DVD Review: Alice in Cartoonland
Alice in Cartoonland
By John Seal
December 26, 2007
In 1923, a 22-year-old animator named Walt Disney — born in Chicago, but then resident in Kansas City, Missouri — directed a one-reel comedy entitled Alice's Wonderland, in which a young girl pays a visit to a film studio to witness the creation of a new cartoon. This was no ordinary cartoon, though — it blended animation with live action, and provided young Disney with his first big break, as well as the impetus (via the eventual bankruptcy of his Laugh-O-Gram Studios) to leave the Midwest and bring his talents to California. He would also bring a young actress, six-year-old Virginia Davis, with him, and together they would create 14 Alice cartoons. Davis left the team, but Disney would continue the Alice series for several more years, utilizing different child actresses in a further three dozen productions.
Almost 80 years after the fact, Ms. Davis resurfaced at the 2003 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where she received a rapturous reception and proceeded to answer audience questions during a lively half hour session (she's still with us today, at the age of 89), after which several of the Alice one-reelers, including Alice's Wonderland, were unspooled. Unseen for decades, these inventive little films put the lie to the charge that Disney was a hack who bled dry the anarchic sense of humor we associate with early animation — and indeed prove that he CONTRIBUTED to the anarchy — and were warmly received by the Castro crowd.
Since then, the Alice films have started to leak out in digital format. The best way to get a sampling of the series is via VCI's Alice In Cartoonland, an inexpensive disc that showcases ten cartoons in near pristine condition — though it doesn't include that first groundbreaking effort, which had already popped up (along with six other Alices) on the Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts DVD in late 2005. What sets the VCI set apart is the provenance of the prints, which were struck from 35mm negatives in very good condition. Purists may object to the 1930s period soundtracks, added to provide the shorts some additional commercial life and voiced by an anonymous but familiar-sounding voice actor, but you can always press the mute button!
First up is Alice's Orphan (1925), in which our heroine (Margie Gay, who essayed the role more than any other actress) and her cat companion Julius adopt a troublesome diaper-swaddled kitten abandoned in the snow. The film features very little of Alice, and when she's onscreen she does little more than gesticulate, a problem that undermines a number of films in the series. The traditional animated sequences, however, are a delight, especially when Julius gives his tiny brethren a bath. Scrubbed vigorously on a washboard, little Oscar (for so he has been named) is wrung out like a wet towel and forced to drink ink in order to assume his ‘normal' black shadings. Alice's Tin Pony (1925) features Alice and Julius as the proprietors of an Old West railway line entrusted with the safe transportation of a big payroll (we know it's so, because the shipping container helpfully says 'Big Pay Roll' on the side). Alice gets to drive the train, and this offers a far superior blend of live action and animation than does Alice's Orphan.