Before the Mouse: Meet Alice, Walt Disney’s silent-film star

May 23, 2010 | 4:47 p.m.


Alice silent film Walt Disney

Hollywood history specialist Susan King is now writing for Hero Complex every week. Today’s topic is a musical return to the silent-movie years of Walt Disney.

Before Mickey Mouse hopped on that steamboat to stardom, Walt Disney had another star — Virginia Davis, the curly haired little charmer who played Alice on the screen.

Sunday night, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents the 21st Silent Film Gala at Royce Hall, and a special treat has been added to the evening’s program: The 1924 Walt Disney short, “Alice’s Wild West Show,” starring Davis. Alex Rannie composed the score that the orchestra will perform to accompany “Alice’s Wild West Show.”

The film is being presented in honor of the late Roy Disney, who had been a great supporter of the silent gala over the years.

The gala’s feature presentation is Buster Keaton’s delightful 1928 silent, “The Cameraman,” with a new score by conductor Timothy Brock.

Davis, who died last year at the age of 90, holds a singular spot in cinema history as Disney’s first star, although the legacy is often overlooked all these years later.

In the early 1920s, Disney was trying to make a name for himself in Kansas City with his Laugh-O-Gram Films. He hired the diminutive young actress in 1924 to star in “Alice’s Wonderland,” which featured live action and animation.

When his studio went belly up, Disney came west to Los Angeles, where Winkler Pictures signed him to make a series called the “Alice Comedies.” Disney persuaded Davis’ parents to move out to Los Angeles, and it was worth the journey — the young actress made a total of 13 “Alice” films for Disney.

Later in her life, Davis said that working on the “Alice” films was “a great time — full of fun, adventure and ‘Let’s pretend!’ I adored and idolized Walt, as any child would. He would direct me in a large manner with great sweeping gestures. One of my favorite pictures was ‘Alice’s Wild West Show.’ I was always the kid with the curls, but I was really a tomboy, and that picture allowed me to act tough. I took great joy in that.”

— Susan King


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Photo credit: Walt Disney Co.


One Response to Before the Mouse: Meet Alice, Walt Disney’s silent-film star

  1. […] Kansas City and brought along the family of a young star named Virginia Davis, who starred in his silent-film “Alice” comedy shorts, which were distributed by Margaret Winkler and her company, Winkler […]

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