July is a sunny month of beach picnics, backyard barbeques, and baseball games, but for Disney fans it also means a special time to celebrate Alice in Wonderland (1951). On July 28, Walt Disney’s 13th animated feature celebrated its 60th anniversary, six decades of wacky action, sparkling songs, and surreal enchantment that could only happen through the art of Disney animation.
“No story in English literature has intrigued me more than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,” said Walt Disney. ”It fascinated me the first time I read it as a schoolboy, and as soon as I possibly could, after I started making animated cartoons, I acquired the film rights to it.” The topsy-turvy tale that Walt called “one of the favorite classics of all time” was conceived on July 4, 1862, when Oxford mathematics don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wove a fantastical yarn “with plenty of nonsense in it” for ten-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters during a leisurely boat-ride on the River Thames. In honor of that golden July afternoon, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with illustrations by acclaimed political cartoonist Sir John Tenniel was published on July 4, 1865, exactly three years after the boat-trip, and has never been out of print since. For the publication of this soon-to-be revered classic, the distinguished mathematician used the pen name Lewis Carroll.
With its wonderfully wacky characters, vivid imagery, and playful jabberwocky (a Carroll-coined word meaning humorous nonsense), the story and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There held great appeal for Walt Disney. Walt purchased rights to the famed Tenniel illustrations in 1931 and registered the title with the Motion Picture Association of America in 1938. World War II interrupted development, and production did not start in earnest until June 1947 as a fully animated feature.
Over the years, the dream-like episodic nature of the Wonderland stories proved challenging for Walt and his story artists. Attempts were made to impose a dramatic structure on Alice’s wondrous wanderings, such as the use of the White Knight and the Jabberwock as hero and villain respectively, but even though a song, “Beware of the Jabberwock,” was tune-smithed by Disney musician Oliver Wallace, and humorist and recording artist Stan Freberg was cast as the monster’s voice, the idea and the characters were abandoned. Still, “it was imperative that we create a plot structure,” Walt later revealed. ”We decided that Alice’s curiosity was the only possible prime mover for our story and generator of the necessary suspense. The result is a basic chase pattern that culminates when Alice, after her strange adventures, returns to the world of reality.”
Walt aptly described Wonderland as “a wonderful world of colorful characters.” Lewis Carroll’s original books boast 80 characters besides Alice, and Disney brought 33 of the zany eccentrics to the screen. ”The trick was to condense two books—that’s about ten hours of reading time—into 75 minutes of film. We combined the four Queens and the Duchess into one figure, the Queen of Hearts,” explained Walt, adding that an additional personality, the Doorknob, was created “in order to avoid a long explanatory monologue at the beginning of the story and to give Alice a foil to talk to.” (Disney had originally given a voice and personality to the famed “Drink Me” bottle in the locked chamber before, contrariwise, replacing one inanimate object with the other with the creation of the talking Doorknob.)
It was the largest Disney animated film cast yet, and many visual interpretations were explored for each one. At first, a literal adaptation of the world famous Tenniel drawings was explored. But the complex pen and ink designs did not lend themselves to animation. Instead, the animators used the original drawings as a starting point but gave the eclectic array of loonies a madcap makeover—faithful in spirit to both artist and author, but unmistakably Disney. “The features of our Alice are somewhat more youthful than those of the Victorian maid portrayed by [Tenniel],” Walt described. “We are somewhat less realistic in portraying some of the animal characters. We have made the features of the Walrus more human, for example. Our March Hare is more humanesque and so is our White Rabbit.”
In order to find the voice of one of literature’s most winsome heroines, more than 200 young actresses were auditioned before 12-year-old Kathryn Beaumont was selected as the ideal Alice. Kathryn not only charmingly voiced the film’s wide-eyed wanderer of Wonderland; she also acted out the role in live-action footage filmed for the animator’s reference, wearing a specially created Alice costume. (Kathryn would wear this distinctive garb in many Several of the other voice artists heard in the film also portrayed their characters in this live-action film, including Ed Wynn (the Mad Hatter), Jerry Colonna (the March Hare), and Richard Hayden (the Caterpillar).
Most of the voices heard in the film were from the world of radio, where skilled actors created characterizations through the sound of their voices alone—a perfect pool from which to draw audio talent for the art of Disney animation. Giggly Ed Wynn was the most famous name in the cast; he had starred in the hit Texaco Fire Chief radio show in the 1930s, and had already conquered the new medium of televison with a CBS variety show for which he was feted with one of the first Emmy Awards ever presented for Most Outstanding Personality. Wild-eyed Jerry Colonna’s trademark loud and long vocals had entertained audiences on radio with Fred Allen, Bing Crosby and most famously with Bob Hope; Jerry had gone on to support Hope and others on both the big and small screens, and even appeared on a classic episode of The Monkees in 1966. Crisply British Richard Hayden was well-known for appearances on radio’s The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show and for his audio characterizations as the poetry-sprouting Edwin Carp, a role he recreated for an installment of the classic TV series The Dick Van Dyke Show. Richard also performed in a variety of hit films including The Sound of Music (1965) and Young Frankenstein (1974); he returned to Disney as Shakespearean actor Quentin Bartlett in The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). Kathryn Beaumont has fond memories of working with Hayden: “Being a little girl working with adults, it could be intimidating. But Richard was extremely helpful. He took me under his wing and was very accommodating. Working with him was just a delight.”
