When one thinks of Disney Characters, right off the bat Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck comes to mind. Or Pluto, Minnie or any of the world’s famous Characters Disney has made into household names. But before Mickey Mouse or before Oswald the Lucky Rabbit there was the little girl from the “Alice Comedies”. And she is unique in the fact that as a character she was a live little girl! The Alice Comedies were the first successful cartoon series with continuing characters that Walt Disney developed after the demise of his “Laugh-O-Grams” studios in Kansas City. This series of cartoons which featured a live little girl, “Alice” who interacted with cartoon characters was historically important in many ways. It started the “Disney Brothers” studios and most important, gave Walt the experience and helped him hone the skills and techniques he would use to became the most famous animator of all time.
It began when Walt made the cartoon called “Alice’s Wonderland” in 1923 when he was still with his Laugh-O-Grams studios. It was similar to the famous Dave and Max Fleisher’s “Out of the Inkwell” series “Koko the Clown’ where the cartoon clown was thrust into the real world. Walt’s cartoon had a live girl played by Virginia Davis, a four year old actress he had seen in an Advertisement by the Film Ad Company where he used to work, who entered a cartoon world and has adventures with the characters. But the film’s distributor went bankrupt and the film was never released.
After losing his first studio, Walt went to California and with his brother Roy, developed a series called the “Alice Comedies” and finally found a distributor in Margaret Winkler, who was already handling Pat Sullivan’s popular “Felix the Cat” and the “Out of the Inkwell” series. But she was having trouble with both the series and Walt’s timing was just perfect. She agreed to preview the series and insisted that Virginia Davis star in the roll of Alice. At this time, Walt had no animators, no studio or equipment. But borrowing money and by pure determination, he and Roy convinced Virginia Davis’s family to move to Californiaand he animated the first six Alice’s by himself, the first Alicebeing “Alice’s day at Sea”, released on March 1st, 1924. As the series became more successful, Walt brought in more of his old animators from Kansas City, Ub Iwerks, Rollin “Ham’ Hamilton and camera operator Harry Forbes.
Although Walt’s first professional cartoon series proved successful, he continued to have money problems with Charles Mintz, the man who married Margaret Winkler and soon took control over the company. He was demanding more and more from the Disney studios for improvements and wanted new cartoons produced every three weeks. The cartoons cost almost as much to make as Walt received in compensation. Walt was always asking for advances, which Charles was reluctant to do. This combined with the fact that after three years, the public was tiring of the series and it was running out of steam. There were a total of 56Alicecomedies made. During the run, the four actresses that playedAlicewere: Virginia Davis, Dawn “O Day (Who only starred in oneAlice), Margie Gay and Lois Hardwick.
TheAlice comedies gave Walt andRoythe experience and know-how to continue into the animation business. They had fair success with the series and finally the money needed to move into a bigger studio on Hyperion Ave in February of 1926. So althoughAlicewas a real person and not a cartoon character, she was a pivotal character in Walt’s early career.