Disney's First Star
Interview with Virginia Davis McGhee
interview by Dan Lybarger, 17 January 2003

Today the Disney name is so prevalent and even iconic that itís sometimes hard to believe it once stood for a real man. For all the money and influence that would come from Walt Disneyís cartoons and the gigantic corporation that bears his moniker, itís hard to believe that his massive Hollywood empire actually started in Kansas City and that it took a four-year-old girl to lead him to his initial success.

The year was 1923. The 20-something Disney had founded a company called Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc. where he had teamed with Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harmon (later the founders of both the Warner Bros. and M-G-M animation studios) and Mickey Mouse designer Ub Iwerks. The only distributor they could find for their cartoons at the time was the Kentucky branch of Pictoral Clubs, who only paid $100 of an agreed $11,000 because of a bankruptcy.

To keep his dream of making cartoons alive, Walt and his crew seized on the idea of reversing a popular formula in animation. The Fleischer Brothers in New York had created a popular series where the animated Koko the Clown would frolic in a "real world" setting.

In the Alice Comedies, a real girl played by the young Virginia Davis, would find her way into a cartoon world. The sample reel titled Aliceís Wonderland attracted the support of national distributor Margaret Winkler, and Walt moved to California and gradually became a dominant force in animation.

Much of this wouldnít have been possible without Davisí help. Winklerís initial contract with Disney required the junior actressí involvement. She starred in 14 cartoons from 1923-1925. The series continued until 1928 with Dawn OíDay, Margie Gay and Lois Hardwick taking over the role.

Davis, who is now 85, had bit parts in The Harvey Girls and Three on a Match and took odd, but occasionally interesting jobs in the entertainment industry. She attributes her surprisingly quick and energetic gait to her training as a dancer, and her memory and alertness are intimidating. When I made the mistake of showing her an article I wrote about Ub Iwerks two years ago, she immediately found a couple of errors and even recommended a better book to follow.

She recently returned to Kansas City with her husband Blank McGhee to help with a fundraising auction for Thank You, Walt Disney, Inc., (www.laughograms.com) a charity that is working to restore the building where Disney and others put together some of the legendís earliest cartoons. Eighty years later, sheís still helping keep Uncle Waltís dreams alive.


Dan Lybarger: One of the surprising thing about you is that you were considered for the speaking voice of Snow White.

Virginia Davis McGhee: (In a high pitched, squeaky voice), "A shoe. This will never do."

DL: So they liked the way you said the line.

VDM: The speaking voice was fine. The action was fine, but not the singing voice. I could carry a tune, but that was it. I donít broadcast that. That was why I didnít continue in the Alice comedies was the money situation.


DL: How did you get recruited for the Alice comedies?

VDM: A long time ago when you were a lot younger, and I was a lot younger, you used to flash a picture on the screen, and that would be between the features. And it would be advertising. Thatís what I was doing at that point from about three years old up. But when Walt saw me, I was about four and a half. Thatís how that started.

DL: Now the Disney name is iconic, but at the time, this guy was a struggling 21-22 year old, and he was able to convince your parents to get you involved with this.

VDM: He was a great salesman. You know, Butch (Righby, of Thank You, Walt Disney, Inc.). He and Butch were a lot alike on that. Selling, Enthusiasm. You couldnít help but like them. Same principle. They grow Ďem that way in Missouri (laughs).


DL: I read that he would tell you what would be on the screen, and you would react to it 

VDM: Heíd say, "A bearís chasing you. Be frightened. You donít want to be eaten by the bear. Start running." So, Iíd run in place. But it would work out. He could direct me. Heís say, "Ohhhhh (in a tone of mock desperation), and Iíd go "ohhhh." But there was no sound, so he could direct me.

DL: So without having to have it (recorded), he could say that and it wouldnít show up because there are no microphones.

VDM: Thatís right. He was just say, "Thereís a big noise. A big boom. Boom!" And Iíd react. I was acting in pantomime.


DL: You went all the way to LA to work on these with Walt.

VDM: Well, there was a couple of things; it wasnít just him. I had had double pneumonia when I was about two and I almost died and had the last rites in the Catholic Church. And the doctor said I would do better in a better climate. California had a better climate than Missouri. There was that aspect.

Mother thought I had enough ability, and Iíd been dancing since I was two. I think she said that my dad was a traveling salesman, so he worked different areas at that time. So he said, "Iím going to work that area." So there was no reason why we couldnít move.


DL: They were doing something with these films that nobody had thought to do before 

VDM: Thatís the whole thing, and thatís why itís so nice. And, yet it took him a long time.

DL: Didnít you later work as an inker or painter for Disney later?

VDM: Oh, yes, at one point, he had me come out right after I got out of high school, and things were rough, í34-35. I graduated from high school in 1934. And he said, why donít you come to work for me as a painter. I said, "I donít paint. Iím not an artist." He said, you can learn it." So I did it for six months to a year. And ended up being an inker, which is a freehand, tricky but nice.

DL: Inking and painting is tough, but itís awfully repetitive.

VDM: It is repetitive, but I was at the Disney Studio, see (she beams). There was also money coming in, and it was in the Depression when nobody had any money coming in. And my dad was a salesman, but he worked on what he sold and got commission. Every little bit I could make would help and give me some things I couldnít have otherwise.

DL: Most of the inkers and painters at Warner Bros. were women.

VDM: They all were at Disney, too

DL: Why do you think that women tended to be put in that department?

