Monday, March 1, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Alice in Wonderland" (1933)

To bone up for this Friday's release of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," I figured it would be a good idea to do a little research on previous film versions and the source material. As a boy, I didn't have much contact with the original book by Lewis Carroll, so I felt I needed some education.

I'm glad I did.

First of all, I hadn't realized that Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who reputedly came up with the basis for the story while on a boat trip with a friend and his three daughters.

The other thing I didn't know is that there was more than one book. The 1865 "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was followed seven years later by "Through the Looking-Glass." In the many film adaptations, characters and story elements from both books are usually mashed up together. This isn't as hard as it sounds, since the novels were part of the literary nonsense movement that loved to play around with reality and perceptions.

So the Red Queen, Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the White Knight all came from the second book, and have been shoe-horned into the movies.

The first Alice story begins when she chases the White Rabbit down his hole, while the second began when Alice becomes convinced there's a whole other world on the other side of the large mirror in her drawing room, and passes through it. The 1933 film version directed by Norman Z. McLeod from a screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz contains both entries: First she goes through the looking glass, then she falls down the rabbit hole.

There have been many film versions of the Alice stories -- including a Disney animated version and at least three silent films -- and none of them are really definitive. The 1933 is probably best known, mostly because it starred then-fledgling actors Gary Cooper and Cary Grant in small roles. (The photo accompanying this column is a publicity still of Grant with the costume he wore to play the Mock Turtle.)

The film hasn't been available on video until now, but a new DVD is being released in conjunction with the opening of Tim Burton's version, which I have no doubt will be a distinctive departure.

I guess the thing that most struck me while watching the 77-minute film (cut down from the original 90) is how easily it could have fit into the oeuvre of surrealists like Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, or even the acid-induced fantasias of the 1960s and '70s.

I suppose small children would enjoy the ridiculous nature of the goings-on, but I have to say I found the film rather tedious. It's a mash-up of Victorian etiquette and absurdist imagery -- such as Grant's Mock Turtle, a play on mock turtle soup. He's made up of different animal parts, with a cow's head, and isn't very happy about it.

My favorite scene was the introduction of the Red Queen, ordering "Off with their heads" for virtually everyone she meets. I did like the game of croquet played with flamingos as mallets.

Charlotte Henry plays Alice, and W.C. Fields turns up as Humpty Dumpty, and a very grumpy version, too. A young Billy Barty had small roles as two different babies, even though he was 9 years old at the time. It wouldn't do to have the Duchess tossing a real baby up into the area, so a Little Person was cast instead.

Gary Cooper's role as the very aged White Knight appears near the end of the film, with Alice calling him the nicest person she's met on her strange journey -- even though he keeps falling out of his saddle.

The Mad Hatter has only a small appearance in the book and movie, so it'll be interesting to see him turned into the main character in Burton's version, with Johnny Depp tackling the role. With all the twisting, changing and amalgamation of Lewis Carroll's stories in the 1933 and other film versions, I can't imagine that the new one will somehow be more offensive than the others.

1.5 stars

(Apologies for the video; since it hasn't been available on video before, all I could find were clips someone got from filming their TV when it played on Turner Classic Movies.)

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