A long time ago, I learned of the existence of a 1933 version of "Alice in Wonderland," featuring the likes of Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles, and Edna May Oliver, with direction by Norman Z. McLeod and a screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Long unavailable on home video, I could only dream of what wonders the star-studded film contained.
It turns out, none.
It's not enough to say this "Alice in Wonderland" is creepy. All renditions are, by their very nature. But this certain creepiness stems from its attempts to build a world of grotesqueries that bring strange children's book illustrations to life, but only half-way: the papier-mâché creatures that fill the screen display frozen faces that exaggerate their lack of realism. Add to this a decision to emphasize all the yelling and whining and just plain loudness of the story without buffering it with humor, friendliness, or fun, and you have an eerie collection of irritating, semi-paralyzed caricatures screaming at you for 77 minutes.
The screenplay blends "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" into a single mishmash, which isn't too problematic considering the source material's episodic nature, but still, there's an entire "looking glass" dream sequence opening the film that feels lazily tacked on in an effort to pad the run time.
Once Alice (a rather bland Charlotte Henry) makes her way down the rabbit hole, McLeod barrels ahead at manic speed, reveling in the fever dream insanity of the disjointed story tidbits and absurd imagery. On paper, that sounds like a perfect translation of Carroll's work, but in reality, there's too much children's theater preciousness to the presentation. The cast seems to be projecting to the back of the hall, which never sits right with the closeness of the camera.
McLeod also takes a "the louder, the better" approach. Consider the nightmarish scene where the baby turns into a pig. Here, it's not so much freaky as it is shrill, with actors in clunky, oversized masks (like something out of Sid and Marty Krofft reject bin) shouting and fighting at top volume. There's no chance to let the eeriness overwhelm you - you're too busy wincing at all the noise.
And where Carroll's books allow time to branch off into wild poetry and other such asides, those branches here play as little more than distractions. Despite the short running time, this "Alice" is in no hurry, eager to win over young viewers not with plot or character, but with storytime recitations and unfocused musical numbers. "The Walrus and the Carpenter" becomes an excuse for an animated interlude; it would've worked fine as a cartoon short, but wedged into the feature, it's just another dull digression.
Those hoping to see the famous lineup of stars will be disappointed to learn than almost all of them are hidden behind those bulky, unattractive masks. The thrill of seeing W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty evaporates the minute we see the giant, sorta-talking egg-thing. No wonder they're all shouting to the back of the hall: how else do you manage a performance while buried under something so ugly?
As mentioned, "Alice in Wonderland" has long been unavailable on home video. Universal finally hauls it out of the vaults, timed not so coincidentally with the release of Tim Burton's big screen remake. Some sources describe an original 90-minute cut; if that edit exists, it's not shown here. We're instead offered the popular 77-minute version.
Video & Audio
The 1.33:1 transfer looks a bit washed out and plenty soft, although print damage is kept to a respectable minimum.
The Dolby mono soundtrack (listed as stereo on the packaging) is equally passable. There's some expected minor hiss to go along with the decent dialogue and shrieky music. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
"Alice" completists and other classic cinema buffs might leap for joy at finally being able to pick this up, but neither the film itself nor its bare-bones presentation warrant anything resembling excitement. Skip It.