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Thursday Treasures

July 18, 2013

Disney and Carroll:

A Wonderful Collaboration

By Kelvin Cedeno

There are some things in life that work wonderfully on their own, but when fused together with something else, make for a special dynamic that few could dream of. Take the imaginations of two people, for example. One of them: a mathematician and photographer who wrote a novel for a dear friend of his and was persuaded to publish it (along with a sequel). The other: a film producer and studio chief who made his mark in animation, live-action, and theme parks. The two would never meet, but their combined talents would make for a long and rich history that would inspire millions of people around the globe. The men in question are, respectively, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and Walter Elias Disney.

Walt Disney and Lewis Carroll

Carroll was friends with the Liddell family, and on a fateful boating trip with the three children on July 4th, 1862, told a story to them about the strange and fantastical adventures of a little girl who discovered an underground world. He named the heroine of the story after the middle Liddell daughter: Alice. Her insistence at him putting down all the stories on paper led to him writing Alice's Adventures Underground, a hand-written-and-illustrated book he gave to Alice November of that year. With some modifications and a title change, the book was published on November 26, 1865 as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The success of it inspired Carroll to publish a sequel six years later: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The world of children's literature was never the same again.

Disney was always inspired by the Alice books, and that's clear both in his personal career and in the legacy of the studio he founded. Throughout his lifetime, he would create three properties directly inspired by Carroll's works: the 'Alice Comedies', the Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror, and (most famously) his 1951 animated feature version. Even after his passing, the Walt Disney Company would continue to find inspiration for projects such as the Donald Duck short Donald in Mathmagicland, the Disney Channel series 'Adventures in Wonderland,' and most notably, a live-action sequel to the original stories directed by Tim Burton.

This series will be examining the films, shows, and featurettes listed above along with a few others. In doing so, it's hoped that a greater appreciation will be had for the indelible combination that is Disney and Carroll.

Alice's Wonderland

Part 1: Alice's Wonderland (1923)

In 1922, Walt Disney at the age of 20 established Laugh-O-Gram Films, a production company in Kansas City, Missouri tucked away behind a real estate office. The shorts under this banner were primarily made of modernized fairy tales. Unfortunately, his distributor, Pictorial Clubs, swindled him in paying only a small percentage of the money owed as they were facing financial woes of their own. Laugh-O-Gram films was taking a nose dive fast, but a local dentist commissioned an educational short film from the studio called Tommy Tucker's Tooth. The $500 made from the short was used by Walt to make one final short for his languishing studio: Alice's Wonderland.

His idea was to film a live-action girl and place her in an animated world, a reversal effect to the typical shorts of the time which placed animated characters in live-action. Walt found just the Alice he needed in Virginia Davis, a four-year old whose image on a Warnerker's Bread advertisement caught his eye. Because his studio was filing for bankruptcy, Walt managed to convince Davis' mother Margaret to film the short at her house. He himself appeared at the beginning of the short as an animator showing Alice how his drawings come to life. Contrary to popular belief, the actress playing Alice's mother is not Virginia Davis' actual mother, Margaret, but is instead her aunt. Money was running so tight that not only could Walt only use one take for each scene, but he wasn't even able to complete the short. The short would be the end of Laugh-O-Gram Films.

$40 in his pocket and his studio equipment sold off, Walt moved to Los Angeles, shopping around for a distributor for Alice's Wonderland. He finally found one in the first female producer and distributor of animation: Margaret J. Winkler of Winkler Pictures. She was enchanted by the short and put Walt and his brother Roy under contract for a year. On October 13, 1926, the two started a new production company called The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, better known today as The Walt Disney Company.

Alice's Wonderland Posters

The rest, as they say, is history. Virginia Davis would go on to make 13 more shorts for Disney in what would be called the 'Alice Comedies' (and outtake footage from Alice Hunting in Africa was later used for another short titled Alice in the Jungle, thus bringing her total to 15). 42 'Alice Comedies' would follow, 31 starring Margie Gay, one starring Dawn O'Day, and the final 10 starring Lois Hardwick.

Watching them, one thing is clear: these aren't adaptations of the Lewis Carroll books. However, the inspiration is still noticeable. Obviously, the title of the pilot (Alice's Wonderland) is a dead giveaway, and it does deal with the idea of a girl from our world dreaming of a world of fantasy. Like Carroll's stories, talking animals are present and occasionally dress as humans. The notable difference besides characterization and plot mechanics, of course, is that in the Alice books, Alice is usually ignored at best or antagonized at worst. She and the denizens of Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land don't see eye to eye, and thus the books are filled with situational humor from these opposing forces. In Alice's Wonderland, however, Alice is immediately welcomed with great fanfare and adoration. In that way, it makes more likely to be the dream of a child than the strange happenings Carroll's heroine concocts.

Alice's Wonderland

For years, portions of the short were missing (reducing it to eight minutes), but for the Walt Disney Company's 75thanniversary in 1998, the short was restored to its full 12-minute length by Scott MacQueen. Because the ending had never been shot, Alexander Rannie, the appointed composer of this and six other restored Alice Comedies, arranged for an ending to be created using footage from the beginning of the short. This complete version can only be found on the 2005 DVD release of Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts 1920s-1960s as part of out-of-print Walt Disney Treasures series. On the Masterpiece Edition DVD, Un-Anniversary Edition DVD, and 60thAnniversary Edition Blu-ray of the 1951 Alice in Wonderland, the abbreviated version of the short is included as a supplement as it's merely been transferred from release to release dating all the way back to Alice in Wonderland's Exclusive Archive Collection laserdisc from 1995.

As for the other 'Alice Comedies,' the Disney Rarities release contains an additional six shorts while 2007's 'The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit' (also a Walt Disney Treasures release) holds another three. Because the shorts are now public domain, four more of them can be found on VCI Home Video's 'Alice in Cartoonland' release along with shorts that have also appeared on the other two aforementioned DVDs. Below is a breakdown of which shorts are on which release.

Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities ' 1920s - 1960s: Alice's Wonderland, Alice's Wild West Show, Alice Gets in Dutch, Alice's Egg Plant, Alice in the Jungle, Alice's Mysterious Mystery, Alice the Whaler

Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Alice Gets Stung, Alice's Balloon Race, Alice in the Wooly West

Alice in Cartoonland: Alice in the Jungle*, Alice Solves the Puzzle, Alice's Eggplant*, Alice's Tin Pony, Alice Chops the Suey, Alice the Jailbird, Alice Ratted by Rats, Alice's Balloon Race*, Alice's Oprhan, Alice the Whaler*

* Indicates overlap with the Walt Disney Treasures

In the next part of this series, we'll be taking a look at the classic Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror (1936).

 

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