Sunday, August 16, 2009

RIP Virginia Davis

Virginia Davis, Walt Disney's first human star and the original Alice of his partly animated Alice Comedies, died Saturday morning, animation historian Jerry Beck said on the Cartoon Brew site. She was 90.

Also known as Virginia Davis McGhee, she had been in failing health for the past year, Beck said.

In an interview published in this February's issue of Autograph magazine, Davis reflected: "In particular, I like to think that those who said over and over 'It all started with a mouse…' became aware that Walt Disney's career really started with a little four-year-old girl -- me!"

In 1924 and 1925, Davis appeared in the first 13 titles of Disney's Alice Comedies series, which was an innovative blend of live action and animation on film.

The comedies -- one-reel (5- to 10-minute) low-budget projects -- featured simple plots about the adventures of a live girl in Cartoonland. As Davis later recalled, "It was always a little story where I would get into the cartoon through a dream or I was hit on the head with a baseball, and suddenly I'd find myself in a world of cartoon characters."

She was born Virginia Margaret Davis in Kansas City, Missouri on December 31, 1918 to a homemaker and a traveling salesman. At age two, Davis began taking dance and dramatic lessons. A couple of years later, when Walt Disney was struggling with his first studio, Laugh-O-gram Films, he happened to see Davis in a Warneke's Bread advertisement in a local theater.

Later, when he went to produce his first Alice Comedy, Alice's Wonderland, he remembered her long, blonde ringlets and charming smile. Disney placed a call to her parents, and Davis became a star.

Due to legal complications, Alice's Wonderland did not see theatrical release, although it was shown privately to cartoon distributors in 1923. It was released decades later on the DVD collection Disney Rarities.

For the next two years, Davis starred in such Disney shorts as Alice's Wild West Show and Alice's Spooky Adventure for M.J. Winkler Productions. The "Alice Comedies" have been periodically featured on the Disney Channel during its Vault Disney segment.

Alice's Day At Sea, also with Davis, set a record many years later. In April 1994, a poster for the 1924 short was sold at Christie's in London for the equivalent of $36,534 U.S. This, according to Guinness World Records, is the highest price ever paid for a cartoon poster.

Davis later ended her tenure with Disney, who went on to make more than 40 other Alice films. She continued performing in the theater, including a West Coast tour of Elmer Rice's Street Scene, and in a number of films for such studios as MGM, RKO, Paramount and Fox.

Among her credits are Three on a Match (1932), starring Joan Blondell as Mary Keaton. She portrayed Blondell's character as a child. (Also in the film were a young Bette Davis and -- in a smaller role -- Humphrey Bogart.)

Later, Davis did voice testing for Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as for some of the little boys' voices in Pinocchio.

In The Harvey Girls (1946), she was an uncredited Harvey Girl, appearing alongside Cyd Charisse and Judy Garland. She was in the scene in which Garland and Ray Bolger introduced the Oscar-winning song "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

She also appeared in such early TV shows as Your Hit Parade and One Man's Family.

Davis went on to earn a degree from the New York School of Interior Design and became a decorating editor for the popular 1950s magazine Living for Young Homemakers. In 1963, she began a successful career in the real estate industry in Connecticut and later, Southern California.

Over the years, Davis remained in contact with the Walt Disney Company, and was often a special guest at such events as the annual Disneyana Conventions held at either Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

She was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998.

In 2005, Leonard Maltin interviewed her for the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set. That year, the Annie Awards presented her with its Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement.

She lived in Montana and Idaho during her final years.

Virginia Davis was predeceased in 2005 by Robert A. "Bob" McGhee, her husband since 1943. She is survived by daughters Margaret Sufke and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and by granddaughters Kristianne, Nicole and Juliette Zandbergen.

DAVIS, Virginia Margaret
Born: 12/31/1918, Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.A.
Died: 8/15/2009, Corona, California, U.S.A.

Virginia Davis's westerns - actress
Alice's Wild West Show - 1924 (Alice)
The Man from Red Gulch - 1925 (Cissy Falloner)
The Harvey Girls - 1946 (Harvey girl)

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