A popular radio performer because of his distinctively raspy voice and “sterling” acting skills, Sterling Holloway contributed the voices for many varied Disney characters; his cool, underplayed Cheshire Cat is one of his best. Prolific Bill Thompson, best known as the Old Timer and Wallace Wimple on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show, showed his flexibility by playing both the White Rabbit and the Dodo. Bill became one of Disney’s most employed voices, creating vocalizations for a variety of characters, from Mr. Smee in Peter Pan to Uncle Waldo in The Aristocats (1970). Verna Felton was also among the most accomplished of radio actors and she demonstrated her versatility by following her gentle and genial Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (1950) with her bombastic performance as the big-mouthed Queen of Hearts. Frank Thomas, the directing animator of the Queen of Hearts, found inspiration for the quarrelsome character in a woman he spotted at Disneyland. Often while playing piano as part of The Firehouse Five Plus Two—the famed Dixieland jazz band made up of studio staffers—at Disneyland, Frank studied the crowds to spot some unique characters. One particular woman stood out to him. “She was sitting at a table… She was very autocratic: she figured she was the Queen,” he said. “But she was sloppy in her manners and sloppy in the way she ate, and there was something about it that was funny.”
Heard as Alice’s proper sister, British performer Heather Angel was known for her silver-screen appearances in such classics as MGM’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Heather reunited with Kathryn Beaumont as Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan (1953), and from 1966-1971 she played neighboring nanny Miss Faversham opposite another Disney favorite Sebastian Cabot in the classic TV series Family Affair. Also in the vocal cast are Disney stalwarts Jimmy Macdonald, the Studio’s sound effects expert and the voice of Mickey Mouse (having been handed the role by original voice Walt Disney) and Cinderella’s Gus and Jaq, voicing yet another mouse, the Mad Tea Party’s Dormouse; and Pinto Colvig, the original voice of Goofy, contributing some very goofy (and sped-up) laughter as the whacky Flamingo.
Alice in Wonderland boasts the most songs of any Disney animated feature, and no wonder. Carroll’s book is full of parodies of rhymes and recitations that were familiar to Victorian children and the grown-ups who once had been schoolchildren. Still, most of the movie’s songs are original, including one of its most famous: the White Rabbit’s lament, “I’m Late.” “The original version was somewhat different, not as hurried,” said songwriter Sammy Fain. “We had played it for Walt and he liked it. But that night I kept thinking about it and finally wrote out a second version. The next day I got in to see Walt, and played it for him, and he was delighted. There are few studios I know of where you could get in to see the top man and have him change his mind on a song.”
For the mind-blowing “March of the Cards” Sammy Fain remembered, “I had this two-bar intro, or ‘vamp,’ that I was using for another song, and Walt heard it one day. He came over and said, ‘Sammy, I like that. I think it would fit with the cards marching. Do you think you can do something with it?’ So I took this vamp, really a throwaway line, and worked it into the march. Walt impressed me with his uncanny ear for what type of music would work in his pictures.” The Wonderland songs were for years the film’s most lasting legacy, and were covered by many recording artists such as Mary Martin, Robert Smith of The Cure, Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, and Barbra Streisand. Oliver Wallace’s fantastical musical score was nominated for an Academy Award.
Walt famously harnessed the new medium of television to promote Alice with his first TV production, One Hour in Wonderland starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy broadcast on NBC (not ABC, as is sometimes reported) on Christmas Day, 1950; but the great showman also used the established medium of radio to celebrate his new film. For example, the guests on the December 24, 1950 broadcast of Bergen & McCarthy’s radio show were Disney stars Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, who were to appear with Edgar and Charlie the next day on the Disney TV special. In England, Walt created two radio shows for the BBC: for broadcast on July 4, 1951, a one-hour radio dramatization with Walt Disney and Kathryn Beaumont, and for Christmas 1951 a party-like show pre-recorded in California, wherein Walt (and Mickey Mouse) introduce Disney songs. This show in fact has a similar format to that of the Christmas TV special.
Alice in Wonderland premiered July 26, 1951—just a few days after the original book’s 86th anniversary—at Leicester Square Theater in London. Walt Disney and Kathryn Beaumont attended the gala debut. The phantasmagoric animated film was released in the United States two days later on July 28 on the same bill as the True Life Adventure Nature’s Half Acre, the documentary short that would win an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel). Year by year, more people come to appreciate this surreal film’s kaleidoscopic delights. Sixty years on, we can be sure that, like Alice herself, even more Disney lovers will come to discover all of the demented Wonderland fun of Walt Disney’s most unique animated feature.
By D23′s Jim Fanning.