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Filmmakers have been adapting Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland since the invention of cinema itself, and the latest attempt by director Tim Burton has initiated an inventory-taking of the more salient attempts, such as an acclaimed 1966 Jonathan Miller version. Walt Disney's animated 1951 version was roundly criticized for turning a deaf ear to Carroll's absurdist poetry, but that's the failing of any attempt to adapt a written work that so heavily depends on verbal sleight-of-hand. Interjecting actors between the reader and the text reduces the author's brillant words to recitations. In a film, one can't stop to review a passage to savor an irony or a play on words. Much later, John Lennon wrote a number of tunes with lyrics that resembled Carroll-like nonsense poetry; the form worked for Lennon because his pop songs were replayed by his fans until the lyrics were memorized.
Almost forgotten in the list of notable Alice in Wonderland adaptations is Paramount's relatively lavish 1933 version. Director Norman Z.McLeod was later known for Topper movies and comedies with Danny Kaye and Bob Hope; here he manages an episodic pageant featuring more than twenty Paramount stars and contract players. The cast rundown is covered in a three-minute title sequence that compares actors with the characters they play. In the movie that follows most of the stars wear rigid character masks that render them anonymous. Unless one can recognize the famous voices the prologue isn't much help. Top-billed Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields' distinctive voices stand out plainly enough, and Edward Everett Horton and Edna May Oliver are among the minority of stars that don't wear masks. But film fans with sharp memories will be the only ones to identify talents like Charles Ruggles, Ned Sparks, Jack Oakie and Roscoe Ates (a 'stuttering' comic with a big role in Tod Browning's Freaks). Paramount's Alice in Wonderland might make a good quiz game for film buffs.
The script by co-screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz shows respect for the Lewis Carroll original by incorporating as much of the original text. Almost all versions of Alice convey the spirit of the Mad Tea Party, which lends itself to treatment as an absurdist skit. Alice (pretty Charlotte Henry) finds ordinary conversation impossible when the Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton) willfull misconstrues all that she says and disrupts the proceedings by walking on the table. The pattern is set for poor Alice: none of her questions merits a straight answer, and usually not even a civil one. On a couple of occasions Alice's present-tense inquiries are interrupted by recitation, as when we hear the story of The Walrus and the Carpenter, illustrated by an animated cartoon. Mankiewicz doesn't simplify matters by combining characters. Alice meets Carroll's full gallery of domineering women: the White Queen (Louise Fazenda), the Red Queen (Edna May Oliver) and the Queen of Hearts (May Robson).
The co-writer and art director is the brilliant production designer William Cameron Menzies, the mastermind behind the look of Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls and the silent The Thief of Bagdad. Menzies devises ingenious special effects for Alice's entrance into the "other world" beyond the looking glass, here a mirror placed over an ornate Victorian fireplace. The scenes showing Alice changing size by drinking and eating draughts and cakes are particularly effective. As in the original story, she becomes so small that she swims in her own tears. Rear projection and multiple sets built at different scales show Alice frustrated by a doorway that has suddenly become much too small to admit her. When Alice shoots upward in height Menzies uses an optical trick that makes the girl appear to stretch, like the image in a funhouse mirror. It was actually in another book that Alice entered the magic world through a looking-glass. Menzies and Mankiewicz have their Alice fall down a rabbit hole as well. All of Menzies' illusions work well, especially when compared with most effects from this era.
The bulk of Alice's episodic encounters with magical creatures occur on conventional stages. Art director Menzies has designed the look of the settings after vintage book illustrations, and most of them look like artificial theatrical work. Some sets, like a forest where Alice meets the White Knight, are augmented by matte paintings. The numerous character costumes also imitate the look of original illustrations, even some of the more grotesque ones. Alice comes upon an insane household with an angry Cook (Lillian Harmer) and a Duchess (Alison Skipworth) who won't stop spanking her baby (Billy Barty). Both women wear distorted masks with oversized features that make them look like figures in a nightmare. Other bizarre characters are more conventionally represented by partial puppets -- the Caterpillar (Ned Sparks); the Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen) and W.C. Fields' Humpty Dumpty. Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns portray Tweedledum and Tweedledee in more grotesque masks. Cary Grant's melancholy Mock Turtle has a head that, staying true to a vintage drawing, looks almost exactly like a cow. Comedienne Polly Moran is stuck trying to make an impression while in costume as a Dodo Bird.
This film's Alice is better than most, with Charlotte Henry bright spirited as the storybook heroine. Tim Burton altered the story to allow Alice to be a young woman, whereas Paramount simply cast a nineteen year-old in the role. The script changes the opening from a picnic under the trees to a stuffy sitting room, but Alice is quickly established as a bored girl with a big imagination. She isn't a bit frightened by her ability to pass through the mirror, and she becomes disheartened only when she loses control over her size. As per the story, the unflappable Alice is merely inconvenienced by nightmarish transformations, as when a bawling baby turns into a pig. She does lose her temper once or twice, but reacts to weird occurrances, hostile creatures and royal threats of death as if she knows everything around her is an illusion. Invited to a game of croquet, Alice does her best to play using a real flamingo as a mallet.
Mankiewicz and Menzies augment the book's all-a-dream ending by plunging Alice into an accelerating montage of madness. What little logic that exists in Wonderland is dissolved into fast cuts of agitated characters. When last seen before the transition Alice is being throttled at a banquet table. Menzies would revisit this cutting pattern twenty years later, for his science fiction film Invaders from Mars. The juvenile hero of that film experiences a similar "twisted reality" nightmare adventure, that likewise ends with a fragmented, kaleidoscopic dream montage.
Universal's DVD of Alice in Wonderland is a fine-quality B&W transfer of film elements clearly in excellent condition, with good contrast and very clear audio. Film music aficionados will enjoy hearing Dimitri Tiomkin's lively score, only his second full credit after contributing stock music and ballet bits for a number of movies. The disc contains no extras.
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