Universal // 1933 // 76 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // February 25th, 2010
"It's the stupidest tea party I ever was at in all my life!"
With Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass on the horizon, it seems that every bit of film or video involving Carroll, Alice, looking glasses, and/or rabbit holes is appearing -- or reappearing -- on DVD. With literally dozens of films, filmed plays, TV productions, and documentaries, it's enough to drive a completist mad.
The 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland was not the first time Carroll's books had been adapted to the screen, but it was, at that time, the most extravagant. The film was a star-studded affair from Paramount, with established "names" and talented up-and-comers portraying various characters that Alice encounters on her bizarre journey. We get Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle; W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty; Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter; Mae Marsh as a Sheep; Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare; Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen; and Gary Cooper as the White Knight.
Unfortunately, film goers looking to play Spot the Star were sorely disappointed: the costumes and make up were so elaborate, you can barely tell who's who underneath. The studio tried to circumvent the problem with an opening credit sequence that showed the stars in and out of costume, but with all the "names," you'd need a scorecard to keep up. The film bombed at the box office, and it's generally remembered as a misguided effort that nearly sank the studio.
It's really a shame that the legacy of the film was failure, since this Alice in Wonderland is visually striking and inventive, whimsical and literate, and true to the spirit of Carroll. The production design was based on Sir John Tenniel's famous illustrations, and it's impressively faithful.
Young Alice, charmingly portrayed by Charlotte Henry (Babes in Toyland), is bored sitting at home on a snowy afternoon. She talks to her cat, Dinah, about a secret world that's behind the looking glass. When she steps up to the glass, she finds she's able to pass through, and discovers a room that's the mirror image of the one she's just left. She also discovers a family of tiny, but quite lively, chess pieces.
Later, she's magically transported outside to the garden, where it is no longer snowing. She sees a well-dressed white rabbit hurrying by, loudly worrying that he's late. She follows him down a long hole, where she discovers a strange world of bizarre characters and off-kilter situations. Through it all -- mysterious potions that cause her to grow and shrink, peculiar tea parties, a dodo who recites historical facts to help Alice when she's wet (because "history is the driest thing I know), a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a baby that transforms into a pig, a grinning Cheshire cat, and a queen who believes beheading is the answer to all problems -- Alice keeps her sense of wonder and her sense of self.
While this Alice in Wonderland is a charming production, it's also a bit creepy. If you swapped out "Wonderland" for "Circus," this could almost be a Tod Browing film. The baby turning into a pig, for instance, is unsettling, as is a scene at the end in which Alice -- now "Queen Alice" -- presides over a dinner party at which the courses talk back to her -- "How would you like it if I were to cut a slice out you, you creature?" snarls a disgruntled pudding. I could see young children having nightmares after watching this black-and-white oddity, though for adults, it's quite trippy and outlandishly entertaining.
An unrecognizable Cary Grant is very funny as the Mock Turtle, singing a sad song about soup, and "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is presented as a very funny Max Fleischer cartoon (introduced by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, played, respectively, by Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie). The Mad Hatter's tea party unnervingly well done, and leading lady luminaries Edna May Oliver, Louise Fazenda, and May Robson stand out as the Red Queen, White Queen, and Queen of Hearts. While its special effects will seem quaint to contemporary audiences, I suspect they must have been fairly grand during the FDR years and are still pretty impressive.
The print is in reasonable shape, though nicks, scratches, and softness are evident throughout. The mono audio track works just fine. Unfortunately, there are no extras on this disc; some background on the film would have been welcome. Originally, the film was released at 90 minutes but was cut down to 76 for TV showings. This disc offers the 76-minute version. I don't know if the longer cut even exists any more, but I would be interested to know exactly what is missing.
A fascinating curio, this is one of the better Alice adaptations. Definitely worth checking out.
Keep your head, it's not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 1933
MPAA Rating: Not Rated