Suspended Animation #277
Readers of this column know that I have a great fascination for animated films that were never made and why. I also love examining the process that kept changing a story approach until the final film.Prompted by the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt purchased several projects for future animated features, including the rights to Alice in Wonderland in 1938 — in particular the rights to reproduce the original Tenniel drawings.
Walt told the New York Times Magazine (March 1938), “Alice in Wonderland should never have been done in the realistic medium of motion picture [referring to the 1933 Paramount film] but we regard it as a natural for our medium.”
Between December 1938 and April 1941, Walt held at least eleven documented meetings with various members of his staff to discuss the possibilities of making Alice in Wonderland.
“I’ll tell you what has been wrong with every one of these productions on Carroll,” said Walt Disney at a January 4th, 1939 story meeting. “They have depended on his dialogue to be funny. But if you can use some of Carroll’s phrases that are funny, use them. If they aren’t funny, throw them out. There is a spirit behind Carroll’s story. It’s fantasy, imagination, screwball logic…but it must be funny.
“I mean funny to an American audience. To hell with the English audiences or the people who love Carroll…I’d like to make it more or less a 1940 or 1945 version—right up to date. I wouldn’t put in any modern slang that wouldn’t fit, but the stuff can be modernized.“I want to put my money into something that will go in Podunk, Iowa, and they will go in and laugh at it because they have experienced it. They wouldn’t laugh at a lot of English sayings that they’ve never heard or that don’t mean anything to them. Yet, we can keep it very much Carroll—keep his spirit.”
Disney storyman Al Perkins researched Carroll and his work and produced a 161 page analysis of the book Alice in Wonderland that broke down the book chapter by chapter, pointing out the possibilities for animation.
Some of these suggestions were later used in the final animated feature, including the idea that the White Rabbit should wear glasses because Carroll once commented that he thought the White Rabbit should have spectacles, even though Tenniel never drew the character that way.
Perkins also felt that the Cheshire Cat should be expanded and appear in other scenes of the story and that the watch that the Mad Hatter and the March Hare fix should belong to the White Rabbit.
Beginning June 1939, British artist David Hall spent about three months to produce roughly four hundred paintings, drawings and sketches using the Perkins’ analysis as a guide. Hall had a background as a production artist in the film industry including DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927).
Story conferences at the time were not helpful to Hall because Walt felt that his story people didn’t understand the spirit of the story. For instance, they had suggested changing the croquet match into a football game. According to the story conference notes, Walt considered this approach at humor as “Donald Duck gags” and that “I think the book is funnier than the way you guys have got it. Get in and study characters and personalities, and that’s where the real humor will come from.”
In November 1939, the Disney Studio filmed a Leica reel (a film of the concept drawings with a soundtrack to get an idea about the continuity and flow) using Hall’s artwork. The soundtrack included Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards doing the voice of the Talking Bottle (later changed in the final film to a talking doorknob).
“There are certain things in there that I like very much and there are other things in there that I think we ought to tear right out. I don’t think there would be any harm in letting this thing sit for a while. Everyone is stale now. You’ll look at it again and maybe have another idea on it. That’s the way it works for me. I still feel that we can stick close to Alice in Wonderland and make it look like it and feel like it, you know,” said Walt after viewing the reel that over the decades seems to have disappeared. David Hall left the Disney Studio January 1940.At a meeting in April 8th, 1941, Walt brought up the project again, “I’ve been wondering if we could do this thing with a live action girl. Here’s the value in the live girl over trying to animate it—we can animate a girl, make her run around and things—but carrying this story is different.
“There’s a lot of story here with the girl, and trying to carry the story with a cartoon girl puts us in a hell of a spot. We might, in the whole picture, have, say a dozen complicated trick shots, but the rest of them would be close-ups and working around it. We can get some good characters and good music. There’s so much stuff in this business, we could work around the girl.”
At the meeting, it was suggested that actress Gloria Jean, who was 14 at the time and had just appeared as W.C. Fields’ niece in the film Never Give a Sucker An Even Break, should be considered as a live-action Alice.
The outbreak of World War II prevented further work on that project. In 1944, the Disney Studios provided the cover artwork of a massive mushroom and the famous caterpillar for a record album based on Alice in Wonderland read by actress Ginger Rogers, who was 33 years old at the time.
The album featured original music composed by Frank Luther and conducted by Victor Young. Initially on a set of three 78rpm records on the Decca label, catalogue number 5040 in 1944, it was re-released in 1950 in 7-inch 45 rpm format and as a 10-inch LP.
Besides Rogers, voices on the album included Lou Merrill, Bea Benaderet, Arthur Q. Bryan, Joe Kearns, Ferdy Munier and Martha Wentworth. Learn more about (and hear) this record album in Greg Ehrbar’s Animation Spin post here. Supposedly, Walt briefly flirted with the idea of doing the live-action/animated version of Alice with Rogers in the lead. However, he later decided he might use Luana Patten who he liked in Song of the South.
Coming up in a couple of weeks, I’ll tell you about what happened when Walt brought in author Aldous Huxley to write a live action screenplay for Alice in Wonderland with animation segments (like in Song of the South).