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Marvellous Alice: The Marvellous Humor in Disney's Laugh-O-Grams and Alice Comedies

Edited by Rebecca Rowe


The Alice Comedies are one of the most important developments in the history of the Disney company, and you may not have even heard of them. Without the Alice Comedies and their success, there would be no Oswalt and no Mickey. The first of the Alice Comedies appeared in 1923, entitled 'Alice's Wonderland.' The success of this short allowed it to undergo a 12-episode contract which became the Alice Comedies. The first segment of the Alice Comedies appeared on-screen on March 1st, 1924, and was entitled 'Alice’s Day at Sea.'

Disney historian Russell Merritt emphasizes the importance of 'Alice’s Day at Sea': it was Walt Disney’s first Hollywood production which Walt 'single-handedly wrote, designed, and animated' (Merritt 2020, 20). With 'Alice's Day at Sea' turning 100, the following will focus on the history of the Alice Comedies, as well as the history of Disney in the 1920s and the importance of the marvellous as found in these early Disney shorts.


The Marvellous: A Fairy Tale Element in Disney's Narratives

What is the marvellous? Why is it important? Disney Studios has become the most prominent contemporary producer of fairy tales in the modern world (Bemis 2023, 14–18). A key element in fairy tales is the aspect of the marvellous. As Lewis Seifert states in Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France (1996): 'Anyone even remotely familiar with folk- and fairy tales will recognize that one of their most prominent features is the use of marvelous (ie. supernatural) characters and settings' (1996, 21). More precisely, when the term 'marvellous' is used in the literary sense, it is defined as the following:

A category of fiction in which supernatural, magical, or other wondrous impossibilities are accepted as normal within an imagined world clearly separated from our own reality. The category includes fairy tales, many romances, and most science fiction, along with various other kinds of fantasy with ‘other-worldly’ settings […] Modern theorists have distinguished marvellous tales from those of the uncanny in terms of the explanations offered for strange events: in the marvellous, these are explained as magic […] (Baldick 2015).

Such a category of fiction can be expanded beyond literary studies and into media studies. When analyzing a filmic text, there is a similar understanding that the world an audience is viewing is separate from one's own reality, even when entirely immersed in the visual experience. This cinematic world can hold the elements of 'the supernatural, magical, or wondrous' as well as multiple impossibilities that are 'accepted as normal' (Baldick 2015). From the Laugh-O-Grams to the Alice Comedies to even their most recent cinematic releases, Disney implements the use of the marvellous.


Marveling the 1920s: The Laugh-O-Grams

The use of the marvellous can be found beginning in Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams (1921-1923), before the Disney studios even existed. With the marvellous, there is an assumption that no explanation is possible or needed regarding this new world (Seifert 1996, 22–23). This section will look into how Disney furthered this concept of the marvellous in the Laugh-O-Grams before further developing it in the Alice Comedies.

The Laugh-O-Grams were some of Walt's earliest works. Walt Disney came to create the Laugh-O-Grams after a young Walt met Ubbe Iwwerks (later shortened to Ub Iwerks) while he was an apprentice artist at Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in 1919 (Thomas 1994, 55–57). Eventually, Disney and Iwerks both found employment at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. During this time, Disney started the 'Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams' (Merritt 2020a, 14). To create 'Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams,' Disney studied Paul Terry’s 'modernized versions of the ancient fables' - Aesop’s Fables (Barrier 2007, 33). Terry’s Fables were made with cels – cel animation – which was a form of animation that Disney began studying while at Kansas City Film Ad Company (Barrier 2007, 32–33).

The 'Newman's Laugh-O-Grams' featured several jokes and afforded Disney financing to continue his animation venture, leading to his first studio: Disney incorporated Laugh-O-Gram Films in 1922 and developed Laugh-O-Gram Studios (Thomas 1994, 62). The short-lived company declared bankruptcy in 1923 (Davis 2006, 71). In that short time, they produced several Laugh-O-Grams, which were parodies of fairy tale classics that had been modernized (Merritt 2020a, 14).


In 1922, these fairy tale based Laugh-O-Gram shorts appeared under the titles Little Red Riding Hood, The Four Musicians of Bremen, Jack and the BeanstalkGoldie Locks and the Three BearsPuss in BootsJack the Giant Killer (also titled The KO Kid), and Cinderella. The first of these cartoons was Little Red Riding Hood (1922) (though the incorporation papers listed The Four Musicians as the first completed cartoon; Barrier 2007, 32). This cartoon is based on the 'Little Red Riding Hood' fairy tale with shorter Lafflets (animated jokes) to accompany it. These Laugh-O-Grams provided Disney with 'a few modest successes' (Davis 2006, 70).

