The Playing Card Characters in Alice in Wonderland

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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In discussing the Disney animated feature films, some of the smaller supporting characters that have added to the story, or the gags, are too often dismissed and forgotten. In John Grant's very fine book, Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, where he occasionally spotlights the smaller characters, even he fails to mention the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland (1951) whose roles add much to the end of the film.

Perhaps because Walt was so vocal about his disappointment with the film, the animated feature doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Renowned Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar recently wrote an excellent essay about the record album of the music from the film (including vocals by Darlene Gillespie) put together by Tutti Camarata for Disney Records in 1957. Matt Crandall the ultimate Disney Alice in Wonderland expert (who even has items from the Disneyland attraction in his house and, like Ehrbar, has frequently helped me out when I had questions) supervises a terrific website devoted to the many aspects of the film.

In the 1951 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report, Walt stated, "Due to poorer attendance at motion picture theaters during the period of its release, Alice has not performed as well at the box-office as did Cinderella...However, it is a classic property which should be a valuable asset to the company indefinitely." That year the company's gross income fell by almost a million dollars and profits dropped from more than $700,000 in 1950 to $429,840 in 1951, primarily because of the poor showing of Alice even though for decades people had demanded that Walt produce the famous story as an animated film.

As animator Ward Kimball recounted, "I think perhaps the decision to make Alice was based 50 percent on the fact that we sorely needed another feature at the time, because a lot of animators had to be kept busy. Disney had many, many artists on the payroll during this period, and he preferred to keep them working on his own projects rather than to let them seek employment elsewhere between features."

"Surely, an economic factor here was the combination of Alice's good name as a famous property and the fact that so many animators were out of work," he said. "Also, because of the story's episodical nature, Walt could quickly assign different people to different sequences or characters without worrying too much about hook-ups between the sequences."

Certainly, Walt had long been interested in the story of Alice. As he stated in American Weekly magazine (August 11, 1946), "No story in English literature has intrigued me more than Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It fascinated me the first time I read it as a schoolboy and as soon as I possibly could after I started making animated cartoons, I acquired the film rights to it. Carroll was revolutionary in the field of literature. He violated the serious Victorian tradition by writing Alice in a vein of fantasy and nonsense."

I have always wondered if, like with Peter Pan and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt was influenced by first seeing Alice in Wonderland as a silent film. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (A Fairy Comedy) was released as a silent one-reeler in 1910 when Walt and his family moved back from Marceline to Kansas City, Missouri, which had a movie theater

In 1915, Nonpareil Feature Film Company released a 50-minute silent version of the Carroll story. At the end are scenes with actors in black outfits and wearing card fronts and backs to portray the playing cards.

E.G. Lutz in his book, Animated Cartoons, from which Walt learned the techniques of animation and recommended it to others, like Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, has a final chapter discussing that the Carroll story would be a wonderful idea for a future animated film.

It is something Walt may have had in mind when he made Alice's Wonderland where a young girl enters a world of madcap animation and later when he considered making his first feature film be the Carroll story with actress Mary Pickford as a live-action Alice in an animated world.

In 1938, Walt formally registered the title Alice in Wonderland with the Motion Picture Association of America as a future film and began serious work on the project.

In three months, artist David Hall produced more than 400 concept sketches for the film that were used to create a Leica reel (a film using still drawings and a rough soundtrack to give a rough idea of what the film might look like). Walt saw it in November 1939 and realized the foundational story idea needed more work.

Some of Hall's illustrations were used in the 1944 book Walt Disney's Surprise Package but many more were used in an Alice in Wonderland edition published in Great Britain by Methuen Children's Books in 1986 and featuring an absolutely wonderful Afterword by acknowledged Disney historian Brian Sibley. Hall went on to be an art director for films at 20th Century Fox and MGM.

The incredible Didier Ghez has an entire chapter devoted to Hall's work for Disney in his recently released book They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Musical Years that features even more of Hall's distinctive conceptual artwork for the film.

