Saturday, April 3, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Irwin Allen/Columbia, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We started running a feature afterwards, a recent DVD reissue of Alice in Wonderland, but eventually put it on hold after the Mad Hatter scene. I had picked this up because I’d thought it was the charming 1966 Hanna-Barbera cartoon TV-movie based on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, in which Sammy Davis, Jr. voiced the Cheshire Cat and sang a great little novelty song to Alice (voiced by Janet Waldo), “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” What fooled me was that Davis was listed on the cast list of this one, too, but not in the same role; instead of a cartoon it was a live-action version with the actors in heavy and probably uncomfortable costumes to make them look like the famous John Tenniel drawings that accompanied the original edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

What I also hadn’t realized is that this piece is three hours long, and was originally filmed by Irwin Allen Productions as a two-part TV miniseries that, instead of the usual conflation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, actually filmed both Carroll’s source novels as separate entities and linked them simply as two parts of a miniseries. At first the film promised pure delight: production designers John Bristow, Phillip M. Jefferies and Kenneth Sharp and costume designers John Peacock and Paul Zastupnevich did a fantastic job reproducing Tenniel’s illustrations (Martha Raye — in her final role — as the Duchess was especially convincing), director Harry Harris kept things moving at a good clip, Paul Zindel’s screenplay did justice to the books and Natalie Gregory had a proper winsomeness as Alice (and her sister in the framing sequence was played by Natalie’s real sister, Sharee, a nice touch).

Then the people started singing songs by Steve Allen, which were wildly variable in quality — Charles said the songs were doing to Alice in Wonderland what the songs in The Wiz had done to The Wizard of Oz. Sammy Davis, Jr. played the Caterpillar and got to perform “Father William,” a song for which Allen wisely stuck to Lewis Carroll’s original lyric and allowed Davis to do as rap — it’s certainly the high point of the movie so far. Unfortunately, for most of the rest of the film Allen chose to write his own words as well as music, and his songs achieve a sort of oddly literate banality that jars this fantasy back to earth every time we think the filmmakers have fully caught Lewis Carroll’s imagination on film. We got too tired to follow the movie anymore and turned it off after the Mad Hatter scene (the Hatter was played by Anthony Newley, and though I haven’t seen the current theatrical release by Tim Burton I couldn’t help but compare him with Johnny Depp and find him wanting), a bit disappointed that the Hatter and the March Hare (Roddy McDowall) did not try to put the Dormouse (Arte Johnson from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) into the teapot at the end as Lewis Carroll specified.

Still, I’d like to run the rest of it, if only out of fairness and to follow my rule not to stop reading a book or watching a movie before the end just in case it gets better; my own experience as a writer and publisher has convinced me it’s so difficult to create anything than anybody who goes through the effort to do so at least should have their creation read or viewed start-to-finish before it’s judged. — 4/2/10


We ended up watching the rest of the 1985 TV-movie Alice in Wonderland, a bit of an endurance test because it was originally shown as a two-part miniseries and it’s three hours and four minutes long in total, and it got a bit better as it went on. The pluses in this one are the marvelous production design (by John Bristow, Phillip M. Jefferies, and Kenneth Sharp , with Ross Bellah and Hub Braden as art directors and Audrey Blasdel-Goddard and Robert de Vestel as set decorators), which do a great job of reproducing the dazzling John Tenniel illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s original novels and bringing them to life in vivid color; the glowing cinematography by Fred J. Koenekamp — how nice to see a film full of rich, vibrant hues instead of the dirty greens and browns that dominate most movies made today! — and an appropriately insouciant, if a bit “precious,” performance by Natalie Gregory in the title role.

The minuses are a set of mediocre songs by Steve Allen (sometimes drawing on the original poems inserted by Carroll for their lyrics, more often not) and a clunky script by Paul Zindel; one gets the impression Zindel would have wanted to stick closely to the original, and through much of the first half the movie and the books (not that I’ve read them in decades!) tracked quite closely, but he also had to provide cues for all those songs and he had to allow for the introduction of a horror element in the form of the Jabberwocky, which in this version isn’t just the name of a poem inserted into the story but an actual on-screen monster (which in Carroll’s text was spelled “Jabberwock” — “Jabberwocky” was the name of the poem, not the creature!) brought in at the end of episode one as a serial-style cliffhanger to menace Alice on the wrong side of the looking glass.

