Monday, August 24, 2009

Deceased--Virginia Davis

Virginia Davis
December 31st, 1918 to August 15th, 2009

No, Virginia Davis was not a philosopher or scientist but a representation of what early animation was when Walt Disney began his career in Kansas City, Missouri. Animation has come a long way since those days and those films are still charming.

"Virginia Davis McGhee, Early Disney Star, Dies at 90"


Douglas Martin

August 22nd, 2009

New York Times

Virginia Davis McGhee, who as a curly-haired 4-year-old child star easily beat Mickey Mouse to the punch to become Walt Disney’s first cinematic star, died last Saturday at her home in Corona, Calif. She was 90.

The Walt Disney Company announced her death.

Walt Disney was fond of saying that his vast success “all started with a mouse.” But Virginia Davis, not the celebrity rodent, was the fetching star of a series of short silent films, issued in the 1920s under the general title “Alice in Cartoonland,” that featured the live Alice interacting with cartoon characters.

Facing bankruptcy at the time, the young Disney received the backing to make his proposed Alice series on one immutable condition: Miss Davis, star of Disney’s first film about Alice, “Alice’s Wonderland,” must continue to play the role. The series turned out to be his first success. Mickey did not come along until 1928.

Virginia Davis was born on Dec. 31, 1918, in Kansas City, Mo. Her father was a furniture salesman who was often away on business. Her mother sent her to dancing and acting school and enlisted her as a model and actress.

One job was for a filmed commercial for Warneker’s Bread in which she ate a piece of bread slathered with jelly, smiled broadly and smacked her lips. Disney saw the ad and was impressed.

By that time he had set up his own studio in Kansas City and had enjoyed some success with cartoons. He had made a note of the success of the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, with their “Out of the Inkwell” series, featuring animated characters in the real world. Disney wanted to reverse the gimmick by placing a real girl among animated figures.

He recruited Miss Davis and, as payment, offered her 5 percent from any money he received from the first film.

“Alice’s Wonderland” was filmed with Miss Davis performing in front of a white cloth draped over a billboard in a vacant lot. Disney would tell her whether to look happy, sad or frightened. The animated characters were added later.

The plots of the “Alice” films usually had her falling into a dream or being knocked out, then finding herself in another world, not unlike the original story of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” There were no rehearsals, and scenes were shot just once. Disney had no permit, so cast and crew would scurry away if a police officer was near. Neighborhood children and other passers-by became part of the movie.

In an interview for Neal Gabler’s book “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (2006), Miss Davis — by then Mrs. McGhee — recalled Disney’s favorite instruction: “Let’s pretend.”

After the first “Alice” had been shot, Disney, burdened by debts, moved to Hollywood. One of his creditors in Kansas City had seized the only copy of “Alice.” Then Margaret Winkler, a film distributor, became interested. Disney managed to get his hands on a copy of the film, and Ms. Winkler offered him a contract, providing that Miss Davis remained part of the deal.

Unbeknown to Disney, a doctor had advised moving Virginia to a warmer, drier climate because of health problems that included pneumonia. Hollywood fit the bill. And Disney assured her father that California was a fine place to sell furniture.

By the end of 1924 Miss Davis was earning $200 a month, but an animated cat named Julius eventually began to steal scenes from her, even though she still received top billing. (The cat’s detachable tail was particularly captivating.) Disney proposed cutting Miss Davis’s pay to $25 a day. Miss Davis’s mother refused, and the girl left the series.

Altogether Miss Davis made more than a dozen “Alice” films. Three other child actresses succeeded her in the role in what Disney said was a total of 56 silent short films.

Miss Davis started school when she was 7 and went on to play small parts in films for other studios, including “The Harvey Girls” (1946) and “Weekend in Havana” (1941). She also did a vocal test for Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and voiced some supporting characters in “Pinocchio” (1940). She always referred to Disney as Uncle Walt.

In 1943 she married Robert McGhee, a Navy aviator. He died after 59 years of marriage. Mrs. McGhee is survived by her daughters, Margaret Sufke and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and three grandchildren.

She once recalled that she was not plagued by autograph hunters when she was a star. She couldn’t write yet.

"Virginia Davis dies at 90; played Alice in early Disney short comedies"

Years before Mickey Mouse was created, a little girl with a heart-shaped face, a sweet smile and long blond ringlets was the star of a young Disney's combination live-action/animation series.


Dennis McLellan

August 20th, 2009

Los Angeles Times

Walt Disney was a struggling young cartoon filmmaker in Kansas City, Mo., in 1923 when he came up with the idea of having a young girl interact with animated characters in a series of silent comedy shorts.

But who would play the girl?

He found the answer in an advertisement for Warneker's Bread that he saw on screen at a local movie theater: a little girl with a heart-shaped face, a sweet smile and long, blond ringlets.

