5 Things You Didn’t Know About Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

 

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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#1: It Was the Origins of the Disney Studio

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Walt Disney started his career in animation at a rather young age by working at the Laugh-O-Grams Studio in 1921.  But that job was doomed to fail, because the Kansas City based studio went bankrupt in 1223, leaving Walt Disney without a job. The last film he made for that company, Alice’s Wonderland, never saw a release. The film, loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, followed a live-action girl that ventured into a cartoon world. Walt was very fond of his film, as he had always dreamed of making a full-length film based on Alice and he believed this short to be the first step towards that goal. He used it as a pilot to engage potential distributors into signing him on for a contract and a steady job. Eventually one did; Margaret J. Winkler (distributor of Felix the Cat), contracted Walt for an entire series based on the film. Through this deal, Walt founded his own studio in late 1923 titled Disney Bros. Studios (the ‘Bros.’ part referring to Walt’s lifelong partner and brother, Roy Disney), and today we know this company under its more familiar title…Walt Disney Productions! The studio was literally founded on Alice! And it would have been the subject of Disney’s first Feature-length film, if it hadn’t run into a bit of a problem!

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#2: One of the Longest Projects in Disney Animation

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As we mentioned above, Alice in Wonderland was considered as the primary candidate for Walt’s first feature-length film. In fact, Walt went so far as to purchase the rights to Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations of Alice. However, the concept was dropped in favor of Snow White for several reasons. The main reason was Walt’s discouragement when Paramount Pictures beat him to the punch in 1933 with their live-action version of Alice. However, Walt never forgot his dream of making his own version of Alice. He revisited the idea in 1938 after Snow White proved to be an enormous success. He even registered the title with the Motion Picture Association of America. But due to creative issues and story problems, especially with adapting the unorthodox ‘nonsense’ of the books into a script, the project slowed down significantly. Then the devastation of WW2 hit, putting both of Disney’s biggest projects at the time (Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan) on hold. Even after the war, Disney had so much trouble adapting the books into a workable plot structure, that production became a virtual nightmare. This led the film to be delayed for another 6 years, until it finally made its big screen debut in 1951.

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#3: It Went Through A Lot of Crazy Changes

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Mary Blair’s cute artwork

As you can imagine, 15 years in production caused a lot of changes to the Alice in Wonderland story. An early version, with concepts and story treatments by David Hall and Al Perkins respectively, explored a more surreal approach. However, Walt, despite praising Hall’s brilliant artwork, deemed these concepts as too close to Tenniel’s drawings and called them ‘difficult to animate’. He also thought the tone of Perkins’ treatment was too ‘grotesque and dark’. The next iteration of the story, for which Disney hired the British writer Aldous Huxley, was also a bit off the mark. This version was reportedly very academic in its approach. Apparently, it was too academic, and risked alienating the children who watched. However, a background artist by the name of Mary Blair finally arrived at the tone and look that Walt was searching for; a world full of vibrant colors and unforgettable characters!

(Below are side-by-side comparisons of David Hall’s concepts and Tenniel’s original illustrations for the novels)

#4: The Characters were Just as Fascinating Behind the Scenes

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Speaking of characters, Alice has some of the most memorable characters in any Disney film. This was largely due to the voice talent, which was considered the first real all-star cast for a Disney film. In fact, it was the first ever Disney film to include the names of it’s actors as a major part of its marketing, something that wouldn’t happen again until The Jungle Book. The cast included huge stars like comedian Jerry Colonna as the March Hare, British actor Richard Haydn as the Caterpillar, radio veteran Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat, and the famous vaudevillian actor Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter.

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Jerry Colonna, Ed Wynn, and Kathryn Beaumont recording for  theMad Tea Party

 

Ed Wynn, a stage master, did most of his best work improvising during the live-action reference filming; so much so, that Walt decided to use the primitive audio of those shoots instead of his pre-recorded work. The result was a brilliant impromptu performance, but with slightly odd-sounding audio. You can even hear a sound technician’s voice during one scene at the 45:50 mark! These voice talents, coupled with genius and unorthodox animation by Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men (with Ward Kimball’s madcap animation being of note in the most famous scenes), created iconic versions of the characters that have become as famous, if not more so, than John Tenniel’s designs.

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Ed Wynn’s performance directly inspired the animation, as seen here with the spoon gag that appears in the finished film.

#5: Its Music Broke Records

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Last, but not least, was the fact that Alice in Wonderland still holds the record for the most songs in any Disney film EVER! Not only that, but the film’s memorable songs won the Academy Award for best original score. Due to Walt’s desire to including Carroll’s famous poems and rhymes in the film, without interrupting the story, he opted to turn most of them into songs. Originally, around 30 songs were created for the film, but due to run-time, it was cut to a total of 14 songs in the 75 minutes of the film; that means there was a song almost every 5 minutes!

