Walt Disney famously said, ” I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it all started with a mouse.”
It is certainly true that Mickey Mouse was the great catalyst for the world-changing success of Walt Disney. But it is not quite true to say that “it all started with a mouse.” Before Mickey came on the scene, Walt Disney had already created a movie star who was making him famous. Her name was Virginia Davis.
Walt Disney’s First Movie Star – Virginia Davis
In 1923 Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram studio was facing bankruptcy. Walt Disney and his brilliant animator, Ub Iwerks, were struggling to gain traction for their inventive and wonderful work. They created the novel idea of combining live-action with their wonderful animation. Disney remembered seeing an ad with adorable four-year-old Virginia Davis and immediately decided she would be the perfect actress to appear in a comedy called Alice in Cartoonland. While these low-budget comedies look rough today, they were incredibly inventive. And watching them today it is easy to see why they were so popular. The clever stories combined with the obvious appeal of a talented and pretty little girl with golden ringlets make the films quite charming. Click here to watch the first Alice film.
The Alice films were immeasurably important to Disney. His fledgling studio was struggling to stay afloat financially. And although he had garnered a local reputation, Disney was not yet a significant force in films beyond Kansas City. The Alice films would change all of that.
The Laugh-O-Gram studio went bankrupt. Disney was frustrated; he had faith in his creations, his talent, and his vision. He sent the completed “Alice’s Wonderland” to a New York distributor and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. He was determined to try to crack into Hollywood. The first Disney “studio” was established in Los Angeles – using part of the Holly-Vermont Realty real estate office!
The most important animated character of the time was the crudely drawn but wildly popular Felix the Cat. Fate intervened to help Walt Disney. Margaret Winkler was the top distributor of animation in the country. The jewel in her crown was representing the creators of Felix The Cat. However, her relationship with Pat Sullivan, the owner of the Felix franchise, soured and she needed a hot new property to represent. When she received the print of “Alice’s Wonderland,” Winkler recognized its quality and immediately wrote to Walt Disney to arrange a distribution deal. Part of the contract required that little Virginia Davis play Alice. Walt Disney quickly wrote back to Kansas City to arrange to have the little girl and her family moved to California at once. The next Alice comedy was completed within months and a franchise was born.
Virginia Davis loved playing Alice and was always very proud of having been the first movie star created by Walt Disney. After her death in 1990, Roy E. Disney graciously stated: “Ginny was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio’s history.” Davis herself
always praised Disney as a director, stating that he was very easy to work for and made it fun. Since no one had made an animated film combining live action with cartoons before, one can only imagine how exciting and unique it must have been for the director and his star!
A Cat Precedes The Mouse
Virginia Davis had a popular costar – Julius the cat. If you are familiar with Felix the Cat, the resemblance is unmistakable. Julius was the first animated star of a Disney film to repeat his appearance in many films. The cleverness of the interaction between Alice and Julius makes the films absolutely delightful. Today, the combination of live action and animation is not unusual. But Walt Disney created a new genre
that would influence not just cartoons but performers like Gene Kelly and film makers working in the realm of science fiction. Obviously, Walt Disney would use it to great effect in many future movies, most notably “Mary Poppins.”
The Alice comedies were very popular and quite revolutionary. Audiences loved them. The money created by Alice allowed Walt Disney to begin hiring staff, building larger studios, and establishing the Disney brand for a national audience. Virginia Davis made 14 of the comedies until a contract dispute ended her involvement. Disney would be playing throughout his illustrious career with contract issues. In this case, he also had to consider the fact that Virginia Davis was growing up and he needed younger actresses to play little Alice. Although each of the succeeding girls was quite good, none captured the popular imagination quite like Virginia Davis. She was Walt Disney’s first movie star
The End Of Alice – Walt Disney First Movie Star
Walt Disney and his staff were endlessly creative. In all, Disney created 57 Alice comedies between 1923 and 1927. Just as the Alice comedies were fading, Mickey Mouse was born. Although the Alice comedies are now more of a historical footnote, they are an important part of the Disney legacy.