Walt Disney’s First Star: The Virginia Davis Interview

JOHN PROVINCE talks with Virginia Davis, the first star in Walt Disney’s fledgling studio

Note: This interview first appeared in Hogan’s Alley #3, published in 1995. Davis died on August 15, 2009.

Until recently, even the best animation histories tended to approach the silent era in the same manner one handles a chain letter—reluctantly and quickly. The exceptions are no less than gemlike, and particularly scarce in the case of Walt Disney Studios.

Davis in the early '90s, around the time of this interview.

Davis in the early ’90s, around the time of this interview.

The fact that the studio remains a living corporate entity may have been a factor in the segmentation of its financially precarious first decade from the rest of the canon. Discussions of Disney history tend to fast-forward directly to Steamboat Willie, the first talking cartoon, in 1928. The most vivid testimony of the collective indifference to silent animation came about in 1985 when Disney’s first studio, his Uncle Robert’s garage, and the veritable site of the birth of Walt Disney Productions, was offered for sale with no takers. Rejected by the Smithsonian Institution (the same year Fonzie’s black leather jacket was accepted) the structure faced demolition when Glendale, California, saved it. It reportedly remains in crates awaiting reconstruction in a suitable setting.

The previous lack of interest in Disney’s early years may also lie with the fact that accurate information was scarce and the films unavailable. Reliable data was elusive, following the extremely casual operation of the infant Disney organization. Money was scarce, often borrowed from friends and relatives; records were seldom kept; and deals routinely were made on handshakes. Then there was the fate of the films themselves. Believed to have no value after initial release, they were discarded or allowed to deteriorate. Following Mark Twain’s definition of a classic, Disney’s silents were highly respected without ever having been viewed.

Not only has accurate information been slow to assemble, but Disney’s ongoing self-generating mythology and tendency to romanticize events provided few hard facts to work from. Neatly exorcising the first decade of his career, Disney often illustrated his homespun origins by saying “It all began with a mouse.” Had he valued accuracy over a fairytale ending, he might have said, “It began with a little girl from Kansas City, Missouri, named Virginia Davis.”

Humans interacting with animated characters date back to Winsor McCay during the first decade of the century. By the mid ’20s, the most popular production on this theme was being produced by the Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, in their Out of the Inkwell series featuring animated characters in the real world. With recent financing having collapsed, a scant 40 dollars from bankruptcy and confident that a reversal of the Fleischers’ gimmick would be successful, in the summer of 1924 Walt Disney secured the services of a four-year-old Kansas City lass named Virginia Davis for a new series of films.

Running under the general title of Alice in Cartoonland, Disney’s films featured a real-life Alice interacting with animated characters in a cartoon universe. The series produced more than 50 films and successfully ran until 1927, providing Disney with his first, albeit modest, taste of national success. The Alice films served as a training ground for the ambitious producer-director, and though other little girls followed Virginia Davis, she remains the most readily identified with the role.

With the death of Rudolf Ising in 1992, Virginia Davis joins Walt’s widow as the sole surviving veterans of Walt Disney’s first successful studio in Los Angeles in 1924. She may very rightfully claim the distinction of being Disney Studio’s very first star as well as the oldest surviving employee. In a very real manner personally responsible for the birth of Disney studios, Virginia Davis was an active participant in the events that placed the fledgling director-producer on his path to film history. Nearly 70 years after her last Alice film, Virginia Davis became the subject of the most in-depth study of silent Disney animation ever undertaken: Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman’s excellent Walt in Cartoonland.

Davis in her "Alice" years.

Davis in her “Alice” years.

After years of research, Merritt and Kaufman gently lift the curtain of haze for a full and comprehensive view of Disney prehistory. With careful research and photographs from private collections, the authors have at last placed the Alice films in their proper historical context, and this reveals their true historical significance. Merritt and Kaufman correctly place Virgina Davis and the Alice pictures in their appropriate standing, allowing Davis to take her rightful position as grand marshal of the parade of Disney innovations along with Mickey Mouse, Flowers and Trees, The Old Mill, and Snow White. Semi-retired in Montana, Virginia Davis was caught off guard by her sudden and delayed placement into Disney history. Having left the film industry decades ago, she is now hailed as the first authentic star of Walt Disney Studios, and became a major draw at shows and conventions both in Europe and America.

In 1992 Virginia Davis-McGhee was the guest of honor at the Pordonone Silent Film Festival in Italy and continues to speak on and appear the subject of those earliest years with the Disney brothers. As the last accessible link to those crucial early years, Virginia Davis-McGhee is somewhat overwhelmed by the three generations of fans eager to honor her. Active, lucid, and pleased to meet fans and well-wishers, those delightful ghosts from animation’s past could not have chosen a more charming and eloquent ambassador.—John Province

John Province: Was any of your family involved in the entertainment business?

