You might not know Kathryn Beaumont if you saw her, but you’d almost certainly perk up to the sound of her voice. The English-born actress was discovered by Walt Disney when she was just 11-years-old, hand-picked to voice the character of Alice in the studio’s 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland. It was only a short matter of years later when she returned to the studio as the voice of Wendy Darling in another of Disney’s magical adventures, Peter Pan.
With the 65th Anniversary Edition of Peter Pan — with brand new bonus features — available on Blu-ray this week, I recently sat down with Beaumont and Disney historian Mindy Johnson to discuss the legacy of the film and Beaumont’s memories of voicing Wendy Darling. Beaumont recalled how she not only voiced the characters, but performed in the live-action read-throughs, which were filmed as character reference fo, the animators, as well as the long and intricate creative process behind each Disney animated classic, and her unusual schooling during her years on the Disney sets. For more on the 65th Anniversary Edition, be sure to read Dave’s full review.
I’m curious for both of you, when you think of the idea of the legacy of Peter Pan, what does that mean to you?
KATHRYN BEAUMONT: It means this classic is legendary and continues to have a life, and the fact that I was part of putting this together makes me feel very proud that I was part of it.
MINDY JOHNSON: It’s pretty special. I think what makes this film so special is its timelessness, and the legacy of it is really, it still speaks to all ages today because it’s about imagination and how we all experience that transition from adolescence to adults, which is what’s happening for Wendy here in the film, but we still, as adults, we need that return to our imagination, that reminder every once in a while of the importance of wonder and adventure and imagination. I think that’s a big part of what keeps this timeless. Anything timeless just gets richer and better as it grows older.
What might surprise people about your experience making this or what they might not know about the process of making one of these Disney animated classics?
BEAUMONT: Well, they probably wouldn’t have much of an idea not having experienced it, and neither did I growing up. I realized once I was going to play this role that there was doing the voice work that was recorded, and then there was the live action. The live action wasn’t really like making a movie. Yes, they were filming, but it was just a very rudimentary setup, so you just had boxes and this and that that would represent certain pieces that were part of the props. You would go for the motions, and the reason for that was just to have the film, watching you perform, so that it would help the artists to be able to draw the characters in a more realistic way. So there were two processes that went along, so when I went to the studio and did that for, gosh, what was it? There was Alice in Wonderland. That took two or three years, then there was Peter Pan which another, so I really spent quite a bit of time there working on both of those films.
JOHNSON: And when you consider too that Walt had had Peter Pan in development since the mid 1930s, so few people realized that there were about roughly 15 years of development.
JOHNSON: And exploration and different story ideas, and character designs, so had this film, had the war not come along, we would’ve had a very different telling of Peter Pan. Tinkerbell would’ve been a redhead… Fashions changed. In that sense, it was a very contemporary film, but yet Walt was constantly working to make sure everything was timeless. He took care. He wasn’t going to rush into it til it was right, til the talent was there, the voice character actors and his artistic animation talent was all in hand, so he wasn’t about to sort of flurry into it just to get something out. He waited until it was right. Few people realize that there was this tremendous volume of years going into shaping this film.
BEAUMONT: It was.
JOHNSON: It was a special film that he wanted to do very early on as he was exploring feature length animation, but all the other elements just weren’t quite in place, so there was that much more ready to go with Snow White, so he moved forward with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
I think for people who haven’t done the research it’s definitely surprising to learn how long the classics took to come together.
BEAUMONT: And what is put into it.
BEAUMONT: Because there are all these different processes with the voicing and then there’s the animation, there’s the live action, and then the drawings, the primary drawings, then there in betweeners, and then going to the cell department to put it on film.
JOHNSON: You have hundreds and hundreds of artists and development, writers, background artists, editors, composers, and you have, what’s unique about this film is of the hundreds of people in that production, almost half of these people were women, and few people realized that. It’s only until the recent research that I’ve been doing on this and the subsequent book that we finally realized that women had a very strong place at the table. We still have a long way to go overall.
But have come a long way.
JOHNSON: Yes, exactly. There’s a really, incredibly rich fascinating history of women’s contributions to animation, and so many wonderful, remarkable firsts here at Disney Studios.
Kathryn, you were so young when you made this and especially Alice in Wonderland.
What is your most vibrant memory of being a part of that experience?
BEAUMONT: Oh, that’s almost impossible because there were so many wonderful experiences, just working in the studio, which was such a hands-on place. They also welcomed me so nicely, and were happy to invite me during. I was going to school at the same time, but I had a teacher, and I had my three hours of school and four hours of work. Rather than have me go back and forth to the public school and then have my education interrupted all the time, they did hire a special teacher so that teacher was with me every day so there was consistency in my education that went on and that worked really well. I had a terrific time working with the live action and with the voice work, and then in between I was always working on my schoolwork.
Was it hard to go back to regular school at a certain point?
BEAUMONT: Actually, interestingly because in my youth I was working professionally, I really didn’t go to public school until much, much later, There was Alice, then there was Peter Pan, and when that was finished, I realized, “Hm, I’m about ready to start for high school, and I haven’t been to public school, and I think it’s time I have that experience.” I really thought, “I’d better do this at this point while I still can,” so I went to public high school and then finished that and college. But in the interim was when I began thinking about what am I going to do with my life? What direction do I want to take? I really like the education, so that’s how I became a teacher!
The Walt Disney Signature Collection edition of Peter Pan is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.