Norman Z. McLeod’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland, filmed at Paramount with an astounding line-up of stars and reliable studio contract character actors, emerges as a most watchable if often bizarre attempt to pull something real from something that is abjectly surreal.
The Production: 3.5/5
Lewis Carroll’s mind-boggling fantasy Alice in Wonderland has been something of an enigma for adaptation since the invention of motion pictures. Despite many silent and sound attempts, on the big screen and on television, in either live action or using animation, the property has simply resisted satisfying adaptation. Norman Z. McLeod’s 1933 attempt, filmed at Paramount with an astounding line-up of stars and reliable studio contract character actors, emerges as a most watchable if often bizarre attempt to pull something real from something that is abjectly surreal. Unlike its kissin’ cousin The Wizard of Oz, there is no firm narrative through line for its meandering picaresque, and the movie emerges as a series of bizarre incidents without much point but with an appealing young heroine at its center.
Young Alice (Charlotte Henry) finds herself on the other side of the looking glass in her parlor, wandering into the garden, and falling down a rabbit hole which introduces her to a score of peculiar, often abrasive characters who put the girl in her place, attempt to teach her certain sometimes uncomfortable facts of life, and never allow her to become too cocky or full of her own self-importance.
Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s twin volumes Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies manages to fit in many (but not all) of the books’ most famous sequences involving drinks, cakes, and mushrooms which can alter Alice’s size, the host of famous characters who lead Alice on a merry chase through their own bizarre situations (the White Rabbit – Skeets Gallagher, the Caterpillar – Ned Sparks, the Cheshire Cat – Richard Arlen, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with Edward Everett Horton as the Hatter, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, and Jackie Searl as the Dormouse, the bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts – May Robson, Tweedledum and Tweedledee – Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie, the Mock Turtle – Cary Grant, Humpty Dumpty – W.C. Fields, the rivalry between the Red Queen – Edna May Oliver and the White Queen – Louise Fazenda, and the White Knight – Gary Cooper), and the life lessons afforded the impressionable youngster from stories like “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” But despite all of these characters and all this content, the sequences don’t seem to hang together well (a failing of nearly every adaptation of the stories), and the episodic nature of the enterprise offers a lot of set-up but precious little payoff. The film’s look is startling: special effects are superb for 1933 (Alice’s growing and shrinking is most creatively handled) and most of the players have been outfitted in exaggerated pantomime costumes and masks meant to mimic the Tenniel illustrations from the books, but while certain voices are too unmistakable to be hidden by the elaborate make-ups by Wally Westmore and Newt Jons (W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant), many of the sequences are curtailed and don’t allow the lessons for young Alice to land with surety. Director Norman Z. McLeod sets up the upcoming adventure chicly in the opening sequence by having Alice roam around her overstuffed parlor fingering chess pieces, an egg, a turtle, and the mirror which will play important roles for her later in the movie, but later on he simply isn’t able to connect the dots of Alice’s many strange encounters.
Charlotte Henry, nineteen at the time of filming, makes an exquisite Alice: polite but not simpering and capable of being both impressed and bewildered by what she encounters. Many of the stars like May Robson as the Queen of Hearts and Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat don’t get more than a brief moment to shine (Disney gave the characters more to do in his 1951 animated version), and even the most famous event from the books, the Mad Tea Party, isn’t as funny, as fast paced, or as well sustained as it should have been even though Edward Everett Horton as the Hatter and Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare have their moments. Cary Grant, weeping uncontrollably as the Mock Turtle and singing “Beautiful Soup” with gusto, W.C. Fields wisely intoning Humpty Dumpty, and Gary Cooper as the continually hapless White Knight walk away with their scenes as the best of a wacky bunch.
3D Rating: NA
The liner notes claim the film is framed at 1.37:1, and it’s presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. While the transfer is pleasingly sharp with a film-like grain structure, there are annoying thin white and black scratches that occasionally run through the center of the screen, often enough to become irritating. Grayscale is excellent with rich whites and deep blacks. The movie has been divided into 10 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix represents the best these ancient elements could possibly ever sound. Age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, and pops have been eliminated, and the dialogue has been expertly combined with the whimsical songs and Dimitri Tiomkin background score and sound effects most professionally.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Lee Gambin covers a lot of ground during the film’s 76 minutes, offering background information on many of the more famous players (though the great Edna May Oliver gets somewhat shortchanged) and the behind-the-scenes personnel and covering some of the other famous adaptations of the stories including Disney’s 1951 effort and even a porn version from the 1970s.
Theatrical Trailer (2:34, SD)
Kino Trailers: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jack the Giant Killer, The Magic Sword.
Norman Z. McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland is an entertaining if somewhat superficial treatment of the beloved classic fantasy. With a host of famous character actors and stars playing secondary roles and a brief running time of 76 minutes, the film has lots of rewatchability built in even if one’s ultimate reaction will likely be a slight bit of dissatisfaction.