As many fairy tale scholars note, there is no ‘original’ fairy tale, and the versions created by Disney are just more adaptations in a long line of adaptations (see: Schenda 1986; Mollet 2013). These various tellings, retellings, and adaptations are all part of the fairy tale's innate ability to adapt to current social discourses. This includes the fairy tale stories adapted by Disney, and it is in these 'early shorts [that] Walt Disney was working out his reinvention of the fairy tale' (Connolly 2022, 96). In these reinventions of the fairy tales, Disney continued on the elements of the marvellous that are inherently found in their literary forms.

An example of the marvellous as found in the Laugh-O-Grams can best be found in Disney’s Little Red Riding Hood (1922). This short opens with the earliest version of Julius the Cat helping his owner, Little Red Riding Hood’s mother, make doughnuts in the kitchen with the use of his shotgun. Red Riding Hood picks up the basket, hops in her dog-powered car, and drives the doughnuts to her grandmother’s house. On the way, she runs into an older man driving a Flivver car. This man drives off to beat Red Riding Hood to her grandmother’s house while Red Riding Hood is distracted picking flowers. The man is able to shrink his car down and fit it into his pocket before going up to the grandmother’s house. The man sees that the grandmother has gone to town to see a movie. He then uses this to his advantage. When Red Riding Hood approaches the door, he snatches her into the house. She calls out for help, and the dog that powered her vehicle sprints off to find help. The dog comes upon a pilot and uses his barks to communicate to the pilot that Red Riding Hood is in danger. The pilot and the dog fly off and save Red Riding Hood from the lecherous man. The short film ends with Red Riding Hood and the heroic pilot sharing a kiss as they fly off – a happily ever after.

In the world of animation and cartoons, the laws that govern physical possibilities are vastly different from our own world, but audiences accept them without hesitation. Cartoons pair things we know (e.g., cars) with things that are utterly impossible in reality (e.g., a dog acting as a car's engine). This is what Seifert calls a 'melding of so-called realistic and [marvellous] features' (1996, 21). These instances of melding between realistic and marvellous appear in Little Red Riding Hood throughout the entirety of the plot.

This mixture starts from the very beginning of the short: when the mother of Little Red Riding Hood is making doughnuts, the cat is using a shotgun to make the holes before they fall into the pan on the stove. There is a blatant acceptance by the audience of such a feat, even though it is impossible to occur in the real world.

Such impossibilities continue through the short as Little Red Riding Hood’s car is powered by a hungry dog pushing the vehicle forward from the back. The evil businessman can shrink his car down to fit into his pocket. The dog can communicate to the pilot about Little Red Riding Hood’s predicament. The plane can carry a house. All of these elements bring in the element of the marvellous to the short. These instances are not realistic, but they are necessary elements to further the plot, bring a sense of marvellous to the short, and provide the humor that Disney wanted for these Laugh-O-Grams.


Little Red Riding Hood (1922) reveals the way Disney employs the use of the marvellous to engage with the humorous. Through this other world, and its different governing laws, humour can be found in its contradiction of the world in which the audience resides. Some media uses the 'pleasant conceit of imaginary land which [becomes] a melting-pot where all stories meet and incongruities [are] abound' (Langford 1997, 487).

In Little Red Riding Hood, the incongruities arise when the world of the cartoon is compared with the audience's reality. In the cartoon the marvellous arises with the impossibilities of the cat shooting a shotgun, the dog-powered car, the businessman's ability to shrink his car, and the plane's powerful lift of a house. When placed in conversation with the governing laws of the audience's reality, such abilities seem bizarre. Humor then arises. Humor, in this case, 'thrives on whimsy and joy' as it 'seeks, not to expunge folly, but to condone and even to bless it, for humor views folly as endearing, humanizing, indispensable' (Gurewitch 1975, 9).

