Alice’s Adventures In Film & TV Land 1951-2009

Alice-In-Wonderland1951In last week’s opening part of my tour of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland–or, at least, the myriad movie depictions of it–I introduced you to silent Alice in Wonderland shorts and features; Walt Disney’s ’20s Alice in Cartoonland series and his eventually abandoned plans for a similar live-action/animated film with silent screen icon Mary Pickford; Paramount’s star-crammed (Cary Grant in a turtle suit?) but unsuccessful 1933 comedy; and producer Lou Bunin’s offbeat 1949 adaptation that mixed live actors with stop-motion puppets, but whose distribution met with legal problems due to none other than Disney himself.  Now, settle back with a little more tea…or, if you have none, a little less tea…and let’s continue our journey through the looking glass.

alice-In-Wonderland1951 2Nearly two decades after plans were cancelled for the Pickford film, Uncle Walt hadn’t given up on bringing his version of Carroll’s beloved fantasy to life. Similar live-action projects with Ginger Rogers and child actress Luana Patten were discussed and dismissed, and in 1946 the Disney studio started work on a full-length animated film. Debuting in July of 1951, its Alice in Wonderland is a frenetic (some would say too much so) combining of Carroll’s two tales that features such memorable tunes as “I’m Late” and “A Very Merry Un-Birthday” alongside colorful imagery, from the tea party scene to the army of playing card soldiers. Critics and “Alice” purists, however, were less than merry with Disney over the liberties taken with its storyline and dialogue. Like the 1933 Paramount film, it featured an all-star (voice) cast, the first to get title credit in a Disney cartoon feature: Jerry Colonna as the March Hare; future Winnie the Pooh Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat; Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter; and Kathryn Beaumont, who two years later was the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan, as Alice. Also like Paramount’s version, sad to say, it was not a hit with the public, despite Walt’s promoting it in an early television special. It was the company’s first animated feature to play on TV, in a 1954 broadcast on the ABC series Disneyland, but would ultimately become a success through subsequent theatrical re-releases (particularly during the late 1960s…what with all the psychedelic colors and whatever it was that the caterpillar was smoking in his hookah).

The rise of TV would lead to several new and often ill-conceived versions of the story. A 1966 NBC special entitled Alice Through the Looking Glass boasted Emmy-winning art direction and costumes and such stars as Jimmy Durante, Ricardo Montalban, Jack Palance, and the Smothers Brothers, but was saddled with a syrupy self-help message. Over on ABC that same year, Hanna-Barbera came up a modern-day animated version whose players included Bill Dana, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harvey Korman, and, as a two-headed talking caterpillar…Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble? Oh, well, at least it had Cheshire Cat Sammy Davis, Jr. singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?”  Veteran UPA animator Gene Deitch oversaw another ’66 effort called Alice of Wonderland in Paris, which was basically the title character meeting figures from French children’s literature. The final tube rendition of 1966, and the most intriguing, came appropriately enough from England. Directed by comedy veteran Jonathan Miller, the BBC ‘s Alice in Wonderland featured an array of fine actors– Peter Cook, John Gielgud, Leo McKern, Peter Sellers, and more–performing in period attire but minus makeup or masks.  It also didn’t avoid some of the darker sections of Carroll’s narrative.

Alice-In-Wonderland1972The make-up would return in the next British import, 1972’s charming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which boasted songs by James Bond composer John Barry. Sellers also returned to play the March Hare, and was joined by, among others, Michael Crawford, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, and Fiona Fullerton as Alice. Let’s quickly–and discreetly– acknowledge the 1976 “X-rated” parody with Playboy model Kristine DeBell and then move on to some unique  interpretations from the 1980s. A revival of the ’30s Eva Le Gallienne play reached the New York stage, and would then reach a 1983 showing on the PBS series Great Performances. This Alice in Wonderland starred Kate Burton as the title heroine, joined by her father Richard as the White Knight, Other players included James Coco, Colleen Dewhurst, Andre Gregory, and Donald O’Connor. 1985’s Dreamchild starred Coral Browne as an octogenarian Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell), in 1932 New York to honor Carroll’s centenary, reminiscing on her experiences with the eccentric writer (Ian Holm). Scripted by Dennis Potter, the haunting drama featured Wonderland scenes witch characters designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. Czech animator Jan Svnakmajer’s unique visual style was well suited to Carroll’s world, as he demonstrated with Alice, his 1988 mix of live actors and stop-motion animation.

On American TV, the star-packed presentations would continue.  Megamovie producer Irwin Allen gave viewers his own Alice in Wonderland, a two-part 1985 mini-series that condensed both books, with a cast that included Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, and Ringo Starr, plus Allen film veterans Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Telly Savalas, and Shelley Winters. 1999’s Alice in Wonderland would see Alice ( Tina Majorino) follow the White Rabbit into encounters with Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, Peter Ustinov, and Gene Wilder.  And most recently, the channel formerly spelled SciFi, which in 2007 “re-imagined” The Wizard of Oz into the fantasy saga Tin Man, morphed Carroll’s works into Alice, a dark and mature-themed 2009 tale of alternate worlds with Caterina Scorsone, Kathy Bates, Tim Curry, Colm Meaney, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The main problem that has plagued most of these big- and small-screen efforts is that Carroll’s books, for all their entertainment value, really don’t have much of a plot to them,. They merely chronicle Alice’s meetings with one group of strange beings after another, giving the author a chance to demonstrate his trademark verbal humor. Lacking a storyline along the lines of, say, The Wizard of Oz to work with, filmmakers have attempted to craft their own to draw an audience in, sometimes succeeding but often losing the whimsy of Carroll’s work along the way. Now director Tim Burton is releasing his own interpretation of the story, with an Alice in Wonderland that features Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, and  Australian-born Mia Wasikowska as Alice. Here Alice is a 19-year-old fleeing from an  unwanted marriage proposal who finds herself back in the mysterious world she visited years earlier, where she must help the residents of Wonderland overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen. It’s hard to say whether it will work (I, for one, was not a fan of his 1999 revamping of the Ichabod Crane story, Sleepy Hollow), but if anyone is capable of capturing the manic essence of Carroll’s vision, one that has delighted fans for over 150 years, it’s the idiosyncratic Burton.