Kathryn Beaumont: Wonderland Days

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Kathryn Beaumont - Alice

When Walt Disney was looking for someone to lend her voice to the animated heroine of "Alice in Wonderland," a young English girl who had recently come to America caught his ear. Kathryn Beaumont would become twice immortalized through the magic touch of Disney, once as Wendy Darling in "Peter Pan," but first and foremost as Lewis Carroll's plucky protagonist, Alice.

With the sixtieth anniversary of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" upon us, we reminisced with Miss Beaumont about those days spent with Walt and his cadre of animation geniuses.

As I prepared to talk about your version of Alice, it occurred to me that most of the other leading Disney animated females fall into the Disney Princess pantheon. But Alice -- although the scene didn't happen in this particular adaptation -- is the only one of all of them to have been crowned a queen. So technically, I think you outrank the Disney Princesses.

(laughs) Oh! I never thought about that! That didn't cross my mind. You know, when they talked about grouping these ladies as they were the princesses, somebody mentioned something about that long ago. And it was, 'Yes, but you know, Alice couldn't have been a princess, because she was just a little girl who was growing up and had this marvelous adventure -- but it had nothing to do with being a princess.' (laughs)

How did you find out availability of the role -- were you in England when you auditioned?

Oh, no. I had actually come to America, and I was under his nose when Walt Disney was looking for his Alice. He was looking for a voice that was pleasing to both American ears and British ears -- it was a British classic, and he was a stickler for authenticity, and he was definitely looking for British. He wanted Americans to be comfortable with the British accent, and be able to listen to it without it being too strong an accent -- but he wanted the acceptance of the British audience as well.

So I read for the part, and then they called me to the studio to read it again. Then a while later I was called to be told that I was going to do the voice of Alice -- which I just couldn't believe. I thought, 'Am I really going to play this Very Important Character that's in this whole story and this whole film?' So I was just really surprised.

You mention that you were "under his nose." How do you recall your first meeting with Mr. Disney, and your impressions of him then?

(laughs) Well... You know, I was very much aware of Walt Disney through my growing-up years, and having seen his prior animated features -- most of them had been re-released at least once -- and so there was "Snow White" and there was "Fantasia" and "Bambi." And I had seen all these films, but I was also very aware of who it was who created these wonderful stories and this wonderful animation.

To me he was like a huge celebrity, so the idea of meeting this person was intimidating. I was nervous. We did have to meet for the first time to sign the contract and to take pictures and things like that.

But what I found was this person who made me feel so very comfortable right from the beginning. I'm assuming having had two children -- he had two daughters older than I, but he'd had that experience and was used to small children. And he just sat me down and said, "You know, I've got this book here, off the coffee table," talking about Alice, and was I familiar with it? And of course I was -- I'd had it read to me when I was very little until I was able to read on my own.

We sat and started looking at the book, chapter by chapter, and I started conversing with him about them and he was telling me about his vision and what things he was going to include from both books, and slight changes he was making for his interpretation. And before long, I just felt he was a friend, and I just felt very comfortable with him. So that was sort of my first experience with Walt Disney.

How busy was the promotional work? You had to do all these television appearances and publicity tours -- I imagine that was quite hard work, as exciting as it must have been, for a twelve year old girl.

It was a very very busy time. Fortunately it was in the summer, so I didn't have school on top of it! (laughs) That was a good thing!

We were flown to New York for a while -- I don't remember if it was a week or if it was two weeks worth of different things. But as I look back on it, I thought how smart it was of Disney to have me, instead of fly to England and then continue the same pace for the premiere -- because they were obviously going to do the premiere in England since it was a British classic -- I had the opportunity of going on the Queen Mary for the voyage there and the voyage back. And that, of course, took five days, and the idea was to have a little down-time before starting it all over again. That was really very good thinking on their part, they were really caring of what was happening with me; and being the age I was, it's a whole new world and a whole new experience. And it was very exciting, but I'm glad that I had that little break.

