Saturday, June 11, 2016

Stubs - Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Alice in Wonderland (1933) Starring: Charlotte Henry, Richard Arlen, Richard Ates, Gary Cooper, Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, W.C. Fields, Skeets Gallagher, Cary Grant, Raymond Hatton, Edward Everett Horton, Roscoe Karns, Baby Leroy, Mae Marsh, Polly Muran, Jack Oakie, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Alison Skipworth, Ned Sparks, Ford Sterling. Directed by Norman McLeod. Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies. Based on the novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (London, 1865) and his novel Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (London, 1870). Produced by Louis D. Lighton. Runtime: 77 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Fantasy

While Disney is the latest studio to release a big name live-action version of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy classics: Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), they are certainly not the first. The tale has been made many times going back to Hepworth studio’s silent short released in 1903 and another feature-length silent film in 1915 from Nonpareil Feature Film Corp. In 1931, Metropolitan Studios released their own version, which came and went at the box-office with little fanfare. These early efforts speak to the story’s appeal to filmmakers.

A stage play also called Alice in Wonderland, opened on Broadway on December 12, 1932. Adapted by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus, the two-act play featured music and ran for 127 performances. The play, which called for actors to play multiple roles, included Whit Bissel, Howard Da Silva, and Burgess Meredith, the latter who plays a Duck, rather than the Penguin, the role of TV’s Batman that would be one of his most famous.

Partially based on the success of this play, Paramount Pictures decided to throw their hat in the ring and produce their own film version. To write this film, Paramount hired Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, the latter best known for his work as a Production Designer. Casting a marquee’s worth of names, including the famous: W.C. Fields, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper; the less well known: Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, and Jack Oakie; and the forgotten: Alison Skipworth, Polly Moran and Charlotte Henry. I know what some of you are saying, “I haven’t forgotten Polly Moran or Charlotte Henry,” but the bulk of the rest of the world has.

Paramount wasn’t the only studio considering an “Alice” movie at this same time. According to the Motion Picture Daily, Mary Pickford and Walt Disney had been considering a live-action/animated version of the Alice in Wonderland story. And Columbia Pictures had expressed interest in producing a film based on the Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus play, but neither projects happened, based on Paramount’s purchase of the rights in England to the story on May 9, 1933.

A five-month hunt for Alice began and Paramount supposedly auditioned nearly 7000 girls before settling on Charlotte Henry. At 14, Henry had been cast in the Broadway play Courage, which turned out to be a hit in 1928. She came to Hollywood and starred in the film version released in 1930. She would appear in two more films, Huckleberry Finn (1931) and Lena Rivers (1932), before appearing in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse. It was while Paramount was auditioning for Alice that a talent agent from the studio saw Henry in the play and arranged for an audition. A week later, in late September 1933, the film went into production.

The film, as do most cinematic versions, combines the two books together, moving back and forth between them without hesitation. In the opening scene, Alice (Charlotte Henry) is bored and her governess (Ethel Griffies) isn’t much help. It’s snowing outside and the governess won’t let Alice go outside to play. She tells her to wait for her sister, who never does make an appearance in the film.

Alice (Charlotte Henry) and her Governess (Ethel Griffies) stuck inside.

Alice seems to have a vivid imagination, as when she sees a rabbit in the yard, she tells her governess that he was wearing a waistcoat and carrying a watch. The governess takes this in stride, so we’re supposed to know that this is nothing new. When she’s left alone, Alice starts to wonder about life in the room in the looking glass, or mirror, even climbing up on the mantle of the fireplace to try and see as much as she can.

Alice wonders what's on the other side of the looking glass.

And wouldn’t you know it, Alice slips through the mirror and ends up in the reflected room, where not only are the book titles backward, a volume of an encyclopedia reads aidepolcycne, but the chess pieces are alive and one of the pawns is stranded on a table high above the king and queen. When Alice helps them, by picking up the pieces and placing them up on the table next to the pawn, which is the queen’s son, she is mistaken for a volcano of all things.

