Monday, August 24, 2009

Virginia Davis, Alice in Early Disney Shorts, R.I.P.

Virginia Davis, who worked in Walt Disney's revolutionary series of shorts known as The Alice Comedies, passed on August 15, 2009 at the age of 90.

Virginia Davis was born on December 31, 1918 in Kansas City, Missouri. She had started dancing and acting lessons when she was all of two years old. It was in 1923 that Walt Disney conceived of a series of shorts in which a live action, little girl would react with animated characters in an animated world. Walt Disney found the actress he wanted to play the little girl when he saw an advert for Warneker's Bread in a local cinema. Virginia Davis, then only four years old, was cast as Alice in the first of the series of shorts, "Alice's Wonderland." It would be one of the earliest films to combine live action with animation.

Sadly, "Alice's Wonderland" would not be released theatrically. Disney's Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt not long after "Alice's Wonderland" had been completed. Disney then moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles, California. He set about pitching his idea for a series of "Alice" shorts to various distributors, showing them "Alice's Wonderland." He had at last found a distributor in Winkler Pictures, ran by Margaret J. Winkler and her fiancé Charles Mintz. Disney then convinced Virginia Davis's family to move from Missouri to California so that she could star in more Alice Comedies.

Davis appeared in the first sixteen Alice Comedies. The series centred on Alice, who would somehow enter a cartoon world through various means (being hit on the head, going to sleep and dreaming, et. al.) at the beginning of each cartoon. Alice would have adventures in various settings, ranging from a Wild West show to Africa. She was also occasionally in danger, sometimes threatened by villains much as heroines in serials of the time were. Eventually Virginia Davis outgrew the role, whereupon she was succeeded by Margie Gay.

After leaving the Alice Comedies, Virginia Davis continued to act both in stage and on film. She appeared in the film The Greater Glory (AKA The Viennese Medley (1926). In the Thirties and Forties she appeared in such films as Three on a Match, Week-End in Havana, and Footlight Serenade. Her last film appearance was in The Harvey Girls. Davis would work for Disney again, working in the studio's ink-and-paint department and even providing uncredited voices for Pinocchio.

Virginia Davis attended the New York School of Interior Design. She worked as an interior decorator and later as decorating editor for Living for Young Homemakers. In the early Sixties she became a real estate agent.

Virginia Davis was Disney's first star pre-dating Mickey Mouse by five years. It was her charm and energy which largely powered the Alice Comedies and made them a success in their day. That success would allow Disney to move onto other projects, including the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts (a character whom Disney would lose to Charles Mintz) and still later the Mickey Mouse shorts. In many respects, then, Walt Disney Productions owed its existence largely to Virginia Davis. Her name does not come up often when discussing child stars of the silent era, but there is every reason it should.

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