat (who strongly resembled Felix the Cat) named Julius. 

Alice and Julius in cartoon land.  (

Virginia Davis and her mother actually moved from Kansas City to Hollywood so Davis could continue to appear in the Alice comedies -- a condition of the contract awarded Disney by Margaret Winkler.

The Alice comedies had very little capital funding, but Walt's enthusiasm and Virginia's love of being able to "be a tomboy" and play act exciting adventures, as well as the novel animation / live action combo, made the films popular at the theater.

Walt Disney's signing of the contract to produce the Alice comedies for Margaret Winkler on October 16, 1923, is recognized as the founding date of The Walt Disney Company. Certainly Disney's vision, skill, daring, imagination, and ceaseless desire to "plus" his product (every film was an improvement over the previous ones) were essential to the success of the new company, but the whole enterprise was built around a little girl just six years old, who is recognized as Disney's first real star: Virginia Davis. Other girls played Alice in later films, but Davis was the one who started it all.

In 1988, Virginia Davis became a "Disney Legend" for her contribution to the Walt Disney animation.

From all of us who love all things Disney, thank you to the woman who, as a very little girl, helped Walt Disney bounce back from bankruptcy and failure to begin the empire which continues to thrive and delight people of all ages to this very day.

Thank you, Virginia Davis!

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