Virginia Davis, a 4-year-old Kansas City native with two years of dance and dramatic lessons behind her, would earn a place in movie history as the Disney Studios' first star, appearing in the first 13 popular "Alice Comedies" produced by Disney.

Davis, whose married name was McGhee, died Saturday at 90 of age-related causes at her home in Corona, said Walt Disney Studios spokesman Howard E. Green.

"Ginny was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio's history," Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for the Walt Disney Co. and Walt's nephew, said in a statement.

"In fact," he said, "she liked to remind everyone that it all started with Alice, not Mickey Mouse."

Mickey's screen debut was still five years away in 1923 when Davis appeared in the first Alice comedy short, "Alice's Wonderland," which was partially shot in the Davis family home with Walt directing.

The film begins with Virginia visiting a cartoon studio, which is actually the interior of Disney's Laugh-O-gram Films office, and Disney himself shows her around. She then goes home, and asleep that night she dreams that she goes to Cartoonland.

Disney's financially troubled Laugh-O-gram Films went bankrupt several months after "Alice's Wonderland" was made, and he already had moved to California by the time he sold the Alice series to a New York distributor in 1923 on the basis of the first film.

The contract stipulated that Davis continue playing the title role, and she and her family moved to Los Angeles.

The ensuing eight- to 10-minute one-reel comedies starring Davis had titles including "Alice's Wild West Show," "Alice Hunting in Africa" and "Alice's Spooky Adventure."

"It was always a little story where I would get into the cartoon through a dream or I was hit on the head with a baseball and suddenly I'd find myself in a world of cartoon characters," she once explained.

Davis recalled in an interview for a 1998 Disney publication that Walt Disney "was very kind, very patient" as a director.

"I never heard a harsh word from him," she said. "When we were getting ready to film, he would explain certain sequences and how I should react: 'There are a lot of animals, wave to them.' Or, 'You're mad at someone.' He made it interesting and fun. It was a 'Let's pretend' sort of thing."

After the first series of Alice shorts were completed, Davis' mother and Walt Disney and his brother Roy didn't agree on Davis' pay for a second slate of Alice films, and she left the Disney studio.

Disney went on to make more than 40 other silent Alice shorts with three other young actresses playing the title role before the series ended in 1927.

But Davis, the series' first star, had made an impact.

"The series of Alice comedies was tremendously important in Walt Disney's career because it was his first successful series of films," said J.B. Kaufman, coauthor, with Russell Merritt, of the 1992 book "Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney."

"The charm and appeal and engaging qualities of Virginia Davis," Kaufman said, "had a lot to do with establishing the series as a success with audiences."

The daughter of a traveling salesman and a homemaker, Davis was born Dec. 31, 1918.

After leaving Disney, she continued working as a child performer on stage and in other films, including playing Joan Blondell as a child in the 1932 crime-drama "Three on a Match."

A Hollywood High graduate, she returned to the Disney studio in the mid-'30s, working about six months in the studio's ink and paint department and doing uncredited voice work on "Pinocchio."

Davis, who married naval aviator Robert McGhee in 1943, also had an uncredited role as a Harvey Girl in "The Harvey Girls," a 1946 MGM musical starring Judy Garland.

She later earned a degree from the New York School of Interior Design and worked as an interior decorator and as a decorating editor for the magazine "Living for Young Homemakers" before launching a career in real estate in the early '60s.

"Ginny was never one to brag about her Disney connection," her husband told the Kansas City Star in 2002. "It wasn't until years after we were married that she told me."

Kaufman said a turning point in the public "rediscovery" of Davis and her role in Disney's early career came in 1992 when Davis was invited as the special guest of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, an international silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.

"She was such a delight," he said. "She just charmed everybody, and reporters followed her all over town. She was the toast of Pordenone."

Davis is survived by her daughters, Margaret Sufke and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and three grandchildren.

Alice's Spooky Adventure


Alice's Wild West Show


Virginia Davis

Jeff Overturf's tribute.

[Jeff makes note of Walt Disney's work in Kansas City, Missouri when he worked at a film company that produced theater advertising. The name of the company was The Kansas City Ad Agency located at 28th and Charlotte. It was later the site of the United Film Company producing local commercials for paint companies, gasoline distributors, air conditioning manufacturers, insurance companies, etc. And the final tenant was Studio Sales and Service specializing in military boot camp photographs [Paris Island and Fort Dix], high school graduations and proms, little league sports activities, weddings, and specialized services for black and white photography, air brushing, and oil portraits.] Coincidentally, when I was taking my normal route through the city recently I was rerouted for road construction to traverse on Charlotte and discovered that the entire building was razed for a parking lot for the nearby Childrens Mercy Hospital. Walt Disney, when he became an independent animator, had a building on Troost Avenue. It is nothing but an empty brick structure now being restored by the efforts of film historian and entrepreneur Butch Rigby.]

1 comment:

Timothy said...

pretty cool, was totally unaware of this part of Disney....where else but POSP...