October 3, 2013
Disney and Carroll
A Wonderful Collaboration
By Kelvin Cedeno
As the short film Thru the Mirror
demonstrated, Walt Disney certainly had his mind on Alice in
Wonderland throughout the 1930s. His animated short subjects had
gained much acclaim and won Oscars nearly every year that decade.
Always the type of person to move forward, though, Walt had his
sights set on a feature film. There were a great deal of stories
that meant a lot to him personally from his childhood, but there was
a particular one he had in mind he wanted to bring to life. To do
so, despite looking forward, he would also look to his past for
inspiration on how to approach it.
Part 3: How Do You Get to Wonderland?
In 1932, Walt Disney decided he was going to make a
feature film of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. He made
inquiries to obtain the rights and was delighted to find that in
America, both Alice books went in the public domain in 1911.
Around the same time, popular actress Mary Pickford was interested
in starring in a film based on the books. She and Walt collaborated,
and it was decided that (like the 'Alice Comedies' that started all
this), it would feature Pickford surrounded by an animated
Wonderland. A Technicolor screen test was filmed, but before any
further progress could be made, a wrench appeared in Walt's plans.
Paramount Pictures was working on their own star-studded live-action
film that would combine both novels into one feature. While
Carroll's works were public domain in the United States, they still
had a copyright in the United Kingdom ' a copyright Paramount had
Years went by, and Walt still refused to let this
idea go. With the record-breaking and industry-changing success of
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he decided that instead of a
live girl in an animated world, he would make Alice fully
animated. In 1937, Walt had his story team get to work on treatments
for such a feature. Al Perkins did in-depth research on both the
books and Lewis Carroll and wrote an elaborate 161-page treatment
that broke down in detail how the various chapters of the book could
By 1939, artists David Hall and Ray Jacobs had come
up with an ornate Leica reel based on Perkins' treatment. Leica
reels featured storyboards presenting the on-screen action with
temporary voice actors in what was essentially a pre-visualization
of the feature. While most storyboards are done in a sketchy sort of
comic book panel style, the watercolor artwork presented by Hall and
Jacobs was far more lush and detailed, resembling concept art or
book illustrations (indeed, Disney would later use this artwork to
illustrate an edition of the first book in 1987).
This version of the film was quite faithful to
Carroll's text ' perhaps even too faithful. Focusing solely on the
first book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the
presentation included sequences that would not appear in the
finished film such as 'Pig and Pepper' (featuring the Duchess and
the Cook) and 'The Mock Turtle's Story' (featuring the Mock Turtle
and the Gryphon). It was decided that Alice spends too much time
monologuing during the first chapter of the book, something that
could be considered lethal for a film. To rectify this, the 'Drink
Me' bottle Alice finds in the hallway was made into a character that
resembled a ship's captain. For the Leica reel, actor Cliff Edwards,
best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, would voice
this persona. The character would later pop up again during the
White Rabbit's house sequence. Some of the alterations made to the
story would carry over to the final film such as bringing the White
Rabbit to the Mad Tea Party and making Alice the one on trial during
Despite all the work that went into it, Walt wasn't
impressed. He found Hall's take on the material too eerie and even
gruesome at times (the Hatter and Hare try to attack Alice with a
giant pair of scissors at one point, and she finds herself at the
guillotine during the finale). Feeling that fidelity to the text was
a hindrance that wouldn't translate well to film, especially for
American audiences, Walt encouraged his story team and artists to go
broader and not be afraid to make more liberal changes for the sake
of both story and comedy.
By 1941, Walt started ruminating again over his
original idea of using a live actress in an animated environment.
Gloria Jean and Ginger Rogers were names that were thrown about, and
interestingly, Rogers had narrated and sung on a record adaptation
of the story in 1944 which Disney created the album cover art for.
Again, always the forward thinker, Walt wondered if perhaps making
the film mostly live-action would do the trick as that medium was
something he was keen on pursuing. In 1945, he had Brave New
World author Aldous Huxley pen a screenplay for a live-action
feature, but it wasn't what one would expect.
Titled Alice and the Mysterious Mr. Carroll,
this wouldn't be a straightforward adaptation of Carroll's two books
but instead be a fictionalized story in the real world with several
animated Wonderland segments. In this version, Alice is a girl whose
parents are away in India. She's looked after by a strict governess
named Mrs. Beale and a meek guardian named Grove. Alice is friends
with Charles Dodgson, who in this film is keeping his pseudonym of
Lewis Carroll a secret for fear it'll interfere with his chances of
becoming a librarian. The story follows Alice and Charles as he
inspires her to believe in nonsense, and a stage performance of
Alice in Wonderland at Oxford helps transitions into the
animated segments. By the end, Dodgson's secret identity is
accidentally revealed by Alice, and a climactic meeting is arranged
with the Queen. The film would've essentially been for Alice
what Song of the South ended up being for Uncle Remus. Luana
Patten, who would become a child star staple of the Disney family,
was a serious contender for Alice in this version.
Simultaneously, Walt had sought advice from author
Robert Fontaine over how to approach a more direct adaptation.
Fontaine submitted a brief story treatment in which the Knave of
Hearts is actually a prince who's been transformed into a playing
card. Alice and the Knave develop a romance, but when he's falsely
accused of stealing the Queen's tarts, he's arrested and put on
trial. Alice goes on a journey through Wonderland to rescue him, and
while the events more or less play out as they do in the book,
Fontaine's treatment has the Queen be the cause of all the madness
behind-the-scenes in an effort to confuse Alice and scare her off.
Fontaine felt such additions would give the episodic story a greater
sense of purpose and suspense.
Walt still felt none of these approaches were quite
right. At this point, he gave up and decided that perhaps Carroll's
books weren't well suited to the film medium, after all (it's worth
noting that he and his staff had seen Paramount's 1933 take and
thought it was a disaster; the general public didn't think much of
it, either, despite all the money Paramount put into it in hopes of
saving the studio during financial crisis. The far less costly Mae
West picture She Done Him Wrong would be the studio's savior
that year). Ironically, although colleagues initially told Walt that
Alice was not a wise choice of a book to adapt, his staff was
now trying to convince him that he needed to do it. With the war now
over, the studio was in a place where it was able to produce
full-length animated features again after years of barely making by
via films compiled of short subjects. In 1947, alongside
Cinderella and Peter Pan (the latter being another
on-again-off-again project), pre-production would officially start
on Alice in Wonderland.
To be continued...