Alice entering the reflection.

When she hears a white rabbit run through the house, Alice takes chase outside and follows the top coat wearing animal into the garden and down the rabbit hole. She falls in slow motion and when she lands finds herself in a room with a series of ever smaller doors, leading her into a room with a table and a very small door. A key appears and Alice unlocks the door, but try as she might, she can’t get through.

Alice falls down the Rabbit hole near the beginning of Alice in Wonderland.

Suddenly on the table, there is a vial that says “Drink me not poison” and so she does. Alice grows very tall. Crying at her misfortune, she leaves a puddle of water on the floor. Then a box appears with a square pastry inside with the words “Eat Me” on it and she does, shrinking down to a few inches in height. She is so small that her tears have made not a puddle but a pond in which she falls in and swims with a mouse.

Alice grows too big for the room and starts to cry.

The door that separated her from the rest of the world is no longer an issue and Alice emerges on the other side of the pond. There, a history lecture from a Dodo bird (Polly Moran) dries her off. Before the Dodo can put her to sleep by reciting dates, Alice wanders off.

The Dodo (Polly Moran) uses dry history to dry off Alice.

Her next encounter is with the hookah-smoking Caterpillar (Ned Sparks) who helps three-inch Alice grow but also gives her the other side of the mushroom which will make her small again. And she uses that almost right away when she encounters the Duchess’ house. Alice shrinks back down to enter but first must watch a Fish messenger (Roscoe Ates) deliver an invitation to the Duchess’ Frog butler (Sterling Holloway) inviting her to play croquet.

Alice encounters the Caterpillar (Ned Sparks).

The frog doesn’t stop Alice from entering the house. There, the Cook (Lillian Harmer) throws dishes while the Duchess (Alison Skipworth) struggles to cuddle a baby (Billy Barty). The Duchess gives the baby to Alice to mind and she is suddenly outside, carrying the transforming child who turns into a piglet before she puts it down.

The Cook (Lillian Harmer) throws dishes while the Duchess
(Alison Skipworth) tends to her Baby (Billy Barty).

This leads Alice to her encounter with the Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), who confuses as much as he helps her. Then the scenery literally changes in front of Alice’s eyes and she is presented with a fork in the road, one side leading to the Dormouse and the other leading to the Mad Hatter. She chooses the latter and ends up at the never-ending tea party with the Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), the March Hare (Charlie Ruggles) and the sleeping Dormouse (Jackie Searl). The Mad Hatter explains that he has had a falling out with Time and now it is perpetually six o’clock, i.e. tea time.  After their little bit of nonsense watch repair and moving down to a clean cup, the Mad Hatter sings and Alice moves on.

The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton) and the March Hare
(Charlie Ruggles) entertain Alice at their Tea Party.

She comes across a tree with hats hung on it and with a door. Curiosity gets the best of her and she goes through. On the other side is the Queen of Hearts' garden and her servants, playing cards, are painting white roses red. When she asks why one of the cards informs her that they are trying to cover up their mistake of planting a white rose tree instead of a red one. But before they’re done, the Queen of Hearts (May Robson) arrives, accompanied by the King of Hearts (Alec B. Francis) and the Joker (Baby LeRoy).

The arrival of the Queen of Hearts.

The Queen calls for everyone to have their heads cut off, even Alice who curtsies when she introduces herself. But the Queen’s plans are easily put aside when the King informs her that it is the Executioner’s day off. But the Queen quickly adapts, asking Alice if she can play croquet. The cards quickly shuffle and turn themselves into a croquet court. The balls are guinea pigs and the mallets are flamingos, both real in this case. The game is a sped up mess, but not fast enough for the Queen, who orders everyone’s heads be cut off until everyone flees into the bushes.