VDM: Maybe patience. The other thing thatís so funny is that the women were kept separate from the men, a little building by themselves, and the men were not supposed to come and say hello to the women. (Walt Disney) was a purist. It was really an old fashioned type of thinking. You stop and think about it, but it was an older fashioned time. Everybody was gentle. There was no talk of sex. There was none of that. He liked us ladies, meaning that he liked women to be ladies. I really do think a lot of men feel the same way today, but they donít know it (laughs). I really do.


DL: About what time were you with M-G-M 

VDM: This was in 1944, while my husband was overseas. I did The Harvey Girls then and (he) got back in August of í45. And it was released at the end of í45 or first of í46. So I was only on for that picture.


DL: Youíve had all of these small gigs, but theyíre very interesting.

VDM: I had a natural curiosity about a lot of things. And in the summertime, I wanted to learn how to make a puppet, crazy things, or how did it work? I guess itís a form of intelligence. I was always interested in doing something. I thought if I could do it and make some money out of it. I think in at one point, I had a piano to pay for. I wanted a baby grand piano, and I wanted to learn how to play. And my mother and I went, and we bought a baby grand piano. I bought it, and she signed the note with me. But she told me in no uncertain terms that if I missed one payment on it, she was not going to pick it up. So thatís why I learned to be a pretty good manager of money. 


DL: You stayed in touch with (Walt) Disney all those years.

VDM: More or less. I didnít pay so much attention to him after I was married, though, because we went back to New Jersey. A lot of books came out at that time saying that "it all began with Mickey." And I know what (Walt Disney) meant when he said that because the big success came with Mickey. Nothing was ever said about the Alice Comedies in a lot of those big white books. I was back East, and I was about to scream bloody murder. Itís probably just as well that I didnít, or I wouldnít be here today (laughs). 

No, I felt kind of cheated at that time. But when this book was written (Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merritt and J. B. Kaufman), it sort of started them to think. Because I went to Pordonone (in Italy, the home of a major annual international silent film festival) at that time, and then other things started to happen. So, now they started to think of me as the first. Roy E. Disney (Waltís nephew, and the current Vice-Chairman of Walt Disney Enterprises), at the Legend Award, said that it all began with a little girl.


DL: You had earlier said that you found his father Roy O. Disney to be a nice guy, but you were a little intimidated by him.

VDM: Yeah, I was a little scared of him, and I was even more scared of him when I was going to the speaking voice in live action. I wonít say he was cold (pauses). Think of a banker, and he was a banker. He wasnít "Hi, Virginia. How are you?" Heíd just say, "Hi" or "Hello" but it was just that he was a little cooler acting. And as a child or even a teenager, you were a little more careful about what you said to Roy.


DL: Did you work on any of the Silly Symphonies or any of those cartoons?

VDM: No.

DL: What exactly did you work on?

VDM: I donít remember. It all looked alike on the cels (laughs). A circle here, and a circle there.


DL: I noticed that when Chuck Jones was interviewed he would talk about animated characters as if they were living people. Did you feel that way?

VDM: I was too ensconced in the dramatics of the case. I tell you another little thing thatís a little strange. You know the El Capitan Theater (now owned by Disney) is? I went to the El Capitan Dramatic College of the Theater. Thatís where I went to dramatic school. I still think I should have a star in front of the El Capitan Theater. It would be apropos (laughs).

DL: Didnít you go to the same school as Judy Garland?

VDM: That was the regular school. That was all grades. See, you werenít just in the 10th grade or the 12th grade. The girl next to you might be in the ninth grade, but they had enough teachers to they could up their home studies. The professional school in New York would give them the education theyíd need to pass the child labor laws. So, basically that was the whole idea, weíd get our schooling, and we could still be able to go on calls and whether we could get the call or not. If we got it, then the teachers would take it up while we were being photographed and working. So, it was easy that way.


DL: Were you considered for any other voice gigs with cartoons?

VDM: I donít do accents, and I suppose if Iíd have concentrated I could have done that. I canít roll "Rís." (laughs). I can do a childís voice. I can do an older voice, and I can do a lower voice by talking and getting looowerrr. I can do a childís voice and Snow Whiteís voice was fine as far as the speaking was concerned. But not the singing.


DL: Did you get to meet any of the other girls who did the Alice Comedies?

VDM: No, I knew one. I did know one. Dawn OíDay did the first one after I left, and Dawn OíDay became Anne Shirley. Dawn OíDay and I would always be on interviews together because we were in the same age bracket, and we were both in Three on a Match. I played Joan Blondell as a child, and she played Ann Dvorak as a child. Another little girl played Bette Davis as a child. So, you know it just kind of all goes around that way.


DL: In the early Alice Comedies there were more scenes of you playing with other children because Walt was doing most of the animation himself.

VDM: I donít know if that was the reason, but it was the time of Hal Roachís Our Gang. He tried not to make it like Our Gang, but I think there was a little bit of it the idea that he could do more storytelling with a group. But then it was always back to the cartoons.


DL: You did all of this before modern technology.

VDM: It was. I donít if there was anybody more visual, more imaginative than Walt. And he wouldnít take anything if it wasnít as perfect as it could be. He would say to the animators, "I donít think thatís right" and so forth. He never would compliment them. He came from a strict family. He was up at four-o-clock every morning delivering papers and things like that. Anyway, he did not get much in the way of compliments at home. He would never do that. He would make them do it over if it wasnít right. And heíd look at it and say, "Thatíll do." And then he might go off and tell another animator or see somebody and say, "Gee, Thomas did a great job on that."

 

 


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