M&C Interview: Alice Davis talks Cruella De Vil and the Davis legacy for Disney

The best interviews are always with the creative people behind the scenes from Hollywood, veterans who have a wealth of captivating stories and have left incredible legacies of real cinematic art. 

I was fortunate to speak with a Disney Legend in her own right, Alice Davis, the widow of legendary Disney animator and Imagineer, Marc Davis.

Ms. Davis had a robust career alongside her famous husband and is responsible for the vivid memories you may have from your own Disneyland visits, with her costuming of the animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean ride and children of a “Small World” attraction in Florida’s Disneyland.

Marc Davis was the creator of the classic 1961 Disney film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” uber villainess, Cruella De Vil.  He based his rendered character drawings on author Dodie Smith’s description of (by today’s standards) the politically incorrect smoking, fur loving heartless harridan.  It was this movie that I saw in theaters in the late Sixties as a youngster that completely shaped my lifelong views on animals and their exploitation for human fashion.


How she met her future husband was rooted in the arts. Alice received a call from her former Chouinard art instructor Marc Davis. He needed a costume designed and created for Helene Stanley to wear for some live-action reference footage being filmed to inspire his animation of the lead character Briar Rose in the 1959 classic, “Sleeping Beauty.”

Alice recalled, “Marc wanted to see how the skirt worked in live dance steps, and that was my first job at Disney.” That job led Alice to design costumes for Disney’s live-action motion picture “Toby Tyler” (1960).

Ms. Davis spoke with Monsters and Critics and shared some insight to the making of “101 Dalmatians”, the 1961 classic that has been remastered and released as a two-disc platinum edition available on March 4.

Alice, anyone who has been to Disneyland has seen your work – especially the great Pirates ride, what was the most challenging aspect of dressing those characters for you?

Alice: “Dealing with all the wires and logistics of the bolted together limbs of the animatronic characters.  I had to design pants that could be put on over the head versus the usual way, and all the feet were bolted to the floor.  There were wires and controls we had to be mindful of.  The pirate on the cannon was a real challenge, his controls came up through his stomach and chest, we had to figure out how to dress him with those considerations, there were some really challenging moments and it was a real strain on the brain accommodating the controls and the lengthy day in day out motion of the characters.”

How did you know what to adorn the Pirates and their cohorts in, did you do your own research after seeing the drawings that were presented to you?

Alice: “No, Marc did all the drawings and gets all the credit for that, he designed the costumes and I simply reproduced his drawings as close as possible, the skin was a challenge, we experimented with several materials.  These figures moved and were on the job for sixteen hours a day. 

Sometimes the skin would just break, and one character chasing a female character was designed with hairy arms in a tank top, but that didn’t work out and I had to put long sleeves on him. I worked with some talented machinists who worked so hard, and together we came as close as possible to Marc’s drawings, and they would show him, ‘see chief,’ proud of the finished animatronics figures in action for the attraction.”

Marc joined Disney in 1935 as an apprentice animator on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and moved on to story sketch and character design on “Bambi” and “Victory Through Air Power.” He also animated Disney classic features as “Song of the South,” “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland,” as well as shorts, including “African Diary,” “Duck Pimples” and “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.”  

As one of Disney’s original Imagineers, Marc contributed to the iconic Disneyland attractions such as the Enchanted Tiki Room, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and The Jungle Cruise.

Your husband was a dedicated creative artist in helping Walt Disney realize his own dreams, ranging from perfecting the animated story to creating the world’s first theme park, Disneyland.  How did Marc get his foot in the door in 1935 and connect with Walt and the Disney studio?

Alice: “Funny story.  He was up north and his dad was pushing him to be an architect, but Marc liked drawing. Now this was all during the Depression, so it boiled down to do you want to get some work and eat?

Disney studios were advertising to hire artists and he wrote a letter to Disney studios asking for a job as an animator. Well, he received a letter back addressed to Miss Davis, stating ‘Dear Miss Davis, We are not hiring women at this time..’ and until the day he(Marc) died, he wished he had held on to that letter.  They though he was a woman because his name was spelled ‘Marc’.

Well, after that he got his portfolio together and came to Los Angeles and presented his animal drawings, which were very good, and they hired him.  He spent six years of his life on ‘Bambi’ alone.” Marc once said with regards to Disney Studios, ‘I rarely felt confined to the animation medium. I worked as an idea man and loved creating characters, whether they be for animation or any other medium.’ “

Did Mark ever mention to you that he could fashion a great character from inspiration of real people you both knew?

Alice: “He could cook up a great character on just about anybody.  He said an animator was just an artist with a pencil.  It was nice for him, because nobody really knew who he was, and he was constantly studying people and going through TV logs and watching whatever was on and sketching it.  Whatever he saw he would draw it, he was a very rapid artist with his drawing ability.”

Did he every sketch you?

Alice: “No, never – except he did do caricatures of me for our annual Christmas cards every year, and they were very flattering usually, he’d shave a few pounds off me!” [laughs]

In 1963, Walt Disney recruited Alice to contribute her skill to the attraction It’s a Small World for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Collaborating with art designer and fellow Legend Mary Blair, she researched, designed and supervised the creation of more than 150 highly-detailed costumes for the Audio-Animatronics Children of the World.

How big was the crew of seamstresses, and other craftspeople who worked with you to create all these costumes?

Alice: “I had five girls who worked with me, I made all the patterns but our crew was small by today’s standards.”

In 1965, you translated the pirates’ attire from Marc’s original drawings of the shiver-me timbers cast and crew into clothing designs and patterns for all of the costumes featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Alice: “I went from sweet little children to dirty old men over night.” 

When your husband Marc was once asked to choose a favorite among his bevy of grand Disney dames, he reportedly replied, “Each of my women characters has her own unique style; I love them all in different ways.”

Did Marc draw Cruella with any real people in mind that you knew of?

Alice: “Not really, he drew her from the description in the book, he had great fun with it and took the cues from The Hundred and One Dalmatian’s author Dodie Smith’s fantastic description of who she was.  He was overjoyed at bringing Cruella ‘out’ in animation, and her personality from Dodie’s book.”

Betty Lou Gerson voiced Cruella De Vil, she was from Tennessee, yet she had the most evil English accent nailed perfectly.  Did you know her, and did your husband hear that voice before he animated Cruella, or did she see the animation first and then cook up that voice?

Alice: “What the actors did was they usually had the rough sketches from the animators of their characters and then they recorded the voice first. Then the animators would hear this and draw the characters mouths and expressions to match what was heard.  

Now she was a big-time soap opera star out of Chicago, and she insisted to see the live action ‘101 Dalmatians’ in the theater. 

When the film was released, she was seated next to me, and she kept talking to the film!  She was going on about how this was not right and that scene was cut wrong, and finally I had to ask her to keep it down and talk a little softer.  We had people all around us and they were getting annoyed.

She lived near us in Los Feliz hills and she would always be seen out an about in her furs and wearing a black and white wig in stores and such. She was a delight and very funny, but she loved to smoke until she decided to quit and then she was death to anyone who smoked.  But I asked her if she would ever give up furs and she said ‘never, I love fur’ and she really did too!”

Married in June 1956, Alice and Marc enjoyed a Disney fairy-tale-romance-come-true for 44 years until Marc’s death in 2000.

Alice Estes Davis continues consulting for the company and making special guest appearances at Disneyland events.

101 Dalmatians (Two-Disc Platinum Edition) is now available for pre-order at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for this version of the DVD in the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.