As the court empties, Alice meets up with the Duchess, who gives the young girl confusing advice that she should, “Be what you would like to be.” Their conversation is interrupted by the Queen who wants them or their heads to be off. But before she can carry out her plans, the Gryphon (William Austin) chases the Queen and the Duchess away. But the Gryphon is not mean, telling Alice that the King pardons everyone the Queen sentences to be beheaded.

But their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), what mock turtle soup is made from. But the Mock Turtle is crying. He tells the Gryphon and Alice his own sad history, which includes having gone to school every day when he was a real turtle, learning regular courses like Arithmetic, which is broken into ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision. When they’re done talking about his lessons, the Gryphon asks if they should play a game or have the Turtle sing. Alice chooses the latter. The Turtle sings about soup and the Gryphon and Alice dance.

The Gryphon (William Austin) and Alice hear the Mock Turtle (Cary Grant) tell his tale of woe.

The Gryphon and Alice run very fast, but don’t seem to get anywhere, but the Gryphon turns into the Red Queen who encourages Alice to run faster and faster, even though they’ve long passed their destination. They end up on a chess board, where Alice will be one of the Queen’s pawns. The Red Queen gives her more confusing advice such as speaking only in French and to walk with her toes pointed out.

But the Queen disappears and Alice wanders off, running into Tweedle Dee (Roscoe Karns) and Tweedle Dum (Jack Oakie), who eventually tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, which is an animated tale. Afterwards, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum decide to have a fight, but that gets interrupted when a giant crow flies in, blowing with it the White Queen.

Tweedle Dee (Rose Karns) and Tweedle Dum (Jack Oakie) show Alice the Walrus and the Carpenter story.

She is a mess but prepared for her finger to get pricked when her shawl comes loose and her broach becomes undone. But then she starts to bleat and transforms into a sheep working in a store. Alice decides to buy an egg, which starts to grow and grow into Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields) up on a narrow wall. Like everyone else she meets, Humpty Dumpty gives her a hard time, in this case, about her age. Impressed by his wordplay, Alice tells him that he’s a clever man and asks him to tell her the meaning of the poem Jabberwocky to her, but he refuses. When he starts to laugh, he loses his balance and falls off the wall.

Humpty Dumpty (W. C. Fields) helps confuse Alice. 

Alice runs to get the King and his horses and his men but runs into the White King (Ford Sterling).  She tells the King about Humpty Dumpty, but he already knows and his men are on their way. The King asks Alice if she can see his messengers coming down the road when she says she can’t see anyone, the King is impressed and then he skips away.

But down the trail comes the White Knight (Gary Cooper), dressed like a chess knight piece, riding a horse. As soon as the horse stops, though, the Knight falls off and onto the ground and the horse head he’d been wearing comes off. Using a ladder, the knight gets back on the horse. Alice asks him If he’s one of the king’s messengers, but he informs her that he is the White Knight. He escorts her to the edge of the woods, explaining to her his many inventions, none of which seem very practical. But he continues to fall off his horse.

The White Knight (Gary Cooper).

At the edge of the woods, he tells Alice that she’s only a few steps away from being a queen. He asks her to stay and watch him off, which she does. But when she runs down the hill, she loses her balance and rolls. When she stands up, a golden crown is placed on her head and she is now Queen Alice.

But her joy is tempered by the Red and White Queens who are on either side of her. She’s informed by the Red Queen that she has to pass a proper examination. Like every character in Wonderland, they ask her some confusing questions. Then the White Queen gets sleepy and the Red Queen sings her an Alice-themed lullaby. She asks Alice to sing it to her but falls asleep nonetheless.

The White Queen (Louise Fazenda) and the Red Queen (Edna May Oliver)
give Alice a quiz to see if she is fit to be a Queen.

Alice leaves the sleeping queens and walks to doors with Queen Alice written above them. Before she can knock, the Gryphon sticks his head out and tells her there will be no admittance for a week.  When Alice knocks, the door disappears and she walks in. A party is already in full swing and all the characters she’s encountered seem to be there. Her place is between the two sleeping queens who are already there. She squeezes in, awakening the queens who order the food be served. But the roast and the pudding are alive and Alice is not allowed to eat them.