Through the incongruities of the cartoon world to that of the world in which the audience inhabits, humor appears through the whimsy and joy of the cartoon characters abilities. The whimsical way in which the cat creates doughnuts with a shotgun, and the way the dog powers tLittle Red's car. Joy that arises when the heroic pilot comically saves the day by defeating the lecherous businessman. While the marvellous appears throughout Little Red Riding Hood, not every instance of the marvellous includes the humorous, but many of them do. Disney works use the marvellous to create a humorous world through the adaptation of fairy tales in the Laugh-O-Grams. In terms of Little Red Riding Hood (1922), the humor is prevalent throughout, but it is delivered by the marvellous feats of the cartoon characters; the marvellous that fairy tales deliberately use (Seifert 1997, 139).


Alice Comedies: A Marvellous Structure

Unfortunately, even with the success of these shorts, Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studios ran into financial troubles. This is where the long history of Disney and Alice begin. Before Alice in Wonderland (1951), Disney had attempted to include Carroll's Alice in his first series, the Alice Comedies.

Fig. 7: Alice Plays Croquet

When Laugh-O-Gram filed for bankruptcy in 1923, the staff had yet to release a short film based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland entitled Alice’s Wonderland (Hollands 2019, 36). This short film had a live-action Alice wandering around an animated world full of cartoon characters (Allan1999, 211). This short film is considered the last one for the Laugh-O-Gram Studios, as the Laugh-O-Gram Studios went bankrupt during the production of the first episode, but it continued as part of the Alice Comedies series (Thomas 1994, 65–66; Hollands 2019, 37). This series, while inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), had 'no connections with Carroll's work' (Allan 1999, 211).

The Alice Comedies ran from 1924-1927, with the pilot airing in 1923. The Disney Brothers Studio was established during this time, and they continued to produce the Alice Comedies with the financial backing of Margaret J. Winkler (Hollands 2019, 38). Excluding the pilot, there were 56 Alice Comedies made ('Alice Comedies' 2024), though some of these episodes have been lost over time.

The Alice Comedies presented a reversal of the popular Out of the Inkwell cartoons by Max Fleischer. Instead of cartoon figures coming to life on artists' drawing boards, Disney put 'a human figure in a cartoon world' (Thomas 1994, 65). The pilot, Alice's Wonderland, has Alice dreaming of 'a fantasy village' where 'the town residents greet her with a royal parade, that culminates into a festival where Alice is the guest of honor' (Merritt 2020b, 23).

While the older Alice Comedies have more of a live-action introduction and ending, as time went on, the focus shifted. By the time the character of Alice had been taken on by the 4-year-old Margie Gay, 'live-action frame stories vanished, freeing Disney's staff to concentrate entirely on animation' (Merritt 202b, 25). The Alice Comedies from 1925-1926 (around 31 comedies), has Alice appearing in 'cartoonland' and seemingly living there with no live-action shots.

While in the pilot there is an explanation that Alice is in a dream world through the live-action scenes, the rules of this dreamworld are not explained, just merely accepted - showing Walt Disney's use of the marvellous in the Alice Comedies - even in the pilot. This use of the marvellous continues on in 'Alice's Day at Sea,' starring the first Alice, Virginia Davis.

Some of the elements of the marvellous in this short are initially revealed through the exemplary skills of Alice's dog. Alice's dog lives in a house of its own with a bed, an alarm clock, and the dog even has a mailbox on the outside of its house. The dog is able to dress in its harness by itself, wake up Alice for their adventure, and even drive a car.

These acts of the marvellous appearing in a Walt Disney creation are similar to his previous works. The dog's abilities are implemented in a similar way as the cat's abilities in Little Red Riding Hood; an once again, Walt Disney employs the use of the marvellous to engage with the humorous.

There is significant uses of whimsy and folly in 'Alice's Day At Sea' to create humor. However, by using concepts from Carroll's work, Disney develops this relationship between the marvellous and the humorous by incorporating Victorian and Edwardian themes into his 20th century American shorts. The primary theme favored by Victorion and Edwardian humor is the 'topsy-turvy' and the 'nonsensical' as they 'appear in the wonderlands of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. More common though, are liberating or minatory irruptions of magic into conventional life' (Langford 1997, 487). While the Alice Comedies are predicated on Carroll's works, they do not inherently adapt or follow Carroll's tales of Alice. However, they do have similar themes and methods to incorporate the humorous through the marevellous.

Disney's Alice Comedies follows in Carroll's use of the dreamworld to create a fantasyland where the marvellous arises. While Carrol 'makes highly inventive use of topsy-turviness [and] extracts humour from almost pure nonsense,' Disney has a different approach. Disney's approach is simlar to that of Diana Wynne Jones, 'who deploys magic with equal confidence and comic effect in both contemporary settings and secondary worlds' (Langford 1997, 487). By using the dreamworld and secondary worlds, Disney's 'Alice's Day At Sea' has a comparison of the whimsical and marvellous of Alice's real world to that of the cartoonland she dreams of.

