Last fall, on this very web site, I wrote a pair of articles detailing the various cinematic and TV depictions of The Wizard of Oz over the past 100 years or so (take a look for yourself, they’re still there: The Wizard Of Oz In Film Prior To 1939 and The Wizard Of Oz In Film And TV Since 1939). What I found was a century of good and bad adaptations that generally followed L. Frank Baum’s story…but that often also would graft bits from it and his other books together, shoehorn in song-and-dance sequences, and fill the cast with name actors whose already established personae overwhelmed the characters they were supposed to be portraying. Well, Dorothy Gale of Kansas wasn’t the only fantasy literature heroine whose exploits would be thus put through the Hollywood ringer.
Next month will see the premiere of director Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a big-budget, effect-filled take on the timeless mid-19th century books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by English mathematician/writer Charles Dodgson, better known under his pen name Lewis Carroll. As often happens in the home video industry, this film’s imminent debut is causing a mad hatful of Wonderland-themed projects, some never before available on disc or tape, to be released on DVD. So, let’s take a hop down the rabbit hole and see if Alice fared any better on the big screen than her Oz-bound American counterpart.
The first motion picture came in 1903, just five year’s after Carroll’s death. The British short Alice in Wonderland watches as a dark-haired (!) Alice follows the White Rabbit, changes her size several times thanks to a magic potion and fan, meets the Cheshire Cat and the Duchess, joins the Mad Hatter and March Hare’s tea party, and escapes losing her head to the Queen of Hearts’ executioner by (SPOILER ALERT!!!) waking up from her dream, all in a brisk eight minutes and change. This one-reel effort used such still-novel photographic tricks of multiple exposures, fade outs, and forced perspective to let actress May Clark (not the one who got a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy) grow larger and smaller and to make the Cheshire Cat vanish. An similar U.S.-made short entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was released seven years later, followed by a 1915 feature-length adaptation starring Viola Savoy in the title role.
Just like its more compact predecessors, the 1915 Alice in Wonderland introduces the most familiar of the books’ denizens and makes effective use of its primitive trick camerawork. Another nice touch, immobile though most of them are, are masks that closely resemble the original John Tenniel illustrations. The main drawback with each of these versions–one that was, obviously, unavoidable in the pre-talkie era–is that the puns and marvelous wordplay that marked Carroll’s writings were by and large lost (a dilemma that also, unfortunately, plagued several of the sound adaptations, which tried unnecessarily to simplify the dialogue for younger audiences). The final silent cinema link, and a convoluted one at that, was the 1923-27 Alice in Cartoonland comedies from the nascent Walt Disney company. Blending live-action and animation, the 57 shorts featured a young girl (not the Alice from Carroll’s stories) interacting with her cartoon co-stars in a variety of fantastic escapades. The one-reelers’ popularity would lead Disney to consider making a feature film, also mixing live-action with animation, that would be based on the books and star “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford as Alice. (Technicolor test footage with Pickford was even shot in the early 1930s). The plans fell through, but dreams of Wonderland would remain with Disney for many years…as we’ll see shortly.
The ’30s indeed saw a revival of interest in all things Alice thanks to the 1932 centennial of Carroll’s birth. An acclaimed stage production by Eva Le Gallienne was a hit on Broadway, and sound first came to Wonderland on the silver screen in a little-seen 1931 rendition starring Ruth Gilbert. All this buzz led Paramount Pictures to mount a lavish 1933 movie that would utilize many of its biggest stars and, it was hoped, help replenish the studio’s Depression-strapped coffers. The film’s release even merited a Time magazine cover photo and story. Alice in Wonderland, however, turned out to be a anything but a financial tea party for Paramount, and critics blamed the film’s poor box-office performance on the fact that the all-star cast–including Gary Cooper as the White Knight, W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, and teenager Charlotte Henry as Alice –was often unrecognizable under heavy Tenniel-influenced makeup and masks (which was one reason Bing Crosby passed on playing the Mock Turtle, giving Grant the chance to sing “Beautiful Soup” ). Now that it’s finally getting a release on DVD , viewers can see it for what it is, a relatively faithful and entertaining romp. The Brooklyn-born Henry is quite believable as a precocious young English girl, and the roster of talent generally plays its parts well. It’s probably easier for viewers to overlook the stunt casting 75 or so years later, as few today are familiar with the likes of Jack Oakie, May Robson, Charles Ruggles, and Ned Sparks (I’d say something snide about those under 30 not knowing Cooper, Fields and Grant, too, but I’m just an old fogey). Oh, and Paramount did manage to stay afloat in ’33, thanks to the movies of one of its unused players, one who probably would have been out of place in Carroll’s fantasyland…Mae West.
After the 1933 Alice’s poor reception, the sole cinematic visits to Wonderland for several years were by a pair of cartoon stars: Betty Boop in Betty in Blunderland, a 1934 short by Max Fleischer (whose studio contributed an animated “Walrus and the Carpenter” sequence to the Paramount movie) and Mickey Mouse in his 1936 short Thru the Mirror (see, Walt was still thinking about Wonderland…and there’s more to come). After that it was a 13-year gap until stop-motion animation pioneer Lou Bunin and director Dallas Bower collaborated on a French/U.S. production. Bunin’s novel 1949 Alice in Wonderland features live-action scenes of Lewis Carroll (Stephen Murray) relating his story to young Alice Liddell (Carol Marsh) and her playmates during a boat ride, with Marsh then playing the fictional Alice in a Wonderland of stop-motion characters. It’s a surreal and at-times eerie experience that many now claim comes the closest to capturing the feel of the original text, yet it was barely seen in America because of a copyright lawsuit brought against the creators by…wait for it…Walt Disney. The story of Disney’s long-dreamt-of Alice project, and the many movie and TV versions that followed in its wake, will be discussed in next week’s second and concluding installment. Hey, if it was good enough for Lewis Carroll, it’s good enough for me.
Read part two: Alice’s Adventures In Film & TV Land 1951-2009 (Friday March 5)