World War II prevented further work on the film but, in 1944, Walt brought in psychoanalyst Dr. Joseph Wood Krutch to the studio to help his artists understand the story of Alice.

Work finally began seriously in 1949 and over the next two years, 50,000 man-hours, 700,000 drawings and $3 million were devoted to producing the film. Thirteen writers are credited with the story, besides Carroll.

Alice in Wonderland had its world premiere at the Leicester Square Theatre in London on July 26, 1951. Walt attended, accompanied by a very young Kathryn Beaumont (who voiced Alice) in an Alice costume.

In one of the most beloved Mickey Mouse shorts, Thru the Mirror (1936) directed by Dave Hand, Mickey, after reading the Lewis Carroll book Through the Looking Glass, dreams that he has climbed up on to the mantel in his bedroom and gone through the huge mirror into a realm where anything is plausibly impossible.

One of the highlight scenes, leading directly to the finale, is Mickey sliding into a pack of cards that scatters and he leads them in a march like a regiment of soldiers. They cut and shuffle themselves with at one point Mickey getting caught up in that action.

He begins to dance with them in a scene often described as being in the spirit of the great dance numbers by Busby Berkley and Mickey being as elegant a dancer as Fred Astaire. An often unknown fact is that legendary Donald Duck comic book artist Carl Barks worked as an in-betweener on the scenes where Mickey tap dances with the cards.

This all leads to a sequence where Mickey dances cheek-to-cheek with the beautiful Queen of Hearts and perhaps gets a little too close.

The jealous King of Hearts springs into action and challenges Mickey to a duel. Both the King's top and bottom halves can swordfight independently but Mickey wins in the end by using a sewing needle as his fencing rapier.

The angry king calls every card from multiple packs to chase after Mickey and they throw their suits like spades and diamonds at him as weapons. Mickey fights back with a variety of clever weapons from a squirting fountain pen to an electric table fan until he once again makes it back safely to his own bed.

This delightful short foreshadowed a similar situation in the animated feature.

"I am not afraid of you! You're nothing but a pack of cards," huffs disgusted Alice angrily but firmly in the Disney animated feature classic Alice in Wonderland (1951) during her chaotic trial. Grown to enormous proportions, she even picks up a handful of her tormentors and tosses them in the air.

The foul-tempered Queen of Hearts, who is childish and irresponsible, but with complete authority, and her seemingly endless army of mindlessly loyal card soldiers, is just one of the many obstacles that the overly curious Alice encounters on her journey through the wild and wacky world of Wonderland.


Walt was inspired by Lewis Carroll's original depiction of the playing cards in the original story to create the ones used in Alice in Wonderland.

English playing-cards are well known and used all over the world in a wide variety of card games, including bridge and poker. The traditional four different suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs) actually derive from an earlier French version of the game. Representations of royalty, like kings and queens, usually signify the highest value with the numbered cards being considered different levels of servants and subjects.

Unlike the simple paper boards in Alice's real world, these colorful playing cards in Wonderland have magically sprung to life with faces, hands, feet and voices. The final design of the cards in the film is inspired by author Lewis Carroll's original description in his book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865): "They were all shaped oblong and flat, with their hands and feet at the corners...and the soldiers walked two by two..."

No matter what the suit, the cards all had similar looking faces featuring large white eyes with small black pupils and bulbous reddish noses. They were all attired in gloved hands, hoods that draped over their heads and the tops of their shoulders and puffy ankle boots in either black or red depending upon the color of the suit.

The Queen's royal guard all carry long, thin spears with menacing spade shaped tips. All the cards have the same indistinguishable brownish tan colored back with a white border so that when they lay face down, they cannot be identified. They all operate with a type of "hive mentality" common in certain insects like bees and ants where they function as one efficient unit to take care of the Queen rather than exhibit individual personalities and goals.

The deceptively simple format of the cards was expanded by the genius of color stylist Mary Blair whose innovative use of design distinguished many previous Disney animated films, including The Three Caballeros (1945) and Cinderella (1950).