There is then a layered effect of the humorous and the marvellous. There is a use of 'humorous fantasylands' and the 'importing [of] magic and myth into the contemporary world' (Langford 1997, 488). Disney inverted the use of magic and myth in the contemporary world to purposely juxtapose that of Out of the Inkwell. While the magic appears in Alice's dogs abilities, it is Alice who leaves the contemporary world and enters into a world of cartoons and whimsy. This inversion of the humorous fantasyland only adds layers to the marvellous and the humorous in the short as the audience and Alice share a similar experience.

The audience is not only seeing the comparison of Alice's real world to that of her cartoon world, but the audience also brings their own understandings of their world to their viewing. Alice's world has the marvellous and humorous through her dog's abilities, which the audience enjoys because it is different than that of their own reality. Alice then has a similar experience to that of the audience when she enters into her cartoonland dream. Alice finds the cartoonland humorous and marvelous through the cartoonland's own governing laws - as can seen in figure 9 with Alice laughing. Three laws of reality are then being undergone at once, creating various levels of humor through the marvellous.

The humorous emerges as the marvellous breaks from the rules of reality. Disney implements the marvellous to create the humorous. By breaking with the rules of reality, Disney places Alice in the cartoon world which has its own set laws that govern physical possibilities that seemingly break from the ones in Alice's world. Yet, this new world and its laws are accepted by Alice and the audience.

Furthermore, Disney's Alice undergoes a variant of the 'nonsense' that Carroll's work has through 'the theme of disruption caused by wishes and answered prayers' (Langford 1997, 487). Disney is known for using wishes and prayers in Snow White and the Seven Dwrafs (1937) to Alice in Wonderland (1951) to the company's recent film Wish (2023). In 'Alice's Day At Sea,' Alice wishes she could be a sailor before falling into her dreamworld of cartoons. In this dream, her wish comes true, as she is a sailor who undergoes a shipwreck.

Once in the dream world, Alice is revealed to be on a boat that wrecks during a storm, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Alice appears on the animated ocean floor, able to seemingly breath underwater without a diving apparatus - an instance of the governing laws of the animated world coming into contrast with the laws of Alice's world and the audience's world. This is not the only instance of the marvellous. As Alice looks around, she sees fish playing music and dancing, a family of cat fish that are cats with fish tails, and King Nep's Zoo - which has a series of animals found on land, but now have fins. This new world has governing laws that show animals form Alice's world with fins, creating a humorous comparison.

This sort of humour arises from the marvellous. In this cartoonland, aquatic animal/fish hybrids are behaving like humans and there are even half-cow half-fish creatures that are being milked. The humor continues when Alice is being chased by a large fish, in an attempt to swallow the child whole. Alice finds a car, underwater, by a sign that says, 'Sea Going Hack.' The humor arises because in Alice's world, and in the audiences world, such ac car would not run underwater, nor be waiting for her as a means of escape. The humor continues when the fish swallows Alice and her car. It then swallows a swordfish. Alice's car and the swordfish fight inside the fish, causing it to fall and for Alice to leave unharmed. Her car and the swordfish leave limping on crutches from their fight. This humorous instance also incorporates a personification of the car to the point where it leaves a fight on crutches.

Alice eventually wakes back up and the animation is gone as the film returns to live-action once more. In doing so, Alice's dog returns to the screen and finds the sailor from earlier to help Alice get out of the net she is trapped in. Alice tells the sailor of her dream and they merrily laugh as the short comes to a close.

Once again, humor can be found throughout the short. It is the humorous acts of the aquatic creatures that aid in driving the plot while Alice is in this new animated world. The marvellous also appears alongside the humorous once more. In this new world of the Alice Comedies, there is no explanation needed of the rules of this animated aquatic world nor of Alice's world. The audience marvels at Alice's world and her amazing dog, while Alice marvels at the wondrous underwater cartoonland she finds herself in. The rules and nature of Alice's world and the cartoon world are not needed, but seemingly understood by the audience, Alice, and the characters of the short - therefore - it is an act of the marvellous. A combination of the realistic and the marvellous coalesces to create a magical scenario where a live-action human can exist in an animated world, as well as cause humorous disruptions that drive the plot.


