Written by Ray Pointer
Nearly all of the Disney histories have taken a literal approach to Walt’s remark that “it all started with a mouse.” This statement was a simplification based on the success of Mickey Mouse, suggesting that Disney came out of nowhere and became an overnight success. In many ways there was a design to this logic since Disney did not own any of his creations before Mickey, which is the case of his silent era work. Only recently did the Disney organization acquire limited rights to Oswald the Rabbit, the ancestor to Mickey. Disney’s initial efforts, the Laugh-O-Grams and the Alice Comedies have become “orphaned films,” having been lost in the sea of the Public Domain. None of Disney’s works were registered for copyright until late 1926. And once the original releasing companies became defunct, the films and their negatives disappeared as well, with only a selection of prints surviving in varying image quality.
At this point in time it is interesting to see the renewed interest in Disney’s works from 80 years ago, which is being inspired by the wave of new books on Walt Disney, the man. Because of this, people are curious to see his earlier films described in the text since many of them contain animation and art work done by Walt. Seeing them makes Disney more a human and less of a myth. They also fortify his success story, showing raw ambition and the tremendous progress that he made in such a short time. And the most important phase was the period of 1923 to 1927, when Disney evolved as a cartoon producer with what has come to be known as Alice in Cartoonland.
The title, Alice in Cartoonland has a fascinating history ever since it was coined by Diane Disney Miller in the writing of her biography on her father, The Walt Disney Story in 1955. Over the years, the series has informally been referred to by this title, but no series or trademark was ever registered using it at the time. It was officially known simply as Alice Comedies, which was an established trademark as displayed in the original theatrical title cards. But the real interest in the Alice Comedies goes beyond the films themselves. It is the untold story of their cinematic mother and the discoverer of Walt Disney — Margaret Winkler.
Margaret: Mother Of Alice
In the history of Animation, the role of Margaret J. Winkler cannot be overlooked. At age 27, she was the first woman to produce and distribute animation. Without her, there would never have been an Alice Comedy series, and the world may never have heard of Walt Disney. Peggy, as she was more intimately known. had been the executive secretary to Harry Warner for seven years. Her first experience with animation came in 1917, when the Warner’s Film Exchange bought the New York and New Jersey rights to Mutt and Jeff. When Max Fleischer started his studio in 1921, he came to Warner’s for distribution, and Pat Sullivan left Paramount, bringing Felix the Cat. Peggy showed great interest in Felix, but her boss did not. The Warner Brothers were eager to enter feature film production and were no longer content as brokers for states rights distribution of short subjects. Since Harry Warner respected Peggy’s energy, intelligence, and business sense, he gave her the Out Of the Inkwell and Felix contracts in 1922. This generous act started Peggy on top with two of the most important cartoons series of the silent era.
Since this was male-dominated industry, Peggy reasoned that she should avoid any indication of a female connection to her company. She cleverly chose the initials “M” for Margaret and “J” because it just sounded good. Within a year, the M. J. Winkler Company was established as a quality short subject distributor of cartoons, comedies, and travelogues. But Felix was the biggest attraction with the biggest problems. Peggy started having conflicts with Pat Sullivan and started looking for a new type of cartoon as a backup. It was at this time that she saw Walt Disney’s pilot titled, Alice’s Wonderland. She was impressed with its inventiveness and quickly commissioned a series of six films without ever having seen Disney’s facilities. The irony is that Disney’s first studio was nothing more than a wooden one car garage behind his Uncle Robert’s home in Hollywood.
The Alice series got off to a rocky start. In order to meet his monthly release commitments, Disney developed live action scenarios that framed the animated sequences staged as either a dream or a story told by Alice. These live action sequences bore a resemblance to the popular Our Gang comedies produced by Hal Roach. While it was a time saving production device, it provided too much plot for the short film format, and it was apparent that Walt needed guidance. This was the major criticism of his first entry in the series, Alice’s Day At Sea, which seems slow moving, lacking in precise timing. Peggy Winkler instructed Walt to send his negative to her for re-editing. Walt’s second film, Alice Hunting in Africa met with the same reaction.
In spite of it all, Peggy had confidence in Walt, and encouraged him to improve the comedy, photography, and most of all, the animation. But as Peggy had been nurturing Disney’s career, her husband, Charles Mintz proved to be severely critical.
He complained about the quality of Disney’s work, and being the chief film salesman for the Winkler Company, his judgment seems based on the hugely popular Felix The Cat. While Alice was amusing, it was a visual gimmick based on a single premise. In all, Mintz saw his wife’s tutoring as a liability to the company, yet Peggy insisted on staying with Walt, and she outlined in detailed letters what had to be improved to meet her expectations. Walt soon established a formal studio in the back his uncle’s real estate office and. brought in most of his Kansas City staff including Ub Iwerks, Friz Freleng, Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, and Ham Hamilton. With his staff in place, they made the improvements that were ordered. Alice Hunting in Africa was reworked as Alice in the Jungle and release a year later.