The scene referred to as "The March of the Cards" mimics the hallucinogenic aspect of the Pink Elephant sequence from the earlier animated feature, Dumbo (1941), with the various suits of cards becoming neon pink, blue, green and yellow as they go through their nightmarish musical maneuvers.

John Canemaker, well respected animator and Disney historian, remarked that "the 'March of the Cards' derived from dozens of Blair's small paintings is as visually exciting as anything in the Disney canon. Blair's 'March of the Cards' sketches display the dynamic staging and choreography, colors, and semi-abstract imagery seen in the final version on the screen."

The predominant suits in Wonderland's nasty monarch's service seem to be stately hearts and spades, although there are occasional appearances by diamonds and clubs as well. For the most part, the bumbling clubs seem relegated to more menial tasks like gardening, and demonstrate not only the overall unrelenting dread of the Queen's ever-changing moods but a lower-class accent and unsophisticated manners.

The first three cards that a lost Alice meets when she enters the garden maze in front of the castle are in fact clubs: the Ace of Clubs, the Two of Clubs and the Three of Clubs. This hapless trio has inadvertently planted white roses instead of the customarily preferred red hue. Little Alice discovers these poor fellows desperately and unsuccessfully trying to correct their fatal error with overflowing cans of bright red paint slopping on the offending flora before the arrival of the intimidating monarch.

As mentioned by Canemaker, the March of the Cards that precedes the arrival of the Queen is quite a spectacle and defines their precision movement as a group, a trait that is also seen at the end of the film, where they transform into a frightening wave trying to engulf the escaping Alice.

Disney historian Leonard Maltin claims, "One of the best visual scenes in the film involves the March of the Cards, heralding the Queen's arrival. Here colors flash on the screen and the cards form a succession of geometric figures as they march along, with various imaginative camera angles heightening the effect. The scene concludes with a ready-made card game; the cards shuffle themselves and deal out to nonexistent players."

While they appear anthropomorphic, the multiple decks still behave like playing cards when it comes to stacking and fanning themselves. During the count off scene near the end of the musical number, there is a brief glimpse of the Jack of Hearts, who is strangely the only other face card in the multiple decks since all other royal face cards are mysteriously missing from this land of wonder.

Perhaps that decision was made so as not to distract from the King and Queen of Hearts, who are in a more three-dimensional form and are apparently the only rulers of the realm.

Walt brought in the songwriting team of Sammy Fain and lyricist Bob Hillard to compose the songs for the film.

As Fain later recalled about the creation of the instrumental tune for the "March of the Cards," "I had this two-bar intro or 'vamp' that I was using for another song, and Walt heard it one day. He came over and said, 'Sammy, I like that. I think it would fit with the cards marching. Do you think you can do something with it?' So I took this vamp, really a throwaway line, and worked it into the march. Walt impressed me with his uncanny ear for what type of music would work in his pictures."

Inviting the befuddled Alice to an unusual game of croquet, her royal majesty expects her commands to be instantly obeyed without question by her stalwart card troops. The Queen's soldiers act as the hoops on the croquet field but live in constant fear of displeasing the Queen and being beheaded so they race around to guarantee all of her shots are great shots.

In the original book so many cards fall victim to the Queen's anger during the game that the only players that remain are the Queen, the King, and Alice. In the film, only the unfortunate Ace of Hearts is dragged off for failing to move quickly enough into place to allow the Queen's hedgehog ball to roll underneath its curved body.

Poor little Alice quickly discovers that it is no fun playing games with these single-minded military cards and their matriarchal leader who seems to like dealing from the bottom of the deck so that she trumps everyone else.

Disney has used the playing cards as images for trading pins and statuary but, like many of the colorful villainous minons, including Maleficient's stupid goons, they get little respect and attention for the richness they bring to enhance a classic story.

 

Comments

  1. By Endlessmajesty

    Great detailed article! after my first few weeks of doing journalism I've developed a new appreciation for this type of content. Keep it up

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