Monday, November 22, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Paramount, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Our main movie event last night was the 1933 Paramount live-action version of Alice in Wonderland, put in production after independent producer Bud Pollard rushed another adaptation of Lewis Carroll's famous novel(s, actually -- like most Alice films, this one, scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, conflates Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There) into theatres in 1931 (it was the first sound version of Carroll's tales) and Walt Disney's attempt to produce one in color with a live-action Mary Pickford playing Alice and the other characters appearing in animated form fell through.

This version starred Charlotte Henry as Alice, used virtually the entire Paramount contract list (Mae West and the Marx Brothers are the only major Paramount stars of the time who weren't in it) in heavy-duty costumes as the supporting characters, was staged on spectacular sets (Robert Odell is credited as the designer but it's hard to believe Menzies didn't have a hand in it) and ran 76 minutes (which required leaving out great chunks of Carroll's stories but also kept the film short enough that the elaborate sets, costumes and impeccable special effects remained charming and entertaining and didn't become oppressively cute). It's a film that could have used color -- though the black-and-white cinematography by Henry Sharp and Bert Glennon is beautiful, rich in contrasts and shading, and done full justice by the excellent DVD transfer by Universal Home Video -- but for the most part it's an utterly amazing movie.

There's one animated sequence, created by the Fleischer Brothers (Paramount's go-to guys for animation then), adapting "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (there's an especially good sight gag when the "oyster bed" is shown as just that, a long, ribbon-like bed in which the oysters sleep), but the rest is all live-action and features such demented casting as Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen (her fierce mien in the role makes it far more believable than it was before that she was on the short list for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, along with Gale Sondergaard, before Margaret Hamilton finally landed the role), Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter (who'd have thought Johnny Depp would ever remake an Edward Everett Horton role?), and above all W. C. Fields as a superbly characterized Humpty Dumpty. (The critics of the time thought Fields stole the movie, and that seems to be the modern consensus as well.)

Paramount entrusted the direction to Norman Z. McLeod, fresh off his successes with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and he too turns in a great job, alive to the wonder and fantasy of the story. Yes, some of it does get too literal, and Mankiewicz and Menzies had the same problem faced by everybody who's tried to dramatize Alice in Wonderland -- it doesn't have a through-line. It's just a series of disconnected fantasy episodes involving the same central character, and it lacks the powerful quest narrative that makes The Wizard of Oz so much more engaging as a plot for a movie.

But it's genuinely charming, Charlotte Henry (though a bit too old for the role) makes a wonderfully innocent Alice, the producers and scriptwriters wisely avoided inserting any songs other than the ones Carroll actually wrote, the production values are impressive and the effects are believable even by today's standards and must have seemed astonishing in 1933. Alas, Alice in Wonderland was a box-office flop -- it lost Paramount a ton of money at the height of the Depression, when they could least afford it, and probably did more than any other single film to drive the studio into bankruptcy (from which the enormous successes of Mae West and Bing Crosby rescued it) -- and it dried up the market for elaborate fantasies and children's-literature adaptations in general until Walt Disney put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into production as the world's first feature-length all-animated film, spent what just about everyone else in Hollywood (including his brother and business partner Roy) thought was an insane amount of money, released it in 1937 and had not only a blockbuster hit but a film that is still bringing in income. (Disney finally got around to Alice in Wonderland in 1951 and had a substantial hit, though not on the blockbuster level of Snow White.)