Walt Disney’s First Star: The Virginia Davis Interview

DavisMcGhee: I think it was once or twice a week. It wasn’t very much, and I think this is why later when the contract came up for renewal Mintz didn’t want to pay me on a monthly basis. He was more sold on the cartoon gags rather than the human interaction.

Province: My talks with Disney animators indicate that Walt had difficulty praising people to their face. Was this true in your case? Did he ever tell you how much he liked your work?

DavisMcGhee: Why yes, of course he did. He was always very very kind to me. I wrote him when I was in high school, just before Snow White came up, saying that I’d like to see him again. He wrote back and said “Nice of you to remember me.” I just sold all of those letters. Most of them were auctioned off.

Province: One of your films, “Alice the Peacemaker,” was unusual in that rather than filming you, photographs of you in motion were actually cut out and glued to the cells.

DavisMcGhee: They only did that in one scene where I ran. I remember that in one picture where I would run and spread my legs like the animated animals as though they were sailing through the air, and they did use photographs for that, yes. They took the pictures against the whitedrop and then inserted them in those spots and you can certainly see where they were inserted.

Province: Your arrival in Hollywood actually preceded that of Ub Iwerks, who was Disney’s creative right arm. Did you know him well?

DavisMcGhee: My father went back to Kansas City and Ub Iwerks drove out to California with him. I remember his name, but I can’t remember exactly which one he was if I saw a picture of him at that time. On one of the films we had a scene with several men and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them was Ub Iwerks. They photographed the animators too, or whomever was around, a friend or an uncle.

Province: Did you ever have the opportunity to watch Walt Disney or any of the other artists do any drawing for the films?

DavisMcGhee: No, I didn’t get a chance to see any of that until years later when I was a teenager and worked at the studio on Hyperion. I was going to do the live-action and the speaking voice of Snow White, and for all intents and purposes was Snow White until time for contracts and terms to be decided. I’d actually tested for it in the costume and wig, but I turned it down when salary and the terms came up. The salary was not acceptable. Roy was always kind of tight on money because they worked on a shoestring on so many things until they became very successful. The reason my mother took me out of it after the fourteenth Alice picture was that when my contract came up, they didn’t want to put me under another contract as such. They wanted to pay me for each day where perhaps I would be photographed for two or three different stories. The contract was for three years and written so that I couldn’t do anything else. I would be under an exclusive contract for whenever they wanted me and at their beck and call for one day. It was the same contract they offered me when I was supposed to play Snow White. They wanted to have me under contract for three or four years to do the speaking parts and the live action during its making, but I would only be paid for the days I actually worked. The salary was not acceptable and Mother said no.

Province: What had been the terms of your first contract for the Alice films?

DavisMcGhee: It was about a 100 dollars a month. I have a copy of the original letter; I can check to find out exactly how much, but I think that was the amount. The second picture was for 20 dollars more or something like that. Very little money really, but in those days money went a lot farther.

Province: Do you think Walt was really having money problems or trying to take advantage of you?

DavisMcGhee: He was having money problems because Mintz kept cutting his budgets and making him deliver the films in shorter periods of time. After Mintz married Mrs. Winkler, he took over the distribution business and she really didn’t have too much to do with it any more. Mintz had a big ego and wanted things his way. He really did do Disney dirt.

Province: When these unacceptable contract renewal terms were laid out, your mother wrote to Charles Mintz in New York. Did she receive an answer from him?

DavisMcGhee: He threatened to replace me if I wouldn’t appear under the new terms of the contact. He wrote that he still wanted me, but under his terms. All of the the time he had someone else, perhaps a relative, in mind, and Mother would not accept his terms.

Province: As I’m sure you’re aware, Mintz later cheated Disney out of Oswald the Rabbit and a bit later, Pat Sullivan, who produced Felix the Cat, was another one of his victims.

DavisMcGhee: That’s where [Julius] the cat in the Alice films came from. It’s an interesting story. He really wasn’t a very nice man. It’s too bad it happened but that’s the way it was then. It was the promoter who controlled everything.

Province: As a sidebar, Margaret Winkler just passed away a couple of years ago. She was well over 90.

DavisMcGhee: I didn’t know that. I would have loved to have contacted her.

Province: How did your parents feel about this development since they and Walt were so close?

DavisMcGhee: I think they were mostly upset with Mintz and they felt he was not being fair with anybody. He later intimated that there was a little friend of theirs that got into the films after I left. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know. He wanted someone a little more like Clara Bow and I had those long curls.

