This publicity photo, promoting Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies film series, is hand-signed and inscribed by lead actress Virginia Davis.
Davis is regarded as Disney’s first-ever film star, hired at the age of four to star in an experimental short entitled Alice’s Wonderland, which ingeniously placed the actress within the context of an animated world. The film was produced in 1923 by Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. He and chief animator Ub Iwerks had over the past year enjoyed some limited success selling animated shorts, but Disney—always the innovator—had been inspired by the Fleischer brothers’ “Out of the Inkwell” cartoon series that placed animated characters within a real-world setting and was eager to attempt his own variation of the gag. The shots with Davis were filmed in a vacant lot near Disney’s modest second-floor studio, in front of a white-cloth background. Disney would roll the camera, while shouting various instructions to his young lead, who would oblige by performing whatever actions or movement the specific scene called for. Unfortunately, the studio ended up going bankrupt before the film could be released. In the midst of his financial struggles, however, Disney was able to land a distribution deal with New York-based Winkler Pictures. In the summer of 1923, Disney relocated to Hollywood to continue work on the Alice series. Virginia Davis and family followed, and the young actress appeared in fourteen additional shorts before a contract disagreement led to her replacement by Margie Gay in 1925. Dawn O’Day and Lois Hardwick would also portray Alice before the series wrapped production in 1927 after a total of fifty-seven shorts.
As a teenager, Alice Davis would audition unsuccessfully for the vocal role of Snow White in Disney’s first full-length animated feature, then go on to voice supporting roles in the follow-up, Pinocchio. She would also earn small parts in live-action films for other studios, but nothing would ever match the success, nor the historical implications, of her role as Alice.
This particular publicity photo features Davis and the rest of the cast of Alice’s Wild West Show. The short was only the fourth in the series, initially released on May 1, 1924. The premise of the film centers on Alice and her friends staging a “Wild West Show,” during which she recounts tales of cowboys and Indians to a group of neighborhood kids. The inscription, written by Davis shortly before her death in 2009, reads as follows:
Virginia Davis in Alice’s “Wild West Show”
Walt Disney’s “Alice Comedies” 1923-1923 [sic]
This signed collectible hearkens back to the very start of Walt Disney’s career in film-making, and his first real taste of success. Both the actress and series represented by this 1924 image, which was taken less than a year after Disney arrived in Hollywood, helped pave the way for the entertainment empire to follow.