Kathryn Beaumont Reflects on Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

Providing the voice for one of Walt Disney’s animated heroines is a cinematic trophy only a handful of actresses can lay claim to. But providing the voice for two of Disney’s animated heroines is a one-of-a-kind achievement that can only be credited to Kathryn Beaumont.

When the London-born Beaumont was ten years old, she was enlisted by Walt Disney to voice the lead character in 1951’s Alice in Wonderland, based on two of Lewis Carroll’s fabled stories. Two years later, Beaumont encountered pirates, Native Americans and the Lost Boys as Wendy in Disney’s Peter Pan.

Beaumont had relocated to Los Angeles when MGM put her under contract. She had small roles in such MGM films as On an Island with You with Esther Williams and Peter Lawford, The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien and Challenge to Lassie with Edmund Gwenn and, well, Lassie. But her biggest thrill came was when she part of the long-in-the-works animated feature Alice.

“Walt Disney was looking all over the United States and listening to all sorts of voices and I was called back,” recalls Beaumont from Los Angeles. “Disney just decided that the voice was more suitable, and he did want a British voice. Therefore, he thought I was not too British for American audiences and my voice was satisfying for the British.”

Like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland was originally shot in a live-action version first. Beaumont worked extensively with writer-producer-songwriter Winston Hibler as well as other directors on the project. “All were great to work with,” says Beaumont. “They made me feel comfortable and part of the creative team so I could sit and could watch the storyboards and go step by step with dialogue, and we all could make suggestions. Someone would say, ‘What if we put a side gag here?’  I watched the whole sequence so then I could lend my voice to it, feeling that I was part of it.”

For Alice in Wonderland, which has recently been offered in a deluxe Blu-ray edition, Beaumont had an opportunity to work with such colorful comic performers as Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter), Richard Haydn (Caterpillar), Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), and Jerry Colonna (March Hare).

Did Beaumont interact with some of these talents?

“I had some Interaction with them and particularly Sterling Holloway,” says Beaumont. “I was actually a little intimidated at first. They were all stars, but getting to work with them, I became much more comfortable and they were helpful and positive. They would make suggestions and it was a nice camaraderie.”

Beaumont was familiar with Lewis Carroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass before she started making the film. “In England, a lot of classic literature was read to children and my parents read the stories to me. I remember it was a tiny book with original drawings and the writing was quite large.

Young Kathryn and her new boss, 1949

“Walt Disney showed me the books and the chapters and he tried to get me to know what his visions were and what elements he wanted to highlight in the two books.”

Alice in Wonderland, a project that Disney once envisioned as a mix of animation and live-action starring silent star Mary Pickford, cost the studio a then-sizable $3 million. Some critics thought Disney’s version omitted the satire and edge of Carroll’s stories, but today the film holds up quite well, trading in the author’s verbal wit with charm, trippy visuals (which were particularly appreciated during a 1960s re-release) and inventive animated slapstick sequences.

According to Beaumont, Disney and the film’s directors were focused particularly on the movement of Alice in her Wonderland surroundings. “They wanted the naturalness and movements of a child,” says Beaumont. “They could see how I moved around in sequences. I behaved like I was making a live action movie, and they watched it and got the idea what the human figure was to look like.”

When Alice in Wonderland was complete, Beaumont did the publicity route, which included appearing on The Fred Waring Show and appearing in The Walt Disney Christmas Show with future Peter Pan voice talent Bobby Driscoll. Beaumont believes the latter was revolutionary, even though it didn’t seem that way at first.

“Walt Disney was a visionary and it was a new idea to have a Christmas show,” recalls Beaumont. “He thought it was a good way to do an early promotion and give the audience an idea of what he had coming out in animation. People caught onto the idea of a Christmas special, but he was actually the first person to think of a Christmas special. It was shot in August. There was a Christmas tree and it was so hot at the time.”

Beaumont, who went on to become a full-time teacher and do occasional voice work, says her experience making Peter Pan was different than making Alice in Wonderland in one important way.

“There were more human figures involved (with Peter Pan) and I got to work with humans,” she says. “When we did the live action for Peter Pan you got to someone to act off of, but in Alice you were acting against flowers and other objects.”