L. Frank Baum may (or may not) have been influenced by Alice in Wonderland when he wrote The Wizard of Oz, but clearly the makers of this movie — Zindel and director Harry Harris, along with producer Irwin Allen (after the 1970’s disaster cycle that had made his reputation had basically petered out) — were influenced by Wizard, less by Baum’s book than the 1939 film version. In this version, Alice is constantly expressing her desire to go home; she and the other characters break into song frequently; there’s a Lion in part two whose costume distinctly resembles Bert Lahr’s in the Wizard film (as does Ringo Starr’s as the Mock Turtle earlier on); and Alice’s killing of the Jabberwock is clearly meant to provide a turning point in the plot comparable to Dorothy’s killing the Wicked Witch of the West (though the ending is so ambiguous it’s not at all clear just how the Jabberwock dies).

I remember a 1960’s Reader’s Digest article that compared Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as fantasies and argued that they reflected their respective countries’ visions of the world: Carroll’s Alice wandered politely through Wonderland and observed it but did nothing to change it or use it to benefit herself; Dorothy pushed her way through Oz like a frontierswoman, organizing the put-upon to help themselves and taking charge of the situation when their hoped-for benefactor, the Wizard, turned out to be a fake. The fact that L. Frank Baum wrote what was essentially a quest narrative for his pre-pubescent heroine while Lewis Carroll contented himself with a series of dazzling vignettes also made Wizard easier to adapt into a film than Alice — the Alice books simply don’t come equipped with a strong through-line the way The Wizard of Oz does.

This seems to have thrown, to some degree, everyone who’s tried to film Alice in Wonderland — and this 1985 attempt probably comes closer to the 1933 Paramount movie (also a live-action Alice and also employing an all-star cast, though in both films some of them are virtually unrecognizable under the heavy makeup used to make them resemble Tenniel’s drawings of Carroll’s characters) than any other version, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. They even cast Jonathan Winters as Humpty Dumpty, probably because in the 1933 version W. C. Fields had played him (though Fields merely wore an egg-shaped mask and dangled his head, with a couple of small prop legs attached, over a wall set, while Winters got a full-body egg costume) and Irwin Allen wanted a similarly legendary comedian for his version.

Anyone familiar (even dimly so) with the Carroll originals is going to be judging a film of Alice in Wonderland based on how close they come — and this one’s pretty close when the burden of the music and the added horror (not only the Jabberwock but also a sort of giant eagle which threatens Alice, and forces her to hide deep inside a forest, earlier in part two) don’t get in Zindel’s way. The quality of the songs improved a bit as the music went on — the Queen of Hearts’ song “Off With Their Heads!” is clever, dark and appropriately Carroll-esque even though the words (except for the title phrase) aren’t his — it’s not composer Steve Allen’s fault that Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart did the basic concept even better in Hart’s last song, “To Keep My Love Alive,” from the 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — and Alice gets the lovely ballad, “Why Do People … ” — even though as a song it’s as far away from “Over the Rainbow” as Natalie Gregory’s good but still child-like voice is from Judy Garland’s. I also liked Robert Morley as the King of Hearts — yes, he was clearly recycling his performance as Louix XVI in the Norma Shearer Marie Antoinette from 47 years earlier, but he was still a joy to watch — and it was an interesting touch to cast Tweedledum and Tweedledee as opposite genders, and a real-life (straight) married couple, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, at that (though I missed their argument over the rattle).

Some of the other cast members, including Carol Channing as the White Queen, were there for sheer camp value — watching Channing here is being reminded of how much she looked like a drag queen and how accurate the late San Francisco Chronicle critic John Wassermann was when he described Channing as “the world’s only female female impersonator.” (Actually, she’s not the only one; in the 1960’s, well before Victor/Victoria, Robin Tyler famously lived it in real life as a woman participating in an impersonation show whose other impersonators were all men in drag.) It’s an interesting movie, maybe not as entertaining as it could have been — for all the beauty of that Wonderland scenery, all those perfectly colored and trimmed bushes and greener-than-green foliage do get wearing after a while, and there are also technical glitches like the clearly visible cable suspending the Jabberwock (played by actor Tom McLoughlin in a tacky suit that would have embarrassed the Godzilla people) from the studio ceiling when he’s supposed to be flying. It gets to be an endurance test after a while, though the dazzling production design and the sheer depth of Lewis Carroll’s imagination also make it entertaining. — 4/3/10