The myth, promoted by Walt Disney himself, was that the Disney empire “all began with a mouse.” In fact, according to Walt in Wonderland, Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman’s book on the silent films of Walt Disney, it all began with a little girl. The Alice series of silent films starring a live-action little girl adventuring in a cartoon world became the foundation of Disney’s career. The choices made in the production of these films formed the basis of his style, his business, and even his life.
When the first of the Alice series was released in 1923, Disney was 21 years old, and employing a staff of teenage artists in a former real estate office in Kansas. By the time the last in the series premiered in 1927, he was running the Walt Disney Studio at Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles, a major studio designed specifically for animation, which became the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and countless other classics. It took just four years for this move from Main Street, Missouri, to Hollywood.
Virginia Davis, the first star of the Alice series, was a four-year-old dancer, actress, and model. Disney recognized that she would be ideal for the challenging pantomime required in these films, which feature the girl interacting with cartoon characters. “Walt would direct me and tell me what to do, to look scared or not look scared, to turn around, or if somebody’s behind you,”[sic] Davis recalled in a recent interview. “But he had it all in his head. And frankly, I think he had that kind of stuff even when he got into the Hyperion place and even when he got in his final studio. I think he had the whole story in the back of his head all the way along.”
Disney had begun as an illustrator for Kansas City’s Film Ad company. Soon he began to experiment with the company’s stop-action camera. With his brother Roy’s help, Walt made a short animated film in his family garage. He showed this sample to a chain of local theaters, and they agreed to buy a series of shorts. Disney’s first business, Laugh-O-gram pictures, was born. He recruited a team of animators, including Ub Iwerks, a talented artist who later became Disney’s chief animator. Disney’s only guide for his new enterprise was a book he had borrowed on animation techniques, which he used to teach his staff.
Disney grew immensely as both a director and a businessman during those first years. He had first financed his business by producing dental promotional films, and by taking home movies of babies that he sold to proud parents. He later learned to achieve self-financing through strategic business moves. Some of these methods, such as copyrighting and licensing all his characters, come from the hard lessons learned when he lost ownership of his main character, Oswald the Rabbit, to his distributors. These core business values, which became the foundation of his corporation, are illustrated in a 1926 contract with distributor Charles Mintz: Disney would make each picture “in a high-class manner,” but with the condition that “the nature of the comedies are to be left to me (Disney).” He further stipulated that “should the idea, or name of Alice Comedies be exploited in any way, other than motion pictures, such as toys, novelties, newspaper strips, etc., it is agreed that we shall share equally in profits derived there from.” These conditions, in addition to the key point that Walt would own the copyright to all the Alice Comedies, set a precedent for an industry previously controlled exclusively by distributors.
Disney set another precedent for the animation industry, then based mostly in New York, by relocating his studio to Los Angeles in 1923, at the urging of his brother Roy. The Disney brothers went on to become longtime collaborators, with Roy’s business management providing a practical grounding to Walt’s soaring imagination.
It is not only his business model that developed from these first choices, but also the Disney style. By taking the popular forms of the time and presenting them in novel ways, Disney was able to form characteristics of animated entertainment that are still the norm today. Cartoons starring mischievous little boys, direct offshoots of such comic strips as Little Nemo and Buster Brown, were very popular at the time. Disney, a great enthusiast of popular culture, had a fan’s ability to recognize what made something truly popular, and the entrepreneur’s ability to turn it around and make it new. Instead of the boy adventure theme, he made it about a little girl. He also reversed a then-popular technique of inserting cartoon protagonists in live-action settings and made it instead a live-action heroine in a cartoon world.
One of those cartoon characters was Julius the Cat, Alice’s trusty sidekick, who toward the end became the focus of the series. Eventually, Julius became rounder and more rubbery, developing first into Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before finally settling into Walt Disney’s alter ego, Mickey Mouse. Over time, Alice’s position in the series gave way to a starring role for Julius, and Disney’s interest in the cartoon world grew to the exclusion of the live action. Yet it’s the mix of the two that forms a crucial formula of Disney’s later work, both in style and story.
This juxtaposition of a real little girl with animated animals and objects developed into two parallel styles for Disney Studios: super-realism, and one which differentiated the personalities of the characters by the characteristics of their movements. This personality-based style has been called Disney’s most important contribution to animation and first began to emerge in the Alice films.
Virginia Davis was named a “Legend of Disney” in 1998. She still remembers “Uncle Walt” very fondly. ”When I got out of high school, I wrote him a letter,” she said recently. “It was just when he was starting to do Snow White, and it was at Hyperion Studios. And he wrote me a nice letter back, and invited me out to the studio. And he said, ‘It was so nice of you to remember me.’ Really, in his heart, he was still a country boy.”
Program details: Alice’s Wonderland (1923), Newman Laugh-O-grams (sample reel 1921), Alice and the Three Bears (1924), The Four Musicians of Bremen (Laugh-O-gram 1922), Alice the Peacemaker (1924), Puss in Boots (Laugh-O-gram 1922), Alice Gets in Dutch (1924), Trolley Troubles (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit 1927), Alice the Toreador (1925), The Mechanical Cow (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit 1927), and Alice’s Wild West Show (1924)
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by Michael Mortilla