Thursday, April 16, 2009

Alice the Fire Fighter

One more short survives from 1926, and that’s Alice the Fire Fighter. After that, we’ll move on to 1927, which sees the end of the Alice shorts, and the beginning of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But to me, Alice the Fire Fighter seems like it could be the beginning of something that will continue for quite some time.

The story here is simple, there’s a fire and Alice and her fire fighters are called in to put it out. But that is what is so significant. Unlike some of the previous shorts, where we would spend 1-2 minutes in a dance party, 1-2 minutes in a chase sequence and attempt to bridge the gap between them with a shaky story foundation, the fire fighting is the story, and all the gags fall under that umbrella.

This is something that is very prevalent in the later Mickey Mouse shorts. Mickey and some companion, be it Pluto, Goofy or Donald or a combination of the three, are wrapped up in a task (window washing, ghost hunting, etc.) and the short involves the gags that each character gets wrapped up in. Alice the Fire Fighter is the first time I have really seen that sort of storytelling used with the Alice shorts.

The short opens with the fire in a nearby hotel, and a mouse runs out to ring the bell. The Clang of the bell awakens a succession of Julius clones, who mobilize to the fire with Alice leading the way. Back at the hotel, there are some fun gags, like the dog piano player playing notes to let the rats run down them to safety.

One of the Julii (is that the correct plural of Julius?) can’t reach the dog in the top window, so one of his brethren pushes the hotel closer. Others try to rescue a black and white dog trapped on the top floor, who jumps towards a safety net, misses and bounces off the ground onto the net.

The final sequence involves a female cat stuck in the seemingly huge top room of the building. One of the Julius clones tries to climb the spout to rescue her, but falls down. He eventually gets the idea to use the fire engine, and climb on top of the cloud of smoke being put out and ride it to the top. Both he and the female cat escape, make it to the ground and fall into each other’s arms.

As I said, it’s simple, but it seems to be showing us a preview of the format of Mickey cartoons to come. I’ll be interested to see if this pattern picks up in the Oswalds, since there are so few Alices left to review. Is the pattern of a task providing the story umbrella something that continues? I’ll have to wait and see.


  1. It's a real shame that just as the Disney shorts are starting to get really interesting so many are missing. However, a few more shorts do seem to survive than you realise. As far as 1926 entries go, "Alice Helps the Romance", "Alice's Spanish Guitar", "Alice's Brown Derby" and "Alice's Rodeo" still survive. For 1927, "Alice in the Big League" still exists (So do "Alice's Circus Daze" and "Alice the Whaler", but these are available on DVD).

    I've never seen them, but the majority of them seem to exist in European film archives. I don't know if there are any video copies around. If anyone knows it would be Tom Stathes or Ramapith (who has posted on here) maybe you could ask them if they can help you obtain copies?

    "Alice's Spanish Guitar" was supposed to see a release on DVD a few years as part of a DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation, but I don't think it ever happened.

    BTW you'll see how right you are about this short being something like a preview for the Mickey cartoons when you come to "The Fire Fighters" (1930)...


  2. Hey,

    The situation isn't as bleak as you suggest, I think/hope... some 1926-27 Alices do exist that you simply may not have copies of.

    I know Tom Stathes has at least CIRCUS DAZE and WHALER. HELPS THE ROMANCE used to be on YouTube but it's gone now... I wish I had a VHS source for it, but I don't. Some other webpages online still have broken links to the old YouTube video.

  3. Oops, I posted before I saw Anonymous' comment. He even recalled a few more extant titles than I did.

    AFAIK, ALICE'S SPANISH GUITAR was originally donated to George Eastman House under the condition that Disney never be allowed to use it (!). If this rule still stands, it makes it obvious why a DVD release would have been scotched.
    The worst is that I might once have been able to do something about this... some ten years ago I was in touch with the donor before he donated the film, but didn't think to ask him about the conditions he was imposing.

  4. Yeah, I have Alice the Whaler and Alice's Circus Daze, obviously, but the other 1926-27 films I can't get to. I've worked with Tom, but he does not have any of the others.

    I guess it's just sad that there is not a complete accounting of these films. Granted, it's not like they are just the best things ever, but for someone like me who is trying to see the evolution of Walt's filmmaking, it's hard when things are missing like this.

    Even Disney is not much better, as many of the live action films are no longer commercially available. I am saving up now for some of the ebay auctions I'll have to do for VHS copies of things like Tonka or A Light in the Forest.

    It's just sad to me that regular Joes cannot see this material without going to extraordinary steps. I'm going to go forward with the ones that I can get, because the goal here is for the reader to be able to follow along with me, but if I get the chance to see any of the other Alice films, I'll definitely put up a post about them.