We Love to Laugh: Marvellous Humor

Even though the Laugh-O-Gram cartoons were imperative to Walt Disney's journey as a cartoonist, the Alice Comedies are what truly 'marked a major turning point in Disney's career' (Merritt and Kafuman 1993, 55). The Laugh-O-Grams provided a foundation for Disney, but it was the Alice Comedies that provided Disney with success and a place to further develop the use of the marvellous with the humorous.

This use of such a combination can be noted as Walt Disney's 'marvellous humor.' Such a technique and approach can be found in the Laugh-O-Grams and in the Alice Comedies.

The Alice Comedies 'are in every way apprentice films, witty and frequently charming, providing Disney with a storehouse of gags, plot ideas, and secondary characters which he reintroduced and refined [...] Pieced together, the Alices form a cluster of themes that would develop and dominate [Walt's] classic works of the '30' (Merritt 2020b, 20-21).

It is in these early cartoons that 'many of the ideas and strategies' used within later became distinctive, identifying signatures' of a Disney work (Merritt 202b, 20).

This 'marvellous humor' can be noted as such a distinctive and identifiable signature of Walt Disney. An interesting relationship between the marvellous and the humorous are still found in contemporary Disney media. From Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Wish (2023), humor and marvellous elements abound. It can be seen in more than just animated works by Disney as well, films such as Mary Poppins (1964) follow a similar structure to that of the Alice Comedies.

Mary Poppins follows closely to the Alice Comedies plot as it uses cartoon and live-action shots when they dive into the chalk drawings and begin the 'Jolly Holiday' sequence. The marvellous appears in Mary Poppins' abilities, which are seemingly accepted without question, as is the ability to float and laugh, and the ability to jump into chalk drawings to enter worlds where cartoons and people exist side-by-side. The humor is used during these sequences to once again create the 'marvellous humor' of Disney.

While further analysis is required to reveal just how the 'marvelous humor' of Disney has evolved overtime, it is apparent that such a significant use of a fairy tale concept is implemented beyond a simple narrative element, but ingrained into the Laugh-O-Grams and Alice Comedies. A historical analysis is required to better track and understand such a phenomenon in Disney's ever expanding corpus.


Dr. Brittany (Bee) Eldridge is an instructor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine. They hold a PhD from University College London, and they are the Head of Communication for the Disney, Culture and Society Research Network (DisNet) and their Blog Editor. Along with Disney, her research focuses on modern fairy tales, adaptations, gender, queer studies, motherhood and archetypal studies. Her most recent work is “Forgive Me, Mother for I Have Sinned: Cinderella Meets Derrida’s Forgiveness” (2020), “The Erasure of the Elderly Hatter: 21st Century American Remakes of the Mad Hatter” (2025), and a co-edited collection, The Nightmare Before Christmas, to be released in 2024.


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Fig. 1: 'Alice Comedies Poster.' Accessed on 05 March 2024.

Fig. 2: Opening to a Laugh-O-Gram. Disney, Walt, dir. 1921. Newman's Laugh-O-Gram. Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Fig. 3: Laugh-O-Grams Opening with a Fairy Tales book. 'Walt's First Fairy Tales.' D23. Accessed 05 March 2024.

Fig. 4: Still of Little Red Riding Hood (1922) Opening Sequence. Disney, Walt, dir. 1922. Little Red Riding Hood. Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Fig. 5: The Cat Shoots Doughnuts.  Disney, Walt, dir. 1922. Little Red Riding Hood. Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Fig. 6: Little Red Riding Hood and the Pilot Kiss. Disney, Walt, dir. 1922. Little Red Riding Hood. Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Fig. 7: Alice Plays Croquet. Tenniel, John, illustrator 1865. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Fig. 8: 'Alice's Day At Sea' (1924). Disney, Walt, dir. 1924. 'Alice's Day At Sea.' Alice Comedies. Walt Disney Studio.

Fig. 9: Alice Laughing at Street Crossing Fish. Disney, Walt, dir. 1924. 'Alice's Day At Sea.' Alice Comedies. Walt Disney Studio.

Fig. 10-15: Stills of Alice's Adventure. Disney, Walt, dir. 1924. 'Alice's Day At Sea.' Alice Comedies. Walt Disney Studio.

Fig. 16: Mary Poppins (1964). Stevenson, Robert, dir. 1964. Mary Poppins. Buena Vista Distribution Company, Inc.


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