GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Guest review by Scott Sentinella, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Norman Z. McLeod

FEATURING: Charlotte Henry, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Mae Marsh, , Alison Skipworth, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, Sterling Holloway, and many others.

PLOT: A teenage girl named Alice travels through a mirror into a nonsensical fantasy world

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1933)

where animals talk, mad tea parties are held and queens threaten beheadings.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material, and because of this version’s especially creepy use of bizarre, grotesque masks on many members of its all-star cast.

COMMENTS: Before Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, every big-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic book had flopped at the box office, and this early 1930’s curio was no exception.  Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (known for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), and with a screenplay by Joseph L, Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and William Cameron Menzies (better known as the art director on Gone With the Wind), this primitive-looking extravaganza rounded up some 22 stars from the Paramount lot and immediately hid most of them behind very unpleasant-looking masks and bulky costumes.  This Alice was made only five-and-a-half years before The Wizard of Oz, but some of the technology on display here looks like it was left over from the Victorian era.  (Incidentally, Alice’s then-starry cast now consists of three legends—Cooper, Fields, Grant; a lot of character actors familiar to viewers of Turner Classic Movies—Horton, Holloway, Ruggles; and then a host of performers unknown to even the most die-hard classic film buffs—-Jackie Searle? Raymond Hatton?) The results are a bit too disturbing, even for Lewis Carroll, but at least it captures the madness of the novel(s) in a way that Burton’s neutered, watered-down disappointment never really does.  Like most films based on Alice, this one liberally combines elements of both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”  This time, Alice (Babes in Toyland’s Charlotte Henry) first finds her way through a mirror and then tumbles down a rabbit hole, where she meets the usual suspects—a vast cast of rude and abrupt creatures who make her recite poetry and generally boss her around.  The exception is, as always, the White Knight (Cooper, whom one can actually recognize), whose kindness toward the girl leaves her exclaiming, “Why, he’s the nicest one yet!”—a little odd, since, as far as we can see, he’s the only “nice one” that Alice meets on her travels.  Henry’s Alice is probably the sunniest and least perturbed in any film version, which makes an interesting contrast against the especially eerie backdrops.  Since this film combines elements of both books, it plows through most of “Wonderland” very quickly (Alice meets the Queen of Hearts at about the 38-minute mark), and halfway through, the Gryphon simply transforms into the Red Queen (the perfectly cast Edna May Oliver), which is not true to Carroll, but somehow fits.  The movie then turns into highlights of “Through the Looking Glass,” ending with that book’s chaotic royal banquet, which is a far weirder note to go out on than “Wonderland”’s more famous courtroom climax.  Alice leaves her dream (or is it a nightmare?) while being literally throttled by the Red Queen, which is an even more sinister finale than Carroll provided, while the other Wonderland denizens (Fields’ Humpty Dumpty, Grant’s Mock Turtle) advance menacingly toward our heroine.  What were they going to do?  Kill her?  The film leaves it an open question, although Alice still doesn’t seem very upset by it all.  Alice completists owe it to themselves to see this version which manages to be “trippy” some 35 years before the widespread use of hallucinogens.

Unfortunately, the Universal DVD has no extras, although at least the image looks darn good for a film made in 1933.  Unsurprisingly, the music (a very early score from Dimitri Tiomkin) sounds tinny in Mono 1.0 sound.  According to IMDB, the film originally ran 90 minutes, but the version here is 77 minutes.  This is the cut that has been running on TV since about 1956.  The movie was never even released on VHS; it finally hit DVD in 2010.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For baby boomers who first encountered it on television in the 1950s, the Paramount ‘Alice,’ with its ominous atmosphere, distorted sets and cast of contract players (including Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W. C. Fields) hidden behind heavy, outlandish makeup based on the famous John Tenniel illustrations represented something closer to a horror movie than a benign children’s fantasy…  This Wonderland is not the proto-psychedelic playground of the 1951 Disney animated version, but a distorted, claustrophobic environment populated by menacing, bizarre figures.”–Dave Kehr, The New York Times (DVD)

5 thoughts on “GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)”

  1. I never really considered this version of Alice, because almost everyone said it was terrible (including Pauline Kael). However, this review, along with Dave Kehr’s glowing reassessment of the film in the NYT, convinces me this may be one of the weirder Alices out there—which makes it well worth considering for the List.

  2. Wow I had always heard of this one, primarily in reference to Grant’s role as the Mock Turtle, but never knew much about it. From your review it sounds really interesting and possibly quite weird! I’ll definitely check it out on dvd, though it’s too bad only the cut version is available.

  3. It has more than Cary Grant– actually, he wasn’t all that famous in 1933. Mae Marsh, in a small role, had appeared in some of the greatest silent films, including a major role in the first blockbuster, [i]Birth of a Nation[/i]. Richard Arlen had starred in the first Academy Award Best Picture, [i]Wings[/i]. It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the mass of talent lined up for this movie.

    The movie flopped, and while I am no expert in watching movies in 1933, having not been born until 1967, I suspect that two primary things contributed. One was that Hollywood had no experience in making children’s movies. Sound was just six years old, and films aimed at people who weren’t going to catch the intertitles was a new idea. In fact, this was probably the first major undertaking that was primarily a children’s movie, as distinct from an all-audience movie. The producers didn’t think much about keeping the adults entertained, and thought more about bringing the popular children’s stage play to the screen.

    But children didn’t know how to watch movies then, and adults didn’t know how to watch movies with children.

    Also, unfortunately, the actress playing Alice isn’t very good at the long monologues at the beginning. Alice talks to herself, otherwise, she’d be silent for a long time, since there’s no one else to talk to, and the idea of voice-over for inner thoughts wasn’t part of filmmaking vocabulary yet. So the audience gets lost in the first 15 minutes.

    Modern viewers are more forgiving. We’re used to taking things in narrower contexts, and we live in a post-MST3K world, where, on the right bill, [i]Plan 9 from Outer Space[/i] can be a 4-star movie. So now the film has an audience. Personally, I enjoyed it, but then, I also enjoyed [i]Plan 9 from Outer Space[/i].

  4. I watched it on tv today, and I have to say it is the oddest version of Alice I have ever seen. It’s good but very odd!! if u want to show it to kids u should watch it first because it may be a little mortifying to them I warn you!

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