Province: Your Alice does look like a pint-sized Mary Pickford.

DavisMcGhee: That was the style at the time the films were done. But my mother certainly would have put me in a different dress and fixed me up if everything had been done correctly. I think Mother was smart enough though to realize that the live-action that Walt was doing was being put aside in favor of the cartoon gags, so it really wasn’t doing me any good.

Province: There were no ill feelings between you and Disney when you left?

DavisMcGhee: No, not at all. It was Mintz. Walt never had any ill feelings toward me. I could still continue to go out and see him. He’d always come up to me and put his arm around me and say, “How are you doing, Virginia?” I always had entree to his office if I wanted to use it. We continued to be friends and after Snow White, he gave me a job. He taught me how to ink and paint and I also did some voices for a while.

Province: Did you apply at the studio for an ink-and-paint job?

DavisMcGhee: I received a call. It was one of those nice things that happened. Walt asked me if I would like to work at the studio. I told him I didn’t know anything about it. He said, “Well you can learn, c’mon.” I usually don’t publicize that because I was only there about six months. I learned how to paint and ink cells. I was just 16 and fresh out of high school. It was a great experience and fun to do.

Province: What Disney films did you do voice work on?

DavisMcGhee: I can still hear one of my voice tests for Snow White in the film. I also did some of the little boys’ voices in Pinocchio. Again, Walt always used people who happened to be around.

Province: The irony that Snow White was just released last week on videocassette is not lost on me. With 12 million units in advance sales, do you have any regrets that you did not do her voice for the film?

DavisMcGhee: Not really. I don’t think it did any of the people any good as far as a career was concerned. Most of the information as far as who did the voices was kept under wraps for a long time. It’s only been fairly recently that they’ve gotten any credit. My live-action was all photographed in one day. Russell Merritt says he’s seen it, but I haven’t.

Province: Do you recognize anything in Snow White animated from your live-action footage?

DavisMcGhee: A little dance step or two and a curtsy.

Province: Could you give a brief assessment of the Alices who followed you?

DavisMcGhee: Now do you expect me to say they were better or even badmouth some of them? Don’t you know that I was best! [laughs] In all honesty, they didn’t have all that much to do because the cartoon characters were taking over. The comedies started going downhill after Mintz began dictating to Disney and demanding more gags and more films for less money.

Province: A little girl named Dawn O’Day followed you as Alice and lasted only one film before moving on to other things.

DavisMcGhee: Yes, Dawn O’Day. She later changed her name to Anne Shirley and she just died about two months ago. When we were both 6 to 10 years of age, we used to compete for a lot of the same roles because we were close to the same age. We both appeared in Mervyn LeRoy’s Three On A Match.

Province: Did you ever discuss your tenures with Disney?

DavisMcGhee: No, we never talked about it. [Years later] we’d go on casting interviews and play mental games while waiting our turn, tic tac toe and the like.

Province: The third Alice, Margie Gay, appeared as an extra in one of your films, is that correct?

DavisMcGhee: No. I never knew her. That was the little girl who came from left field someplace. I think she’s the one that Mintz wanted. She was his niece or something, but I’m not sure. Margie was cute in her little Clara Bow haircut, but all she really had to do was clap her hands, put her hands on her hips and jump up and down.

Province: Has anyone ever given any thought to organizing an Alice reunion? It would be interesting to see what has become of not only Margie Gay but the little girl who closed the Alice series, Lois Hardwicke.

DavisMcGhee: Lois Hardwicke did a couple of Alice comedies. She was a lot older, about 11 years old, and had a lot more training. You can tell if you look at the photographs that she would always have her knee bent to make herself seem shorter. You catch those things, they’re all tricks of the trade. She was very good. I saw the one where she did the little sailor dance, but it was too late, too short-lived. Only about eight bars, if you know anything about music.

Province: Do you remember the last time you spoke to Walt Disney?

DavisMcGhee: I think I was 18 or 19, when I was called in to do voice tests for Alice in Wonderland.

Province: The animated version of Alice was being worked on some in the late ’30s, but the film but wasn’t finished and released until the ’50s.

DavisMcGhee: Well Walt, bless him, always thought of me. I had played Alice in Wonderland at the Pasadena Playhouse and was the type with my long blond hair and manners, but terms were still the problem.

Province: It’s interesting that your trails seemed to continue to cross over the years.