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What’s your favorite Alice fact?

Disneyland Almost Failed!

Disneyland Almost Failed!

Disneyland Almost Failed!

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On July 17th, 1955, one of Walt Disney’s greatest dreams became a reality. Disneyland opened its gate for the first time, and the world would never be the same! But what if we told you that this dream was very close to dying before it even got off the ground? What if I told you that, without Walt Disney’s seemingly endless perseverance and dedication, Disneyland might have failed?

Some Disney fans are already aware of the fascinating and disastrous day that happened almost 65 years ago, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, we hope that you leave today with greater appreciation for The Happiest Place on Earth and the extreme effort that it took to make it come to life!

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The story begins in the early days of the Disney Studios, when Walt was inspired by visits to amusement parks with his daughters in the 30’s and 40’s; reportedly, he came up with the concept while watching his daughters riding a carousel from a nearby bench. He was frustrated that there weren’t enough experiences at the park that he and his daughters could enjoy together and he made up his mind to one day build a park where kids and grown-ups could play together. Thus, Disneyland was born!

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The development for Disneyland was long and tedious, yet undeniably fascinating. We don’t have the time to cover all that history today; that’s a subject for another time. But the long and short of the ordeal was that Walt Disney’s plans continued to grow…and grow…and grow, until his ambitious dream began to worry the money-men. However, Walt was determined to see the culmination of his dream project no matter what happened. So, Walt continued to fund-raise, promote, invest his own money, and even borrow against his own life insurance to get the project up and running!

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Naysayers surrounded the project. The Disney Board argued that Amusement Parks weren’t their type of business, Roy Disney (Walt’s brother and business partner) warned Walt against the financial ruin it would cause if it failed, and even Amusement Park experts told him that nobody would be interested in a ‘family park’ that (at the time) wouldn’t sell alcohol! Most critics even went so far as to call Disneyland Walt’s worst decision ever, and a foolish idea that was doomed to fail. It seemed that most people thought that Disneyland would never work. In hindsight, we know this to be false, as Disneyland was not only a huge success, but it also reshaped the Theme Park Industry as we know it. However, during its construction it was a legitimate fear that Disneyland would not succeed. Many people were very worried.

Then came Black Sunday.

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Black Sunday was the name that Disney Executives gave Disneyland’s opening day of July 17th, 1955 due to the perceived disaster of the theme park’s debut. The park opened to the public and press with what was, at the time, considered a disaster of epic proportions. First, the opening day was meant to only be open to the media and special invited guests; instead, twice as many people as expected showed up! This was due to a vast number of counterfeit tickets sold to the public, and even a few people climbing the fence and sneaking through gates. In fact, about half of the 28,000 people in attendance that day had entered Disneyland illegally.

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The opening day festivities were broadcast worldwide on ABC, hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future President Ronald Reagan! although this seems like an amazing idea, unforeseen broadcasting problems quickly mounted with so many unexpected guests. People tripped over television cables left and right, problems sprang up around technical issues and mistakes, cues were missed, responsibilities were mismanaged, and there was even an improvised ‘skit’ involving Linkletter looking for his lost microphone (he really had misplaced it but tried to hide the fact by making the search an ‘impromptu adventure through Disneyland’).

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In addition, a regional Plumbing Strike forced Disney to chose between water fountains and toilets. Of course, Walt chose the latter for sanitary purposes. However, since Pepsi sponsored the park’s opening, guests mistook the lack of working water fountains as a greedy way to force them into buying soda! Soda and food ran out very quickly due to the demand of so many guests. Parents threw their kids over the shoulders of the crowds to get them on rides faster, and people cut in line (not that the last one has changed all that much). The Mark Twain Riverboat even began to sink when guests continued to force their way on, even after Cast Members told them that the boat had reached peak capacity! There were even the problems resulting from unexpected weather, as the unusually high temperature of 101° Fahrenheit caused the newly poured asphalt to become soft. This led to things like high heels sinking into the sticky substance.

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By the time the park closed for the day, it seemed as if Disneyland had been the failure that everyone had been expecting it to be. If we were there on that day, without the benefit of hindsight, we would have probably said the same thing. To all who heard about it, the day seemed like a nightmarish disaster.

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Today, historians recognize that most of the perceived disaster was due to bad luck, and the park being unprepared for so many people. They now can objectively see that the park was a success with fans from its very first day, despite what it had looked like in the moment, and the second day attendance proved this. the park managed very well on its second try and the insanity of Black Sunday became a legendary false alarm as Disneyland quickly became one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world. Walt Disney’s vision finally became a reality, but not without a few scares along the way!

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If Walt hadn’t stuck with his dream and persevered against all odds, Disneyland might have never existed!

What do you think was the craziest thing to happen on Black Sunday?