The original voice of Anita Radcliff talks about the new DVD, her memories with Walt and the new crop of animated movies
Lisa Davis has been involved with the wonderful world of Disney for practically all her life. She was considered for the role of Alice in Alice in Wonderland, but didn't get the role. The role she did get was Anita Radcliff in the seminal Disney classic 101 Dalmatians. I had a chance to talk with her over the phone, and here's what she had to say.
I read in your bio that Walt Disney himself personally flew you to the States from London to audition for Alice in Wonderland. How did you meet Walt?
Lisa Davis: Well, I was a young girl in London, working in the British film industry, and I started working when I was six years of age. When I was 12, I was cast by a very very great director in a picture. That director was David Lean. You know David Lean? You know of his great movies?
Lisa Davis: Walt had seen that picture, and he was looking for a young lady to play Alice in Wonderland at the time. I had long blonde hair and I looked very Alice in Wonderland-like. I was. He brought me to Hollywood to do some wardrobe and makeup tests, because when he first decided to make Alice in Wonderland, he was going to have an alive Alice, and cartoon around her. It was something that he had done very very early in his cartoon making. He had made a series of short films with an alive Alice and cartoon characters working around her. Of course, those were shorts, and when he got into the full-length idea, it became a very very expensive project. He changed his mind and decided to animate Alice and the other characters. He sent me back to London and I was heartbroken. I was really heartbroken and he said, 'One day, I promise to try to movie you again. I'll remember you.' Well, of course, many years passed and I made it back to Hollywood. I signed a contract to many studios working as a young actress. In the late 50s, I did a really truly horrendous movie. It's probably one of the worst movies ever made. I say that quite honestly. That picture was called Queen of Outer Space. It was so bad that it's good now. Sometimes these movies start off their life and they're dreadful, but they get a cult following. It's great now, I go to screenings of it now and people love it. I did get one thing from it and that was I learned how to imitate Zsa Zsa Gabor. I did a pretty good Hungarian accent, and when he decided to make 101 Dalmatians, he was thinking of Cruella, he thought he might give her a slightly Hungarian accent. He called me into the studio and I came in to audition for Cruella de Vil. Of course, I was totally wrong for Cruella. I was 21 years of age. I was very British, very young, sitting across the table from a great man, and he was reading Anita and I was struggling to play Cruella with a Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. I just knew I was totally wrong for it. It was a disaster, but how could I tell Walt Disney that he had made a mistake? I got my courage up and I said, 'Excuse me sir. I'm so thrilled to be here again to have this opportunity, but I'm really not Cruella. As I hear you read Anita, I am Anita. I feel like Anita.' He said, 'Would you like to give that a try?' and we switched roles. He read Cruella, quite well I might tell you. He loved that. He loved doing voices. He was the original voice of Mickey, you know. So, I read Anita, and it was just a perfect match. I was a young British girl, Anita was a young British girl, everything worked and he said, 'Perfect.' And that's how I became Anita.
How did you work on these films back then? Did you come in after the animation was done, or did you come in before?
Alice Davis: No, it was all being done simultaneously, bit by bit. You'd be called into the studio, and they'd have storyboards, like cartoon pictures. They were all around the wall and you'd look at them and there would be one line to do that day. Just one line. I would go in and read that over and over and over again, until the sound was right. The quality that Walt Disney brought to the studio, was always perfection. In fact, I don't think he ever thought he acheived it, but we always strived for it. The wonderful thing about it is it's terribly simple. It's a young husband and wife, their puppies being stolen by a villain. She's probably the most perfect villain there ever was. When you watch it, you get totally wrapped up in it. It's sweet, it's simple and it touches your heart. What I think is lacking today is that so much we see on the screen doesn't really tug at your heartstrings. You probably relate to Disney films that you saw as a child.
Alice Davis: What did you see as a child?
Oh, well, this is one of them. I think they put this out a couple of other times.
Alice Davis: Yes. You related to it, and it touches your heart. It comes from the heart, which the Walt Disney product always did, and it goes to the heart. That's why they live for us, and that's why we can see them again and again. I have grandchildren now that have seen it. In fact, the night that they screened it at the El Capitan theater there on Hollywood Boulevard, I had my three-year-old grandchild. It's a beautiful product.
Do you think Walt himself would've envisioned this film standing the test of time for so long?
Alice Davis: I hope that he would. I really think this man is legendary. I mean, he changed America, really, when you think about what he has done with the parks, and everything that he did. I remember being with him when he was showing me his plans for Disneyland. He had minatures of all of the rides. He was very very excited about it. When we were working on 101 Dalmatians, he was working very expensively on Disneyland, but he had time for everything. He had time for all of the people who worked for him. He was a very kind and generous man with his time, and wonderful to be around and very paternal. I think that he knew what he was creating in all of the pictures. My first memory of my first Disney movie was Bambi. I remember sitting in the theater with tears rolling down my face when Bambi can't find his mother because she's been shot by hunters. Even when I see Dumbo today, and she's singing to the little baby elephants. The baby has big ears, and I'm heartbroken. It's because the story is so good, the stories were wonderful. When you have a good story, and you put quality production into it like he did, you have everything.
Do you have a favorite special feature on this new Platinum Edition DVD?
Alice Davis: I absolutely do. Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney. They found the leters that Walt Disney wrote and Dodie Smith wrote back and forth when Walt first decided to make 101 Dalmatians. I'm reading Dodie Smith's letters on that feature. It actually taught me a lot more about the movie than I had known. She was delighted with what he did with it. She was very excited. There was only a couple of things she wasn't happy with, and that was the fact that Pongo, who as a dalmatian would have spotted ears, he had black ears, which they don't. They have white ears with spots on them. And then also the story editor Bill Peet changed the name of the main dog, the female dog, in the movie it's Perdita, and in the book the name is Misses.
I see you're on the lecture circuit now. Do you ever get offers to come back and do voice work, or have you considered any?
Alice Davis: I do a lot of documentary, voice-over narration, and I lecture on board cruise ships.
Well, that's about all I have for you. Thank you so much for your time.
Alice Davis: My pleasure, sir. Thank you.
101 Dalmatians Platinum Edition is on the DVD shevles now.