  5. Most of these existing Alice films seem to exist in the Nederlands Filmmuseum. You can easily find the front page of their website in English with a google search. On their website it says:

    "The Filmmuseum supplies copies of film material from its own collection on video or film format. Both individual fragments and complete films are available.

    Film copies:"

    Now I don't know if that means you could get hold of these titles from there or how much it would cost (it might be very expensive), but it could be worth emailing them to find out. The names of the foreign print sources can be found in the filmography section of "Walt in Wonderland" (I believe you have that book?). Don't worry if you don't speak Dutch, in my experience most people in Holland seem to speak very good English.


  6. There are a couple of interesting things about Alice the Firefighter. One is the use of multiple Julius clones to create the fire brigade, bringing to mind the much later Goofy sport cartoons with whole teams of Goofies. The other is that towards the end, when the short focuses on one Julius (the official one) he is given a love interest to rescue – a female cat who looks just like him –rather than Alice herself.

    This idea would be important to later Disney shorts in the Oswald series and of course with Mickey and Minnie. Giving Julius a cat love interest seems to have been introduced in 1925 with Alice Plays Cupid (haven't seen this one and can't find a review on here). I'm not sure if it's the same character, but a love interest would appear again here in "Fire Fighter" and in the two shorts that immediately follow: "Alice Cuts the Ice" and "Alice Helps the Romance", so it seems to be an idea Disney was interested in at this time. After this trio of cartoons it appears that for the most part the series featured the team of Alice and Julius again (although he would have a sweetheart in about three 1927 cartoons).

    – Mac

  7. Good catch on the love interest, Mac. I'm especially interested in Julius, because it seems that unlike Pete or some of the designs for Oswald and Mickey that show up, he disappears. Why was he not carried over to the Oswalds or resurrected in the Mickeys?

    I am going to investigate the Netherlands option and see if I can get any of those. I'm broke, so I don't know if we can get a hold of them, but I'll try.

  8. I suspect the reason Julius disappeared after the Alice series may have something to do with the fact he is a Felix rip off. Along with Krazy Kat there were already two very famous black felines on the animated screen before Julius ever showed up. With the introduction of new series and characters, I imagine Disney would have been keen to stop being such a blatant copy cat!


  9. I get the idea that Julius was a blatant ripoff. No doubt about it. But if it didn't bother Walt to rip off Felix before, why would he start worrying about it later?

    I know that Walt has the reputation of always looking for originality and quality, and for the most part that is true. But it seems like he would not have a change of heart on Julius all of a sudden. Just my thought. You guys probably know better than me, but it seems weird.

  10. It's pure speculation on my part, but I just suspect that Walt wanted his name tied to cartoons and characters he could call his own (he certainly went on to form his own brand of entertainment). Sure he went ahead and used the Felix rip-off in the first place (and copied a load of other ideas to boot), but I think there's a difference between the struggling young film maker who's learning the craft in the early twenties to the guy who'd gained a lot of experience and had some success 50 odd Alice shorts later. With the introduction of Oswald, Disney had a 'new' Julius to scamper around having adventures and he didn't look almost exactly like an existing animated star.

    – Mac

  11. That's a good point. It makes me wonder if there was the start of the more protective Walt sometime during the Alice shorts that spawned his interest in making Oswald.

    Surely, he wanted a new character, but the guy who went to Mintz in NY at the end of the first Oswald series was a different person than the one who created the Alice shorts. That Walt was more protective of his characters. I see the Mintz ripoff of Oswald as more of a nail in the coffin of the idealistic, struggling young guy than a turning point. Just my opinion, but I think the wheels were in motion before that day.

  12. Regarding Alice's Spanish Guitar...I donated this film to the Eastman House some years back and I don't recall having stipulated anything about its use or non-use by Disney. I did ask to get a video of it if it were ever transferred from the 35mm film, and I would love to see it if you have it on DVD or some electronic format that can be emailed. The folks at the Disney archive were quite arrogant about acquiring it, even though they did not have a copy at the time. Their attitude put me off and I donated it to the Eastman House.

  13. Thanks for posting, Buffalo Steve. Unfortunately we haven't seen Alice's Spanish Guitar either. As far as I know the copy you donated to the Eastman House is the only one. Maybe they'll be able to send you a video copy if you request one now?

  14. Buffalo Steve,

    If you're really the former owner of ALICE'S SPANISH GUITAR, I'm glad to see this clarification from you. But it also sent me looking to find the source where I might have originally read about the restrictions on use of the film. Just now I've found that source:

    I evidently misremembered the restriction as applying to Disney only.

    If you didn't mean for Eastman House to restrict the film this severely, perhaps you could contact them and say so. Right now it's evidently made it impossible for Eastman House or anyone to release it on video—a great shame, as I'd like to see it.

    Feel free to contact me privately: ramapith [at]

    —David Gerstein


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