An "Alice" movie poster (click to enlarge)

An “Alice” movie poster (click to enlarge)

DavisMcGhee: It never got cold, and he’d continue to think of me every time he needed a young lady. During the training sessions at the studio they show the Alice comedies, so everyone who has worked for Disney saw them and knew who I was. When I appeared at Disneyland they made up a nice little picture of “then and now.” People would come up to have it signed and they’d look at the picture and the date and couldn’t believe it was the same person!

Province: Your last Alice film was made in 1924. Do all of your Disney films survive?

DavisMcGhee: Yes, but I don’t think Disney has them all, but they did show all of them at Pordonone and in some of the museums over there. It was interesting to watch them with the lines in Dutch and in different languages. I was hoping to get a copy of several of them but didn’t succeed. We donated the four or five that we had. My father had them stored in their little tin cases for I don’t know how long and some of them were just powder. In 1975 I came back to California from back east and gave them to the studio with the understanding that I would get a copy.

Province: Do you have any theories why until now, the Alice films have been so neglected in Disney history? Even in the best histories, they’re touched upon almost parenthetically.

DavisMcGhee: They were kept under wraps. There weren’t too many of them and they were very slowly gathered together from archives. You have to remember how big it was with Mickey Mouse. As Walt said, it really did all begin with Mickey Mouse and the attention to his abilities. Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman were not responsible, but I think brought this to light. There wasn’t too much in any of the books; even the first one, the big white reference book, The Art of Walt Disney only had a couple of pages. I think it may be because they didn’t continue on and grow and grow and take off from there, but Alice was where Walt Disney learned and polished his craft.

Province: Also financially. Your films saved Disney from bankruptcy and were the first ones he did that made any money.

DavisMcGhee: Yes, but not very much. I think he got a thousand dollars per film or something like that. A lot of those gags are still used today as you well know; the business of the animal’s tale being wound up like a crank and things like that.

Province: Do you have a relationship with the Disney organization today?

DavisMcGhee: I don’t have a contract or anything like that. This has all sort of crept up on me. Actually through the Disneyana Fair or through the book, or word of mouth or something. It’s been since 1992 that this has mushroomed.

Province: Mrs. Disney is still living. Do you have any plans to contact her?

An "Alice" movie poster (click to enlarge)

An “Alice” movie poster (click to enlarge)

DavisMcGhee: No, and that’s something I would love to do but I haven’t been able to. I would like to very much. It’s something we could probably do if I worked at it, but I’m not a pusher. I’m very happy to appear at the Disneyana conventions. I first appeared at the second one. They didn’t know about me during the first; also the third convention at Disneyworld in 1994, I’m appearing at the one in Anaheim in February of 1995, and again at Disneyland. That’s all I know about so far. The interesting part is to meet the people and give autographs because I just thoroughly eat that up. There’s just something about the Disney atmosphere that is young at heart, and makes everyone, including me, a child again.

Province: Could we talk about the recent sale of your Walt Disney letters? These were the handwritten letters by Walt to your mother inviting you to come to Hollywood to play Alice?

DavisMcGhee: Yes, original letters, handwritten just after Winkler agreed to distribute the Alice comedies. Walt didn’t have a typewriter at the time. I sold three to a man named Phil Spears. He is a collector of autographs. I met him through one of the little fan shows. I asked if anybody knew anyone who dealt in autographs and that I might have some letters I would like to sell. Someone must have contacted him because he called me. I sold my originals; I’d held on to them for years. He in turn sold one to another collector who auctioned it off with a poster in London. One of them is reprinted in the Merritt book and that is the one that sold at Christie’s for somewhere between $19,000 and $20,000. I also had three original posters and I sold him two of them. I kept one for myself. The posters sold for something like $40,000. Phil kept the letter Walt wrote that says, “I have the contract confirmed and we are ready to go into production.” That’s the real beginning. He says he’ll never part with it. The reason I did was that I began to think, I’m getting older and could keel over at any time. My daughters wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Province: How are you dealing with the passage of 70 years, then being proclaimed as Walt Disney’s very first star?

DavisMcGhee: It’s been a long time coming! [laughs] It’s the truth and it’s nice to be finally recognized, and of course it’s great for my ego! I just feel privileged to part of the whole. When you think how it began with a movie viewing and a little test film, and cartoons and everything. I really think Walt was a great man and one of a kind. 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. Even now, it’s heartwarming. It makes me think that perhaps I did accomplish something that is indeed a part of Walt Disney’s history. It makes me very happy!

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