While the live action wraparounds helped cut down on animation production time, they were not in line with Peggy’s vision for the series. Peggy helped Walt realize that the Alice series should be something better than a second-rate imitation of Our Gang. Oddly, surviving prints of Alice Hunting in Africa do not contain any live action prologues or wrap-ups, which suggest an early realization of what Peggy was seeking. It was the animation fantasy that was of primary interest, and this offered a means of producing the type of comedy that Peggy was demanding. So the live action sequences were discontinued for a totally animated environment. But as Peggy continued coaching Disney, her problems with Pat Sullivan continued to brew. As a counter attack, she encouraged Walt to develop a sidekick to Alice that resembled Felix. Disney resisted at first, but after tremendous urging from Peggy, he reluctantly obliged. The result was Julius the cat, the first Disney cartoon star.
The First Disney Cartoon Star
The vague resemblance to Felix the Cat was more than coincidental. After the delivery of the first Alice Comedy, Alice’s Day at Sea (1923), Peggy Winkler suggested that Walt create a cartoon animal co-star for Alice with a hint that he might consider a cat. Walt’s answer came in the reuse of his Laugh-O-Grams’ cat character. But Alice’s Wild West Show (1924), Alice has a dog side kick. Peggy continued goading Walt to the point of ordering him to purposely copy Felix. This bothered Walt, and in the films that followed the cat gradually evolved into a design similar to Felix with a smaller head and Felix-like jaw points, white mittens, and feet. This led to the finalization of the character that became Julius the Cat.
These design changes were subtle enough to avoid an outright copy of Felix with a smaller, round head sans jaw line points, and a larger body. At a quick glance, the only similarity between Felix and Julius is that they are both black with pointed ears and a white facial mask. Miss Winkler’s reason for encouraging the Felix look-alike was to strike back at Sullivan. As a result, several of the Alice Comedies were distributed with alternate titles such as Felix Cans the Cannibals instead of Alice Cans the Cannibals to purposely exploit the name and reputation of Felix and sell the films to an unknowing film audience. Julius made his debut along with Maggie Gaye, the modern Alice in Alice Solves the Puzzle (1925). And when Alice Hunting in Africa (1923) was reworked, Julius replaced the Laugh-O-Grams cat in Alice in the Jungle (1925).
The Four Faces Of Alice
During the four years that the Alice Comedies were produced, the Alice character was portrayed by four different girls — a new one each year. When Peggy Winkler originally commissioned the series, she requested “Little Virginia Davis,” who had appeared in the pilot film. Little Virginia had been a child model and was already an accomplished actress at the age of four. But when the Alice contract was renewed for the second season it was for less money. Virginia’s mother decided not to renew, and Walt spent the money on the animation, while replacing Virginia with Dawn O’Day, who appeared in only one Alice Comedy, Alice’s Egg Plant. She was later to be known in the Warner Brothers’ B pictures of the late 30’s and early 40’s as Anne Shirley.
Walt Disney’s original vision of Alice was a miniature Mary Pickford with long cigar curls. But by 1925, Charlie Mintz and the film salesmen felt that Walt’s ideas were too “Victorian.” They felt that Alice needed a more modern look. The solution was found in a four-year old named Margie Gaye. She sported a pageboy hair style typical of 1920’s flappers — more of a Louise Brooks type. Margie made her debut as the modern Alice in Alice Solved the Puzzle (1925), and continued in 31 Alice Comedies over the following year.
While most of the cartoons were built around simple fantasy concepts, political themes were occasionally worked into the plots. Alice’s Egg Plant (1925) suggests Disney’s belief that labor strikes were caused by Communist agitators, which became a real issue for him 16 years later. Alice and the Dog Catcher (1924) takes on an innocent parody of the Ku Klux Klan with the children wearing paper bag hoods. The joke is that their Master at Arms is the “token” Black kid similar to Farina in Our Gang, who wears a bag painted black with the same letters KKK as the others. While intended as a joke, this is quite a daring statement about integrating a white supremacist group. Another reference to the Klan is the white-hooded “Dognappers” in Alice’s Mysterious Mystery (1926).
The fourth and final Alice was portrayed by an older professional child actress, Lois Hardwick, who was another junior flapper type. She was first seen in Alice’s Circus Daze (1927) and remained until the series ended. From 1923 to 1927, Walt Disney made 56 Alice Comedies. When sound came in, the Winkler Film Company sold a number of the 1925-1927 Alice films to Alfred J. Weiss, who reissued them as sound versions through the Raytone Corporation. The motivation behind this was clearly to make a quick buck and exploit the name of Walt Disney since he did not own the series. This was a sensitive issue for Walt, who was building a reputation on well-produced sound cartoons, only to have his name associated with these dreadful re-releases. While the soundtracks seem somewhat irritating, in most cases they stand as the only surviving examples from this period since the majority of the original silent versions no longer exist.
It has been said that the Disney Studio began with a mouse. But it was really born of a little girl named Alice, and her cinematic mother, Margaret Winkler. Without her there would never have been an Alice series and the world may never have had a Walt Disney or the entertainment icon that bears his name.
Crafton, Donald, Before Mickey, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.
J.B. Kaufman and Russell Merritt, Walt in Wonderland, The John Hopkins University Press, 1993