Virginia DavisMcGhee: Not at all. My father was a furniture salesman and on the road most of the time. My mother was a housewife. You have to remember that when salesmen were gone back then, it was no three-hour hop by plane. It was a long train trip or drive, and he would be gone for a couple of weeks at a time. Mother had time on her hands, and her little daughter, whom she babied and did a lot of things for, was sent to dancing school when she was two and-a-half years old.

Province: Was your mother eager for you to get into show business?

DavisMcGhee: She might have been ambitious as far as my career was concerned, but I was never aware of it. I don’t know because there really wasn’t that much show business at that time. She had time on her hands and I had long curls and I think someone had said I should get into modeling or something. There wasn’t the competition in the field that there is today. Somebody liked me and had me photographed for Warneker’s Bread and I did that. I did a Buttercup ad, too, where I was dressed up like a little buttercup. I went to Georgie Brown’s Dramatic School in Kansas City, Missouri, where they had dancing and dramatics. I was a good dancer and star of the Priests of Pallas Ball, a big social event. I came down from the very high ceiling on a wire and danced, so I had sort of been in show business all of my life. My mother always had me practice whatever I was learning in dancing school every single afternoon. Even later in California after I’d come home from school I was still doing my dancing routines with the Victrola playing my music and the rug rolled up; and if I didn’t do them well or correctly, I didn’t get to go out to play until I did. I quickly learned to do them the first time.

Province: Did your parents ever indicate that they were familiar with Disney’s theatrical commercials playing the Kansas City theatres at the time?

DavisMcGhee: These ads were run between the motion pictures that were playing so perhaps mother had seen his Laugh-O-Grams, but she didn’t know who Walt Disney was at the time. I’m sure he told them about it.

Province: So Walt Disney literally spotted you on the screen doing these bread advertisements and chose you as the lead for his films?

DavisMcGhee: Yes, he was at the theatre to see how his films, the Laugh-O-Grams, looked and saw me. Walt had always had the idea. Alice in Cartoonland was something he had been thinking of doing. I guess when he saw me he thought, “Here was a little girl who could do it.” I think that’s where it all started. He contacted my mother and pitched this idea about how great it would be for her little girl. Mother was open to suggestion so she said okay. The first one, Alice in Cartoonland, belonged to Winkler so it isn’t complete.

Province: That first Alice test film was actually filmed at your parents’ home?

DavisMcGhee: Yes, and if you see any histories of Disney films, they usually just show me standing at the door clapping my hands and him welcoming me in and showing me a cartoon drawing. My mother put me to bed and then we went into the dream sequence, which was when the cartoon began.

Province: How did you prepare for that first Alice film? Was it rehearsed?

DavisMcGhee: No. I just took Walt’s directions. He would say “Look frightened,” or “Sit down and pretend this or that.” It was always “let’s pretend.” Luckily I had a good imagination and took direction well so I was able to do what he wanted me to do. Since we were filming silents, he could talk to me while we were filming and that’s what he used to do. “Look there, oh who is that over there? Look and see!” That kind of thing. That’s how I took direction. We did clips; the camera was continuously running and he had a story in the back of his mind. There wasn’t anything that I would call real rehearsals. He might tell me the basic story and say “Then you run from this side to the other side and look at me.” When I did this the camera was running and that’s what I’d do, nothing like a rehearsal today. When directors direct children, they tell them stories. Even today they’ll tell them, “This is a sad time. You’ve lost your brother and you can’t find him.” They tell them the story before they emote to get them in the mood. This is nothing new as far as children are concerned. Even if children have lines today it’s the same thing. They’ll get them in the mood and then point to them when it’s time to say their lines.

Province: Jackie Coogan used to talk about Chaplin directing him the same way in The Kid.

DavisMcGhee: That’s the way they did it in those days. Jackie Coogan had “mood music” on the set as did the big stars well into the talkies.

Province: In later years Walt would actually act entire stories out for his animators. Did he ever do this with you for the Alice films?

DavisMcGhee: I don’t think so. He could maybe lead me into pretending that there was a big bear there or something like that, and that’s what he’d do. He would say, “Pretend there is a very big bear—look scared!” Walt did all of the directing and storylines.

Province: What was Walt like when the cameras were off? Did he kid around or play with you at all?

DavisMcGhee: A little, yes, but he and Roy were under a great deal of pressure deciding what sequence to shoot next. We’d have our box lunches, but my mother used to keep me off to the side. She didn’t want me to get too tired or overexerted.

Province: Were you comfortable in front of the camera?

DavisMcGhee: Oh sure, there was no problem with me on that. I had been on stage doing the three dances that I did when I had personal appearances either in Kansas City or California. It was easy for me to feel at ease with whatever I was told to do.

Province: Did you consider that first Alice a one-time job or did Disney indicate that a series might result from it?

DavisMcGhee: He explained to my mother that he had this idea and he wanted to make a test film, and he would have to take it around to see if he could sell the idea. She was aware of that.

Province: Did you see the completed film after it was finished?

DavisMcGhee: I saw parts of it at the Disney Studio, but not until Pordonone did I see it all.

