This used to be Disney’s playground. His pride and joy began at the age of 19/20 when he began shooting his first series of films with a 4 year old actress named Virginia Davis. On October 16, 1923, “Alice’s Day at Sea”began production. So even though some people think it all started with a mouse, it really all began with a character named Alice.
Walt Disney clearly did not write the famous “Alice in Wonderland”, which was created by Lewis Carroll. Disney did feel that Alice in Wonderland was the perfect story medium for his early career as a filmmaker. It took him about twenty years to recreate Lewis Carroll’s story in its entirety.
Here’s an excerpt from the first film made with Virginia Davis playing Alice, taken from Youtube.
The films began shooting in Missouri, in Virginia’s actual home, because Walt was operating on a limited budget. Disney eventually moved the entire production to Hollywood, LA, where his brother Roy was recovering from tuberculosis. They set up a small studio in a garage, negotiating with a film distributor to produce one “Alice” picture a month.
Virginia was paid $100 a month starting out. By the end of the year it went up to $200 a year – which was a great salary for the early 1920s.
Some people think that Virginia Davis was eventually replaced by Disney because she aged out of the role. The truth is that she ended up moving on because her mother was not happy with her contract. Ms. Davis’ mom even turned down the speaking role of “Snow White”, which would have required her daughter to stop working for three years while the film was in production. Can you imagine living your entire life knowing that you turned down that role?
They always say “no regrets”. But I am sure she regretted her mother’s decision to turn down her new contract. Over the next twenty years, until the 1940s, Davis went onto work for other studios in other films, sometimes under the screen name of “Mary Daily”. After she was married in 1943, she slowly ended her film career to start a family.
In 2009, Virginia Davis passed away at the age of 90. August 15th will mark the anniversary of her death. Although there were several child actors before her, she certainly made her mark as one of the more memorable early film stars of the United States, even preceeding Shirley Temple (who also had beautiful curls).