Fantasy classic is highly watchable if ultimately unsatisfying. 3.5 Stars

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.

Alice in Wonderland (1933)
Released: 22 Dec 1933
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 76 min
Director: Norman Z. McLeod, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising
Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Cast: Richard Arlen, Roscoe Ates, William Austin, Gary Cooper
Writer(s): Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screen play), William Cameron Menzies (screen play), Lewis Carroll (novel)
Plot: In Victorian England a bored young girl dreams that she has entered a fantasy world called Wonderland populated by even more fantastic characters.
IMDB rating: 6.4
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Universal
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 16 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 05/19/2020
MSRP: $29.95

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.

Video: 3.5/5

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.

Audio: 5/5

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.

Overall: 3.5/5

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.

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lionel59

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The commentary sounds interesting.
I wonder if it will mention that Alice Liddell (the basis for Alice) was in the US at the time of filming to give a talk on Charles Dodgson at Columbia University. This was the subject for a fascinating Dennis Potter film, DREAM CHILD with Australian actress Coral Browne. I saw it recently and I think mention is made of the Paramount film being in production. I also think I have read somewhere that she visited the set, which surely means there is a photograph somewhere of her with Charlotte Henry. (IMDB states that Paramount wanted to cast an unkown and had 7000 girls apply, of which Miss Henry was the 57th to audition. She died at the age of 66 and worked for the Catholic church in CA, making her last movie in 1941 at a 'Poverty Row' studio).
Getting back to Liddell, she reportedly met up with the Peter who was the basis for Peter Pan at the Columbia University occasion (there is another movie story waiting to be written and filmed; the boys who inspired Barrie had very sad lives, from what I can gather).
I think the Carroll fantasy is unfilmable, even as a cartoon. My favourite version nonetheless is the all star British one from 1972 with the great John Barry score. Would love that to be rescued from Public Domain hell and transferred properly on blu ray. DREAM CHILD would be good to have on blu ray too, with a commentary. Thanks Matt for the review.
P. S. I don't know why this is all underlined. An accident. Apologies.
 
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lionel59

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A few more tidbits:
The movie previewed at 90 mins in length and was cut to 77 mins. Some have falsely believed that it was shortened by Universal when they acquired the rights to most of the pre-1950 Paramount library of films.
It has one animated sequence : the Walrus and the Carpenter, by the Harman-Ising studio.
It was not a commercial success and received a savage review from Variety.
The screenplay was greatly influenced by a 1931 Broadway play which involved Eva Le Gallienne.
It is likely that the film was made to coincide with the celebrations for the centenary of Charles Dodgson's birth, which brought Alice Liddell to NYC in 1932. A recording of her brief speech is online at a Columbia University library website.
Another actress was chosen at first but proved to be too short for the sets which had been constructed for a certain height.
Ida Lupino (who is British), Anne Shirley, Paulette Goddard, Marge Champion and Betty Grable reportedly tested for the lead role.
Charles Laughton was cast but had to withdraw from the production due to other commitments.
Bing Crosby refused to be in the movie.
The film was banned in China due to its "superstitious" content, "strangeness" and unscientific nature.
In my college years, I was paid to run a children's party. After a few games, I played the kids a 16mm print of this film. I enjoyed it. Not sure if the kids found it very compelling. (There were no VCRs around then).
 
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Some years ago when I used to collect 35mm film and run it at home I had one reel from this film. Cary Grant was the most outstanding character. What i remember most is that it was a beautifully sharp print (nitrate of course). It's a pity that the Blu-ray only gets 3.5 for video quality. I don't know what eventually happened to this odd reel nor whether the rest of the film existed among collectors.
 
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Will Krupp

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Great review. Matt! I remember this fondly from our local PBS channel when I was a tyke. I haven't seen it in years but it always fascinated me. Glad to hear it looks "good" if not flawless! :)

This was Paramount's big Christmas 1933 release in NYC, opening at the 3,650 seat Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The shell of the building still exists as the Hard Rock Cafe (with the original art deco marquee still intact) though the theater itself has been completely gutted. Interestingly, this opening day add trumpets the fact that none other than the great Mary Pickford was appearing onstage at a movie theater for the very first time.

Alice-page-001.jpg


It's interesting and ironic that Mary would be paired with THIS film, since she had almost starred as "Alice" in a Walt Disney production of her own that same year. Walt Disney was planning his first feature film to be a live action/animation hybrid and Pickford came to the Disney studio in 1933 for a Technicolor screen test and some publicity photos. The production was ultimately aborted but It can't have been entirely a coincidence that brought them together at year's end.

