Oh pardon me, but Mister Three, why must you paint them red?
With the commercial success of Cinderella, the studio was saved and Walt finally had the opportunity to reintroduce a film that has been revisited, revised, and in pre-production five different times over the course of thirteen years. However, this story doesn’t begin with Walt or his production team. Nor does this story begin with hallucinogens or drugs. This goes back three-quarters of a century to England and a Mr. Charles Dodgson.
The stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (yes, there were originally two stories) were written in the mid-late nineteenth century by Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Charles Dodgson.) Mr. Dodgson was a clergyman, mathematician, and photographer. Living on the campus of Christ Church, he became very close with the Liddell family, which consisted of Henry (the dean of Christ Church), his wife, and their four children. Because of Dodgson’s fascination with photography, he always had an excuse to be near the children, frequently using them as subjects. He told them fantastical stories as they went for picnics and walks.
One such day, Charles, his friend, and the three youngest of the Liddell children went for a picnic on a boat down a river. The children, as they often did, begged Mr. Dodgson for a story. This was the beginning of what would become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The youngest of the Liddell children was Alice, of which the main character was based. The other children were put in as other characters, while the more famous ones, such as The Queen of Hearts, would be based on more prominent people of the time. Alice begged and begged for Mr. Dodgson to write his stories down and he eventually obliged, giving a copy with his own illustrations to the Liddell family. The family was so entranced by his storybook that they insisted he have it published. Once realizing it was to be published, he hired Sir John Tenniel to do the illustrations.
I will pause in my history lesson to acknowledge an argument (not one of my own.) Were the Alice stories an innocent gesture for a little girl? Was Mr. Dodgson in love with Alice or her older sister? There was a point in which Charles and the Liddell family were estranged. Why? Are the accusations of pedophilia true? I do not know. Many Carroll scholars argue the contrary. He did, in fact, take nude photographs of children, but this was apparently a sign of the times. I will allow you to form your own opinion on the matter. Continuing on…
Once published, Lewis Carroll’s stories became tremendously popular all over the world. He changed children’s literature forever. Previous to his stories being published, all children’s stories and books were meant as morality tales. They were to teach children how to behave, how to think, and to keep quiet. Carroll insisted that his works would have no morals. They were simply for entertainment purposes. (Yes, you have Lewis Carroll to thank for changing literature and influencing all the other authors we know and love today.)
So what does any of this have to do with Walt Disney? I’m glad you asked.
As a schoolboy, Walt read Mr. Carroll’s stories. He became entranced, as so many children do, with the fantastical, nonsensical world of Wonderland. The stories perfectly reflected what it is like to be a child trying to live in a grown up world. No one listens to you, you’re constantly berated, and everything seems like nonsense.
In the 1920s, before Snow White, Mickey Mouse, or even Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, there was Alice. Walt Disney’s first commercial success came in the form of “the Alice Comedies” or “Alice in Cartoon Land.” These shorts featured live action as well as animated characters. The shorts were created in Disney’s first studio in Kansas City, MO. (There is currently a project to restore Laugh-O-Gram Studios – more information: here) While the Alice comedies had very little to do with Carroll’s novels, it was Walt’s first dabble with the idea.
Several (if not all) of the Alice comedies can be found on youtube (as they are now in public domain):
Alice’s Balloon Race
Alice’s Egg Plant
Shortly after Alice’s fame, Disney moved out to Hollywood where Oswald and Mickey would soon be born. Walt didn’t leave Wonderland behind in Kansas, however. The inspiration of Carroll’s Wonderland would follow him for many years to come.
In 1931, Walt Disney bought the rights to the illustrations done by Sir John Tenniel. These would later serve as inspiration for the film that we know and love today.
Alice could have very well been the “first” animated feature instead of Snow White. However, in 1933, the Alice project was put on hold due to another production company releasing a live action version of Alice in Wonderland.
Walt did not let his ideas of Wonderland escape. In 1936, the Walt Disney Studios created a Mickey Mouse short called, “Thru the Mirror,” and in 1938, Walt set his men to start developing Alice in Wonderland as a full feature. In the 1939 film, Pinocchio, you can see two books in the background – Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. These were the next two films being developed. Unfortunately, they kept getting delayed and would not make their debut for over a decade.
Finally, after the commercial success of Cinderella, Walt could once again revisit Wonderland.
While Walt wanted to stay true to the original material, several things were changed in the film (as so often happens.) Both books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were used as inspiration. Several characters were cut from the stories, such as the Mock Turtle, Duchess, the White Knight, and the Jabberwocky (to name a few.) Although the ideas were toyed with by the company, they were cut, mostly due to time constraints.
The scene in the Tulgey Wood was created by the studios to make Alice a more sympathetic character. This does not appear in the book(s). The Door Knob character was also created by the production team. The scene with the flowers was changed in that Alice is shorter in height in the film, creating a different dynamic and events.
Character Fun Facts:
- Disney originally wanted Luana Patten (Fun and Fancy Free, Song of the South, Melody Time) as Alice. At this time, it was being considered to do the film as live action. However, British actress Kathryn Beaumont would ultimately win out as Alice. She would also serve as the reference model.
- The March Hare was so named because hares mate in the month of March, making them “mad.” This is alluded to when, in the film, he says, “Who’s Dinah?” and begins to pant
- The Mad Hatter was named because in the 18th and 19th centuries felt was made using mercury. After prolonged exposure to the mercury, hatters would develop dementia.
- The tag in his hat reads 10/6. This is a price, not a fraction. It was never originally stated by Lewis Carroll that the tag was in the hat, but it has stayed since Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations.
- The mother oyster looked at her calendar, under the sea, and warned the oysters not to follow the Walrus. The month was March, with the R glowing red. Traditionally, oysters should only be eaten in months with an “R” in them, because in the other months it was too hot.
- The Cheshire cat was named because of the abundance of dairies in Cheshire, England. Charles Dodgson was born in Cheshire.
- Although the Jabberwocky does not appear in the film, the Cheshire Cat sings a verse from the poem:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Other Fun Facts:
- Alice in Wonderland contains the most songs out of every Disney film to date.
- Sterling Holloway appears as the voice of the Cheshire Cat (Also known for voicing Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, and the stork from Dumbo)
- Verna Felton appears as the voice of the Queen of Hearts (Also known for the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and various elephants)
- The Liddell family actually had a kitten named Dinah.
- On the title card, Lewis Carroll’s name is spelled incorrectly:
- Concept art was developed by Mary Blair (I love her, can you tell?)
Last, but not least, is the topic of drugs. Without doing any research, it is an understandable assumption that Lewis Carroll was on drugs. Everyone is insane. The caterpillar, in both the book and the films, is smoking a hookah. However, doing research, it seems to be that the author was not a drug user, but making references to things in his life. The hookah smoking caterpillar was inspired by artists that were photographed by Dodgson, for example. This argument can go either way, so I am leaving it alone. I am not well versed enough in Dodgson or drugs to make a point towards either side.
If you would like to compare the books with the Disney film, they are available for free as e-books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.