Things quickly get out of hand at Queen Alice's party.

After drinking a toast to Queen Alice, the party gets out of hand. The various characters climb up on the table and start to walk towards her across the table top. The Red Queen starts to strangle her. It is then that Alice wakes up back in the chair in her front room. Her adventure into the looking glass country is over.

The movie was not a success at the box office, which led many in Hollywood to doubt the vitality of live-action fantasy movies for six years, until the release of The Wizard of Oz (1939). But unlike Oz, this Alice suffers from a long checklist of issues.

The great William Cameron Menzies, credited here only as co-writer of the screenplay, may have had much more to do with the film than that. Stories out at the time say he was being loaned from Fox to direct part of the film and he may have done so; these are also the days before credits were mandated by the unions. No doubt, he also had a hand in how the film looked, he was after all the original production designer, even coining the phrase. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Menzies’ vision for Alice is more claustrophobic and worst of all dull.

To begin with, the film lacks a sense of whimsy, which a successful mounting of the story requires. It is as if the director, Norman McLeod, let the words carry the load, but without giving the actors any direction on how to say those words. As an example, the caterpillar needs some attitude when he says “Who are you?” to Alice, but here there is none, just a dry read.

You have to also question the casting. While Charlotte Henry might have looked the part of Alice, she really has no stage presence here. And just because you have a lot of big-name actors doesn’t mean they are necessarily right for their parts. As an example, Gary Cooper as the White Knight doesn’t work for me. He’s not as funny as the role needed or required. You can’t get humor from a stone.

Then there is the costuming. While it adheres closely to John Tenniel’s illustrations in the original book, they also serve to obfuscate the actor’s faces, so they are often unrecognizable. An example of this is Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle. In the costume, he is totally unrecognizable. You only know it’s him because of his voice, but he is so heavily made up that you can’t tell otherwise. These were the days long before CGI and motion capture, but while these illustrations might work well in a fantasy book, made “real” so to speak, they come across more as horror freaks rather than enchanting.

The pacing is also painfully slow at times. The movie takes almost four minutes to get through the opening credits. And it never really picks up from there. Even Alice falling down the hole is done in slow motion as if deliberately trying to lengthen the film’s running time.

And there are the special effects. Given that we are blessed with some great and overdone special effects these days, those in the early 1930s seem almost laughable by comparison. The technology has come a very long way in the years since. Still, they could have been better even for the time. The journey through the looking glass is not handled very well and it is obvious when the effect is put in place. Audiences of the day surely noticed as well as we can now. Alice doesn’t shrink or grow the same way and then to it is handled in a very obvious manner. At best, they come across as pre-psychedelic imagery; at worst, they look like bad kinescopes made of early TV shows. For the most part, they muddle somewhere in between.

I also should address the persistent rumor of a longer version existing as if a longer running time would have made this better. According to some sources, the film was originally 90 minutes and was cut down to 77 when the television rights were purchased by EMKA, a division of Universal Pictures, which ended up with the bulk of the Paramount library. I’m going on two sources here that I believe are fairly reliable that this longer version doesn’t exist. To begin with, the AFI, which has documented most American films from the era, shows the run time at 75-76 minutes. The second source is James Curtis, the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, published in 2015. In his review of the film on Amazon, he cites a Variety review from December 26, 1933, which gives its length as 76 minutes and the 1935-36 Motion Picture Almanac which gives the runtime as 75 minutes.

Having grown up enjoying Disney’s animated 1951 version, I’ve been curious how the story has been handled by other filmmakers. They usually only make the animated version seem better by comparison. This 1933 version only compounds that. While this film covers much of the same ground, it seems more disconnected as characters seem to be paraded by for their brief cameos on screen. While I appreciate the effort put into the film and the star power applied, the end result is a great disappointment.

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