The Four Lead Actresses of Disney’s Alice Comedies (1923-1927)
The classic Victorian novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll has seen a number of film adaptations, the most famous of which is Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). Modern audiences are less familiar with an earlier Disney project called the Alice Comedies, a series of 57 short films that featured a live-action Alice having adventures in an animated Wonderland.
Walt Disney’s previous project—an animated series produced by Laugh-Grams Studios in Kansas City, Missouri—had been financially unsuccessful, resulting in bankruptcy. Walt used the last of his money and resources to produce Alice’s Wonderland (1923), which had begun as a Laugh-O-Gram project.
This first short was never released theatrically, but rather privately screened for cartoon distributors. Walt and his brother Roy soon signed on with Winkler Pictures, the studio behind the distribution of the Felix the Cat series (1919-1930).
The Alice Comedies were screened in theaters before feature films, and became the Disney brothers' first national success. Over its four-year run, the series cast four different actresses to play the title role.
Virginia Davis (1918-2009)
Virginia Davis was a student at Georgie Brown’s Dramatic School in her hometown of Kansas City. In 1923, Walt saw Davis in an advertisement that played between films at a local theater, and immediately decided to cast her.
Alice’s Wonderland was filmed at Davis’s home. It begins with Alice entering a studio, where she watches cartoons being drawn. She goes to bed that night and dreams she’s in that cartoon world, being welcomed by all the characters.
When the series was approved for distribution, the Davis family moved to Hollywood, where the rest of the shorts were filmed. Walt and Roy’s first studio was their uncle’s garage, where Walt directed and Roy worked as cameraman.
Davis's contract was officially severed in 1925, after she had done fourteen films. She took small, uncredited roles in a few live-action films and even auditioned to be the voice of Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Davis eventually left Hollywood for the New York School of Interior Design, and worked as a magazine editor and a real estate agent before retiring and moving to Montana. She maintained a friendship with Walt and was a guest of honor at film festivals and other events at Disneyland and Disney World.
In 1995, in an interview with the magazine Hogan’s Alley, Davis stated, “To be part of all that majesty and animation history is just heartwarming for me and I really feel privileged to have been part of it… It makes me think that perhaps I did accomplish something that is indeed a part of Walt Disney's history.”
Margie Gay (1919-2005)
Little is known about Margie Gay—born Marjorie Teresa Gossett in Muskogee, Oklahoma—as the Alice Comedies films are her only acting credits. She starred in 31 shorts, ten of which have been lost.
Gay's debut was in Alice Solves the Puzzle (1925), which was also the first appearance of the character Pete, a nemesis of Mickey Mouse. This film takes place on the beach, where Alice and her cat, Julius, try to solve a crossword puzzle. Pete, a collector of rare crossword puzzles, tries to steal it from her. He chases her into a lighthouse and corners her at the top. Julius comes to her rescue and knocks Pete off the lighthouse.
Alice Solves the Puzzle was one of the first animated films to be censored. As it was released during Prohibition, the Pennsylvania Censorship Board asked Walt Disney to cut out a scene where Pete smuggles a bottle of bootleg whiskey inside a pelican's mouth as he drives his boat past a customs inspector.
Pete appeared in several more Alice Comedies shorts as a foil to Gay’s Alice. This included Gay’s last film, Alice’s Auto Race (1927), in which he attempts to sabotage a road race that Alice and Julius are partaking in.
Gay dropped off the radar and eventually died at age 86.
Dawn O'Day (1918-1993)
Dawn O’Day was one of many temporary stage names of actress Dawn Evelyeen Paris. She also went by Lenn Fondre and Lindley Dawn before eventually settling on Anne Shirley, the name of the character she played in Anne of Green Gables (1934).
Born in Manhattan and raised by a widowed mother, Shirley was modeling for photographers by the time she was sixteen months old. She made her feature film debut when she was four, starting off with minor roles and going on to play the daughter of several prominent actors.
Shirley only appeared in one film in the Alice Comedies series: Alice’s Egg Plant (1925), an anti-union propaganda film that spoofed the Red Scare of the 1920s. Alice and her cat, Julius, are trying to manage an egg factory when a Russian labor organization sends them a rooster named Little Red Henski, who incites rebellion among the hens. Under his influence, they begin striking for shorter working hours.
Though Shirley went uncredited for several roles that followed, she nonetheless got to work with big-name actors like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young, and members of the famed Barrymore family. Finally, when she was nineteen, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Stella Dallas (1937), in which she played Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter.
Shirley continued acting to please her mother but retired at the age of 26, finishing strong with her role in Murder, My Sweet (1944) opposite Dick Powell. She would later admit, “By the time I was eighteen, I had discovered that I didn't want to be an actress forever… So, finally, I just walked away. I've never regretted that decision.”
She spent the rest of her days as a socialite among the Hollywood elite. Her daughter Julie Payne and granddaughter Katharine Towne also became actresses.
Lois Hardwick (1918-1968)
Little is known about Lois Hardwick. She starred in ten films in the Alice Comedies series, six of which have been lost.
Her first film was Alice’s Circus Daze (1927), which was about Alice and her cat, Julius, performing as acrobats. Julius walks a tightrope while holding several stacked chairs, with Alice sitting at the top. Julius then lights a cigar and accidentally burns the tightrope, and they fall to the ground.
Hardwick starred in the final film in the Alice Comedies series, Alice in the Big League (1927). Alice plays a baseball game with her Wonderland friends and takes on the role of umpire, only for her friends to object to the calls she makes.
After the series ended, Hardwick played the love interest, Mary Jane, in the Buster Brown films (1925-1929), a series of shorts based on a children’s comic strip. She stopped acting after that, only coming back under the Hollywood radar when she married actor Donald Sutherland in 1959. The marriage ended in 1966, and she died two years later.