It’s a bit shocking to think of lost Disney products. However, sixteen of the fifty-seven in the series are now lost, and one is only partially accessible today. What’s more, production of the first one completely bankrupted Walt’s short-lived Laugh-O-Gram Studios, which is part of why he ended up moving to Los Angeles. A group in Kansas City, Missouri, is trying to turn that original building into a museum. Walt took the rough cut of the first short and used it to essentially start his career. Without Alice, there is no Mickey.
Alice is a little girl, originally four-year-old Virginia Davis. In the first short, she stops into the studio, where she meets twenty-two-year-old Walt Disney and is shown the various animated shenanigans of the characters at the studio. She then dreams herself into their world that night. She would go on to have many more adventures that were half animated and half live action; she would be played in time by Margie Gay, Dawn O’Day, and Lois Hardwick.
These shorts, at least the ones I’ve seen, swing back and forth from boring to bonkers. They have no middle gears. They tend to feel padded—these are shorts that would be better suited to being seven minutes than ten, frankly—but will every once in a while present you with something like a dog about to be turned into sausages being led into a room marked “death chamber” while being prayed over by a canine priest. In another short, there’s a moment where a cat sneezes his face off as the only interesting bit of a sneezing sequence that must last a full thirty seconds or more.
You know you’re in for a wild ride when you see that one of the shorts is about whaling. It starts with at least a minute or two of the characters’ dancing on the deck of their whaling ship, which is cute at first but gets boring fast, but it features things like a proto-Mickey shoving something down a bird’s throat to make it lay eggs and actually nailing a goat’s hooves to the deck to keep it steady and then swinging back and forth as the ship heaves while milking the goat at the same time, meaning he’s pulling the udder along with him. What’s more, the short mostly seems to end because they’ve run out of time and also can’t decide whether to kill Our Heroine or the cute whale we’ve seen frolicking with its child, and those are kind of the choices, there.
Technically, of course, they’re a marvel. Animated films were only barely older than Walt, and he was a pioneer of combining live action and animation. Cel animation was only slightly over five years old. Even if Walt hadn’t done anything else, he would have been remembered for these shorts. They’d be the sort of thing film buffs would discover and be fascinated by for generations. Some of the sequences are still impressive; some of them involved turning the footage of Davis or the other girls into a series of photographs and then adding them to the animation, because it was too complicated to do what they were trying to do with the film.
The girls are charming, too. Davis in particular is notable for her charisma. None of the four would go on to particularly noteworthy careers. Davis did some acting as an adult and even worked in Disney’s Ink and Paint Department for a while. O’Day would eventually take the role of Anne in a movie adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even change her name legally to Anne Shirley. But Gay and Hardwick don’t even have their own Wikipedia pages. Still, their positions in Disney history and therefore the history of film is sealed by these appearances.
One of the strangest parts of the first one—which it must be said is relatively restrained, compared to the later ones—is seeing Walt so young. My own image of Walt, and probably that of quite a lot of other people, is sealed by how he looked in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The way he looked on TV, in short. He’s a child here; legally, he was an adult, but only just barely. These days, he wouldn’t have been considered old enough to rent a car. Ub Iwerks and the other animators are similarly young—Iwerks was still using the original spelling of his name. The medium was young, and these were very young men working in it. Their legacy would be astounding, and the seeds of it are clear.