Long before Snow White was serenading bluebirds, an Alice dressed in cowboy clothes was beating up bullies.
In the 1920s, before he was famous, Walt Disney created a series of animated shorts about a young girl and a magical world. The ‘Alice Comedies,’ which merged live actors with animation, were some of Disney’s first animated shorts and some of the first animated shorts to be produced in Hollywood. Their story shows Disney’s development as an artist as well as changing trends in early imagination. They also show a young girl engaged in play far more adventurous than what’s shown by later Disney heroines.
If you’re thinking “girl named Alice” and immediately jumping to a later animated feature by Walt Disney, well, you’re probably on the right track. While Disney’s shorts weren’t directly set in the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but a few references–notably, the fact that the first of the ‘Alice Comedies,’ produced in 1923, was titled ‘Alice’s Wonderland’–make the connection clear. However, notes scholar J.B. Kaufman, the similarities between the two pieces of fiction ends there.
‘Alice’s Wonderland,’ which uses methods common to early cartooning, was produced when Disney was still a struggling cartoon filmmaker in Kansas. In the first film, a live-action girl, played by child actress Virginia Davis, visits Disney in the studio and enters his magical cartoon world. The mixture of real life and cartooning was a norm in early cartoon filmmaking, as artists played with the new medium and its unprecedented promise of creating impossible scenes. This short was made when Disney and some colleagues were running Laugh-O-Gram Films, and was never released in theaters, according to PublicDomainMovies.net.
However, according to Wikipedia, “this short helped set the stage for what was to come in the later Alice Comedies, as it established the world as a playful dream and also introduced the elements which would soon define the series. The idea of setting a real-world girl in an animated world was at this point in film history still unique. The design and voice of the later series were all set by this original film.”
In 1923, Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt and Disney headed to Hollywood. While at Laugh-O-Gram, he had made a series of films with fairy-tale themes, but the Alice film was the only one turned into a series that became the first series of cartoon films produced in Hollywood and launched his career. Disney convinced Davis and her family to follow him, writes biographer Timothy S. Susanin. He went on to make a whole series of Alice shorts, beginning in 1924 with "Alice’s Day at Sea" and ending with "Alice in the Big League" in 1927.
These shorts offered Disney the opportunity to establish gags he would refine in his later work and establish his style, writes historian J.B. Kaufman. But although many of their characteristics pop up again later, the Alice in these films isn’t much like Disney’s other cartoon heroines–such as the Alice of 1951’s Alice in Wonderland. This Alice was a raucous prankster who rioted around with her companion, Julius the Cat, making mess and exploring. Davis, who portrayed Alice in a number of the shorts (but not all), recalled near the end of her life that her turn as Alice was “a great time–full of fun, adventure and ‘Let’s pretend!’ I adored and idolized Walt, as any child would. He would direct me in a large manner with great sweeping gestures. One of my favorite pictures was ‘Alice’s Wild West Show.’ I was always the kid with the curls, but I was really a tomboy, and that picture allowed me to act tough. I took great joy in that.”