Alice 3.jpg

Alice 2.jpg
 

Matt Hough

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Great review. Matt! I remember this fondly from our local PBS channel when I was a tyke. I haven't seen it in years but it always fascinated me. Glad to hear it looks "good" if not flawless! :)

This was Paramount's big Christmas 1933 release in NYC, opening at the 3,650 seat Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The shell of the building still exists as the Hard Rock Cafe (with the original art deco marquee still intact) though the theater itself has been completely gutted. Interestingly, this opening day add trumpets the fact that none other than the great Mary Pickford was appearing onstage at a movie theater for the very first time.

View attachment 72567

It's interesting and ironic that Mary would be paired with THIS film, since she had almost starred as "Alice" in a Walt Disney production of her own that same year. Walt Disney was planning his first feature film to be a live action/animation hybrid and Pickford came to the Disney studio in 1933 for a Technicolor screen test and some publicity photos. The production was ultimately aborted but It can't have been entirely a coincidence that brought them together at year's end.

View attachment 72568
View attachment 72569
Fascinating, Will! Thanks so much for sharing this.
 
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If I recall someone here on the forum posted that a copy of the 90 minute version was located at the Museum of Modern Art, I could be mistaken.
 

Will Krupp

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If I recall someone here on the forum posted that a copy of the 90 minute version was located at the Museum of Modern Art, I could be mistaken.
In all honesty, that sounds kind of unlikely to me. The movie was previewed at 90 minutes but wasn't actually ever released anywhere at that length. I "believe" the footage that was excised was deemed unnecessary exposition with Alice's family and, if it was eliminated in previews, it would have been before final cutting of the negative. We know that this was actually released at it's current length because the well known pan it received from VARIETY makes mention of it twice.

VARIETY Film Review - December 26, 1933

A viewing of this feature brings to the fore the fact that a screen story, as one of its first essentials, has to have a definite progress - a parade of events that dovetail and carry the interest along. A series of scattered, unrelated incidents definitely won't do to hold interest for an hour and a quarter.

That 'Alice in Wonderland' is familiar ground to most grownups doesn't alter the situation. Rather the fact that the book has a place in hundreds of thousands of homes is an argument against it for screen purposes. It's a book for adults to pick up for a few moments of leisure. Nobody ever stayed up late to read it.

On the screen it is vividly realized in all its fantastic angles. The humor is genuine and the treatment satisfying on its literary side. But an hour and a quarter of it is overpoweringly sedative.

It takes 10 minutes to get Alice through the looking glass and into topsy-turvy-land. Then the adventures start, each adventure being just another detached incident surrounded by the same fantastic absurdity. Nothing leads the attention along so attention wanders.

Cast brings together a stunning aggregation of screen names but none of them count on the screen. Each identity is concealed behind an elaborate mask. Some of the players can be identified by tricks of speech. Charles Butterfield couldn't be mistaken for anyone else. W.C. Fields projects himself through the deep disguise of Humpty Dumpty. A few are recognizable facially, notably Edna May Oliver, as the Red Queen, and Louise Fazenda as the White Queen. But Jack Oakie, as Tweedledum, might as well have been Ed Doakes and any one of Joe Cook's stooges would have served as well for the White Knight as played by Gary Cooper. Use of heavy names for most of the parts represents a dead loss other than for billing.

Picture is full of novelty effects of fantasy and they're expertly managed, but mere trick effects don't mean anything in a feature by themselves. Fans are too familiar with the resources of the camera. For some strange reason the visualization of 'Alice' falls lamentably short of the reading. The printed page sets the imagination free to its own unlimited devices. The screen chains it down to the visual fact. In short, the immortal 'Alice' is one of the timeless books beyond the reach of the camera.

One incident is made out of extravagant paradox and it is followed by other detached episodes constructed from the same material. Nothing grows out of anything else in this phantasmagoria. It's like reading a whole volume of separate four-line gags. It takes super-human endurance.

It's the subject itself that defeats the entertainment objective. The producer has dealt with his task prodigally, and the acting is carried off with enormous spirit. Examination of Alice by the Red and the White Queens is a first rate bit of spirited comedy by Edna May Oliver; W.C. Fields brusque handling of the Humpty-Dumpty scene is excellent, and throughout the acting of Charlotte Henry, as Alice is entirely unaffected and charming.

Any idea that the kids are going to hail the picture probably will turn out a disappointment. Like most of the other supposed children's classics, 'Alice' is really a distinctly grown-up book. Juvenile patronage probably won't be by choice of the kids themselves, but possibly under grown-up duress.
 
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