“I feel so blessed in my life that I played a role as a child that had a life all through the years and is still going strong,” Kathryn Beaumont tells PopcornBiz, marking “Alice’s" debut on Blu-Ray this week to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary. “It's so timeless that today adults and children can enjoy it in the same way that they enjoyed in the '50s when it first came out.”
Beaumont was an 11-year-old, British-born child actress who’d been under contract at MGM when she was suddenly tapped to breathe life into Alice for her soft, slightly accented voice. She had to steady herself for her first meeting with the legendary Walt Disney himself, by then an iconic name to young audiences for over a decade.
“I was really in awe when I learned I was going to play Alice,” she recalls. “I was going to meet Walt Disney to sign the contracts and all of that, and I was so nervous, because obviously I knew exactly who he was. I'd seen 'Bambi' I don't know how many times and all of the films that had come out up to that point. 'This is the person that created all of this and I'm going to get to meet him.'
When she visited his office with her mother, Beaumont remembers, “he answered the door and welcomed me in. He said, 'Oh, I know you are familiar with the story of Alice, coming from England.' He said, 'Do you know what we're going to do with it?' I'm standing there blathering away – I don't know what to answer. He said 'I want to show what we're doing and the changes that we're going to make.'”
As Disney paged through the original book by Lewis Carroll and explained his studio’s take on it, Beaumont – who also later voiced to Wendy Darling in Disney’s “Peter Pan” – immediately relaxed. “I felt throughout the time that I worked there that he was a good friend. You don't always feel that kind of feeling about the head of the studio. Walt Disney related to everybody, and I soon found that out.”
“I would see it in the cafeteria,” she explains. “He'd wait in line with everyone else with his tray. He would sit in on these storyboard conferences and be very quiet back there. He just listened in and sometimes he'd have an idea, but often it was the animators that were like, 'Oh, maybe we should put a little sight gag here,' or 'What would happen if we did this?' I would sit there watching all this creativity going on, just being amazed to be a part of it. I must've had an awareness that I was watching something very special going on because I was seeing it right from the ground up.”
Beaumont provided more than just Alice’s speaking voice: she also live-modeled the character in costume for elaborate reference films, helping the animators create more lifelike and fluid movements – an early precursor to actors’ extensive green screen experience today. “There was a camera, lighting, maybe a couple of boards, no backdrop and that was it,” she laughs, recalling how she pictured in her head where “co-stars” like the Cheshire Cat would appear. “You just used your imagination throughout.”
She vividly remembers filming Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole. “They had me fall over head first. I was somewhat high up, and then I basically fell onto a mattress – but that was just to show the falling over. Then they created a saddle that was mounted on a large doweling. My feet were in stirrups and the skirt of my dress were blown out by a very large crane so that it looked as if Alice was floating and her skirt was a parachute [to capture] the body motion that they needed to see how the character was floating down through the rabbit hole.”
For an 11-year-old, it was more play than work, she admits. “It was really so much fun!”