The sixtieth anniversary Blu-ray release of "Alice in Wonderland" includes, among many bonus features, the unused "Pig and Pepper" scene -- an iconic scene in the book with the Ugly Duchess that just didn't make the animated cut. Do you recall any other scenes you may have recorded that didn't end up in the finished product?

Hmm... I am trying to remember that. That is sort of a tough one. But what I was impressed with, that Blu-ray disc part does have quite a few features, as you mentioned, and one of them is when I was also asked to do the live action. I really enjoyed that experience a lot because there were really many cute adventures that were involved with some of the set-ups that they had to produce, so that I could do the actions so the animators could work with it. These things are filmed on 16 millimeter and then shown on a moviola, and then the artists can watch the movement and see how the figure is moving. It makes the action much more natural, and they can draw from that.

A lot of that stuff disappeared, but there are a few that are still around, and one of them was when Alice has come down the rabbit hole and she was trying to get out into Wonderland and encountered the doorknob. We go through that little scene, so you see me doing this live action in black and white, and then right next to it, it shows what was done and how it came to be what was shown in the film.

There's a lot of little things like that that show you a lot of background about how the film was put together. I had a lot of fun doing the live action portions.

I remember those clips. It was a beautiful shot, and I would actually have loved to have seen the whole movie put together from those original live reference scenes.

(laughs) That's a great idea!

There are also some live reference shots you did with Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna for the Mad Tea Party scene, which was really fun to see. Did you do live references for most, if not all, of the scenes? Did you play Flamingo Croquet with Verna Felton?

Yes. You know, I don't remember exactly what contraption they had for that one, but I do know that they had to hoist me up on something with stilts so that I was catapulted into the air. And Alice was -- as I was also -- ticklish. So here I am giggling like crazy, and I can't get myself extricated from the flamingo so that I can make this shot.

There was that scene, and then there was a scene with Alice being too large for the White Rabbit's house. The woodshop created a small wooden house, and they could put it over my head so my arms could stick out. I sat on a table, and the animators came in to check it, and said, "Oh, no, no, no! This is not going to work at all, we're going to have to think of something else." So they had to postpone the shooting day and go back to the woodshop. And they came back with a frame house -- the whole point of it being that Alice was moving her arms, and the animators were saying, "Yes, but in order to make it look realistic, we have to see her shoulders behind that. The movement starts with the shoulders, and it also starts with her body movements. Her upper body is going to sway, it is going to do things. We want to see that so that we can animated it to make it look realistic."

I remember a lot of interesting little episodes like that that had to do with the live action.

How involved was Walt Disney with the day to day workings? Did he come down often and supervise things?

No, but, you know, he was visible. I have to say that. He was just generally visible throughout the studio. I think he considered himself one of the creative team, and that was, I think, the whole concept with everybody. He'd go down to the cafeteria, and go down through the line with his tray. You'd see him in the elevator. You'd see him walking around the studio.

Now if, say, the directors were doing a scene, and they weren't quite sure -- as happened once that I remember... There was an interpretation of some lines, and they tried it one way and then they tried it another way, and then they sat there listening to both feeds, trying to decide. And then one of them said, "Well, why don't we just ask Walt down here and see what he thinks?" And then he was down there in five to ten minutes -- it didn't take him very long, and there he was! He heard the two interpretations, and he said, "Well, boys, I just don't know what you're worried about. I think the first one is just fine."

So he was around and he was visible. And that's sort of what I observed.

Did you manage to hang onto any favorite souvenirs from your time on the production?

When we did the special -- it was basically the first special that came on television before they did Christmas specials, and it was to promote "Alice." We filmed in August -- you know, hot August (laughs) -- and they had this Christmas tree up, so it seemed like walking into Christmas in August, which was a very strange feeling.

We went through what needed to be done, and then when everything was closed off and the film was finished, the fellows were taking down the tree when I was getting ready to leave. And they said, "Oh, Kathy, do you want some of these decorations?" "Would I!" And because they had the Disney characters on them. They were red balls, but they had Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse -- all of the characters! So I was able to get those, and I have them to this day.