Virginia Davis brought life to Disney animation


Funny thing about the Disney production empire: it did not all start with a Mouse. In fact, five years before Mickey was even a drop in the artist’s inkbottle, Walt Disney discovered his first star: a 4-year-old little girl named Virginia Davis.

At the time, Walt Disney lived in Kansas City, where he owned a company that produced silent animated cartoon shorts. In 1923, he came up with an idea to put a live-action girl in an animated world with animated animal characters (70 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). When Disney saw Davis in a commercial for Warneker’s Bread, he knew he’d found his girl. Alice’s Wonderland was born.

Keep in mind that this was the Twenties, when motion picture technology was rudimentary and animation was accomplished one cell at a time. The idea of shooting with a blue screen background was at least a decade away.

But Disney had a vision and when his Kansas City studio went belly-up, he moved to Los Angeles and sold Margaret J. Winkler on producing the Alice Comedies, provided Davis was part of the deal. Disney convinced Davis’ family to move from Missouri to Hollywood so she could star.

Davis, who died last week at age 90, appeared in the first 13 Alice Comedies. Her favorite was Alice’s Wild West Show because, despite her girly appearance, Davis was a tomboy and enjoyed the chance to act tough.

(I know what you’re thinking, but as far as we know, Davis was straight. She was married to Robert McGhee for 59 years, had two children and, by all accounts, was very happy.)

When Davis outgrew Alice and was replaced by another actress, she continued to act for a few years and did some voice work, including uncredited work on Pinocchio. She lost interest in acting not long after that, but she was a continual presence at Disney fan events.

I’d never heard of Virginia Davis until this week, but she was really Disney’s very first star. The Alice Comedies succeeded because Davis was such a charmer. And Alice’s success is what opened the door for Walt Disney to produce other projects. Perhaps Mickey would’ve come to life eventually regardless, but the cliché about Walt Disney Productions’ origins needs to be revised. In truth, it all started with a woman.

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