Virginia Davis, who starred in a series of short films for Walt Disney that combined animation and live action and pre-dated Mickey Mouse, died last Saturday, August 15, at her home in Corona, CA. She was 90.
Walt Disney was a struggling filmmaker trying to keep his Kansas City, Missouri Laugh-O-Gram cartoon studio in business when he hired the four-year-old Davis to star in Alice’s Wonderland, the first in a proposed series of one reel (about ten minutes long) short films which combined live action and animation. In the short, a young girl (Davis) sneaking into a cartoon studio to see how cartoons are made. She is surprised when the cartoon characters come to life and dreams of more adventures with them that night.
Unfortunately, Disney had to close the studio soon after the short was finished. He headed to Hollywood to find interest in financing the series, ultimately securing a distribution deal with Winkler Pictures. Disney sent back to Missouri for Davis, convincing her parents to bring his young star out to Hollywood.
Davis would go on to star in 14 more of the Alice shorts between 1924 and 1925. She would film the segments that combined live action and animation in front of a white sheet hung over a billboard in a vacant lot. (Films at the time were shot outside using sunlight as the powerful lights needed for shooting indoors in a studio had not yet been developed.) She often stated that acting opposite characters who would be added later by animators wasn’t hard thing to do because she had an active imagination and Disney was a good director. She sited 1924’s Alice’s Wild West Show as her favorite of the series, mostly because she gets to play a tomboy who beats up a bully. The success of the series helped Disney lay the groundwork for the entertainment empire he would eventually build.
After Davis’ contract with Disney expired, she turned her career more toward singing and dancing, appearing in College Holiday (1936), Footlight Serenade (1942) and, her final film, The Harvey Girls (1946). Following her retirement from show business, Davis pursued careers as an interior decorator, magazine editor and real estate agent.