Province: What was the relation between your family and Walt Disney? Was it a business relationship or was he a close family friend?

DavisMcGhee: Yes, he was a very close friend. He borrowed my mother’s Tin Lizzie to court his wife.

Province: Lillian Bounds, who was his secretary, I believe.

DavisMcGhee: She also did some of the inking. She was one of two girls that came to work for him.

Province: Did they marry during your tenure as Alice? I was wondering if you attended their wedding?

DavisMcGhee: I don’t think so. I think they married shortly after I left.

Province: It’s amazing to reflect that the Disney empire as we know it today was basically begun on Walt venturing to Hollywood with 40 dollars and a can of film starring a four-year-old little girl.

DavisMcGhee: Well, his uncle was out there, so Walt had his food and a place to stay. He would get out there and hawk it as hard and often as he could. He did sell the idea, but the stipulation was that I was to be the little girl and they would not use anyone else at that time.

Province: Given that stipulation in his contract, have you ever speculated on how seriously film history would have been altered if your parents had not agreed to move to California so you could play Alice?

DavisMcGhee: I guess I haven’t. It’s not my nature to look back and say “What if?” It’s a good thought, though! I think though that Walt would have come up with something else because he was a very bright and ambitious man with a great imagination. It may not have happened quite as fast, but it would have eventually, I’m sure.

Province: In making the move to Hollywood, did your parents have faith in you, Walt Disney, or a little of both?

DavisMcGhee: There were two reasons we went to California. I’d had double pneumonia and almost died. The doctor told my mother that I would be better off in a drier climate. So I think when this all came up, it was another incentive that brought us to California, rather than, “Oh heck, let’s just take a chance and go on out.” It was, “Virginia could do this, and you, Jeff, can sell from there” since he was a traveling salesman, and healthwise it would be better for me. It was a combination of factors.

Province: Your photographs of the first Disney studio indicate that it was really a small storefront operation.

DavisMcGhee: Well, there was no studio, really. It was actually just his uncle’s garage in which he worked.

Province: The whole flavor of those early days makes it appear very homespun. Walt’s working in Uncle Robert’s garage; brother Roy is the cameraman, and I believe he even used the family dog in some films.

DavisMcGhee: Yes, that was Peggy. It really wasn’t a family enterprise as much as it was he didn’t have any money to hire a dog. If you’ll take a look at some of the films such as “Alice and the Dogcatcher,” you’ll see the dog in the back. Walt would be inspired by what was around, and here was this nice police dog that I liked very much. He would spin his stories around what was available.

Province: What was the atmosphere like when you were shooting the Alice films? The photographs look very casual and relaxed.

DavisMcGhee: It was very informal. We used to have a lot of people gathered around. During the silent days we would have a lot of the curious children and the neighbors come around to watch what was going on. They would use some of the children in some of the scenes as they did in one of my favorites—“Alice’s Wild West Show,” where they were used as the audience. There was no Screen Actors Guild so there was no place to go if you needed somebody for a film. You just used whoever was around at the time.

Province: Your co-star, so to speak, was a big black cat who was unnamed during your tenure but was later named Julius. He bore a striking resemblance to Felix the Cat.

DavisMcGhee: Well, there again—who knows which came first? Mickey, of course, bears a great resemblance to Oswald the Rabbit. It all evolved, like putting it into a big machine and mixing it up and seeing what comes out. That’s how Walt got the idea for the Alice cartoons. He did the reverse of what the Fleischers were doing.

Province: Some of the films resemble Hal Roach’s Little Rascals, where you’re the leader of a collection of neighborhood kids. Was Disney borrowing that theme?

DavisMcGhee: They were either at the same time or perhaps a film or two before. I don’t know who copied whom. When Charles Mintz got into it, he wanted to get away from the live action and concentrate on the cartoons. Even after I left they wanted more and more of the pictures to be cartoons—gags, gags, gags. Most of the girls who followed me just stood there and waved their arms and jumped up and down rather than having to do any emoting to follow the storylines.

Province: Did you make promotional appearances in connection with the Alice films?

DavisMcGhee: Oh yes. I used to makepersonal appearance at the children’s matinees. I still have some of the old handbills that say “Little Virginia Davis starring in the Alice comedies in Person” [laughs]. I would perform and later on made some appearances at the Hollywood Bowl. I’d make appearances for the children and I made appearances for the Shriners too.

Province: You were four or five years old at that time. How did you deal with all of this attention and all the fuss being made over you?

DavisMcGhee: It wasn’t that big of an autographing thing. Of course I couldn’t write. My mother was a very level-headed woman. She was not a stage mother. She would whoosh me out of the way and take me home. She was very down-to-earth and always followed through with discipline. I don’t want to give the impression that I was mistreated or anything like that because I wasn’t.

Province: Did you attend school while filming?

DavisMcGhee: No, I didn’t start school until I was seven. My mother read to me a lot and educated me in other ways.

Province: How often did you report to the lot for filming?

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