While Walt Disney dropped the idea of an animated Alice in Wonderland with a live-action Ginger Rogers, their stars did cross through an unusual Decca record album.
GINGER ROGERS as Alice in
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Decca Records Personality Series D-376 (12” 78 RPM / 3 Records / Mono)
LP Reissue: DLP-5040 (10-inch 33 1/3 RPM 1949) (Also released as a 7” 45 RPM Set)
Released on October 21, 1944. Director/Writer: George Wells, Adapted from the books by Lewis Carroll. Musical Score/Musical Direction: Victor Young. Cover Illustration: The Walt Disney Studio. Interior Illustrations: John Tenniel. Recorded in Los Angeles on March 30 and 31, 1944. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Voices: Ginger Rogers (Alice/Narrator); Arthur Q. Bryan (White Rabbit); Martha Wentworth (Queen of Hearts); Lou Merrill (Mad Hatter); Dick Ryan (March Hare); Joseph Kearns (Caterpillar); Bea Benederet (Duchess); Ferdinand Munier (Mock Turtle); Eric Snowdon (Gryphon); Leo Cleary (King of Hearts); Duane Thompson (Dormouse, Baby).
Songs: “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” “You Are Old Father William,” “Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy,” “Beautiful Soup,” “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and Frank Luther.
“In March 1944, the Walt Disney Company asked me to make a recording of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland for the Decca Records Personality Series,” wrote Oscar-winning movie legend Ginger Rogers in Ginger: My Story. “I had read this story as a youngster and it was one of my childhood favorites.”
Walt Disney surely must have enjoyed this recording, particularly Rogers’ performance. According to Mark Salisbury in Alice in Wonderland: An Illustrated Journey Through Time, the Oscar-winning actor was one of three contenders to play a live-action Alice in an animated Wonderland. The others in consideration were Luana Patten (one of the studio’s earliest contract players, who appeared in 1946’s Song of the South and would play the romantic lead in 1957’s Johnny Tremain); and Lisa Davis, who would go on to voice Anita Radcliffe in 101 Dalmatians (1961) The scenarist was A Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who had adapted the film version of 1943’s Jane Eyre for 20th Century Fox. (Jane Eyre was directed by Robert Stevenson, by the way, who became one of Disney’s top directors of such hits as Mary Poppins and The Love Bug.)
Disney wasn’t happy with the lack of humor in Huxley’s approach and the project was abandoned in favor of an all-animated Alice. The film we know today went into production two years after the release of the Ginger Rogers Decca album. The album lived on for a several years after the 78 RPM era as a ten-inch long-player and a 45 RPM set.
While the Walt Disney/Ginger Rogers Alice feature never progressed beyond the talking stage, looking back at the Decca album is fascinating because, even though there is nothing on the actual recording produced by the studio, the cover art was created by an uncredited Disney artist. In this art, one might interpret a resemblance to the bizarre David Hall designs created for another version of Alice, attempted just after the completion of Pinocchio.
Ginger Rogers herself is seen on the cover looking for all the world as if she has already been cast as Alice, or perhaps been involved in costume tests. Thanks to “Vivian” at a Rogers tribute site, the image of Rogers on the album cover has been identified as being from the 1942 Paramount comedy The Major and the Minor, in which Rogers’ character posed as a child to save on train fare and rollicking fun resulted. The black and white photo was retouched for color, with slightly different treatment on the sheet music.
The Disney connection to the album is limited only to the cover art. It does not extend to the recording itself, but there are connections. Martha Wentworth, who plays the Queen of Hearts on the discs, voiced Mad Madam Mim for The Sword in the Stone and also played witches on two Disneyland LP’s, Hansel and Gretel and The Scarecrow of Oz. Joseph Kearns–a baby boomer TV legend as “Good Ol’ Mister Wilson” on the Dennis the Menace sitcom–is the album voice of the Caterpillar (and plays him remarkably like Richard Haydn did in the film). Kearns is the only actor who is on both the Decca recording and the Disney movie. He played Disney-created Doorknob (“I’m l-l-l-locked!”). Warner Brothers fans will also note that, on the Decca album, Arthur Q. Bryan voices the White Rabbit in the manner of Elmer Fudd.
Decca utilized top Hollywood talent for all of this album series, calling upon the best actors in radio to support the leads, and top production people handling the production duties. Victor Young, who came up the wistful, melodic original score for this Alice, also composed the underscore for Max Fleischer’s 1939 Gulliver’s Travels feature and won a posthumous Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days, to name a few great scores. Writer/director George Wells moved from radio into major Hollywood films including Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Gene Kelly and Designing Women with Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck.
Disney cover art also adorns two other Decca “Personality Series” albums that also do not have any Disney material on the records themselves. Like Alice, they have a copyright mark rendered in a “Disney” handwritten script, which must have caused a considerable amount of confusion over the years as to whether or not these were Disney recordings.
The second of the other two albums is another George Wells adaptation. It’s a fine retelling of Cinderella in verse—not an easy task to accomplish, especially with a full cast speaking their lines. This album was released five years before Disney’s 1950 Cinderella feature and the character on the cover bears no resemblance to the Disney lass. One casting twist of fate though, is that Verna Felton voices the Stepmother instead of the Fairy Godmother, as she did in the 1950 Disney film. This 78 RPM set was never reissued.
Another “Welles,” his last name spelled differently and his first name “Orson,” was the director and narrator of the emotionally stirring Decca release of The Happy Prince, for which he also adapted the story by Oscar Wilde. Bing Crosby also stars, giving a superbly moving performance in the title role, with music by the legendary Bernard Herrmann). Of the three albums, this one had the longest mileage, reissued many times on 78, 45 and 33 1/3 RPM speeds in 7-, 20- and 12-inch sizes, sometimes by itself and sometimes paired with Crosby’s Decca recording of The Small One (which of course later became a Disney featurette).
Both The Small One and The Happy Prince were performed live on Crosby’s radio programs. Decca albums like this gave audiences a way to have a permanent copy after the live show was over. It is possible that Cinderella may also have been based on radio broadcasts, as many of Decca’s spoken word “Personality Series” albums were also heard on radio shows such as Favorite Story and Family Theater.
Based on an April 8th, 1944 item in Showman’s Trade Review, Decca’s Alice in Wonderland was an original production adapted especially for Ginger Rogers and was not from radio (the songs did exist before, however, as you will see below). It is also the only one of the three unusual Decca record albums with Disney art given a deluxe, 12-inch, three-disc 78-RPM record presentation. Clearly it was intended as something extra special by those involved in its creation.
“I was thrilled to make this recording, and it was a rewarding experience,” Rogers concluded. “The sales of this recording were excellent, and I received many nice fan letters. One letter in particular that I remember very well was from a little boy who asked me to come to his house and play. I guess I sounded as young as he did. Over the years, the letters have still come in, asking if I have a copy of Alice, as they want to give it to their grandchildren.”