Monday, 15 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

One benefit of Tim Burton's recent reworking of "Alice" is that it has encouraged the programmers at the National Film Theatre to excavate some of the earlier versions. The above film is one that I have been longing to see since the year dot with the Paramount Studios stock company of the day taking on the various roles -- Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle anyone? However, like so many long-anticipated treats it was something of a disappointment come the day.

The cast-list reads like a directory of 1930s character actors with Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, Ned Sparks, Sterling Holloway, Alison Skipworth, Charlie Ruggles, Jack Oakie, Roscoe Karns, and so many more amongst the performers. However they are so heavily made-up or completely costumed as animals that most of them remain unrecognizable. Even Grant's famous laid-back voice does not really register as his furry animal intones 'Glorious Soup'. Only Edward Everett Horton's Mad Hatter, May Robson's Queen of Hearts, and Edna May Oliver's Red Queen are visually recognizable. And only W.C. Fields' Humpty-Dumpty and Gary Cooper's incredibly clumsy and rather embarrassing White Knight can be discerned by their distinctive voices. Having a long cast-list at the start of the movie showing the various characters followed by a picture of the relevant actor did not really help one recognize the players. What I am saying is that there may be great amusement to be found in watching Cary Grant play a silly animal, but only if one readily realises that one is watching Cary Grant. I bet neither he nor Cooper would boast later about these roles in their filmographies.

This major quibble apart, the film does not really capture the spirit of the book and is rather too much like a number of set pieces, where Lewis Carroll's witticisms are spouted as respectfully and gravely as if they were quotations from Shakespeare or at best like Oscar Wilde bon mots. Also having a rather blah and mature-looking Alice in the person of Charlotte Henry doesn't help. Rather too much time is taken up by having her moon about the set before falling asleep and then entering Wonderland both through a looking-glass and then down a rabbit-hole (talk about overkill). It feels as if the writers -- the normally reliable Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies -- were anxious to include as much as possible from the source material without worrying about capturing its charms.

The film is certainly not a waste of time, however, and does have the occasional felicity. In particular the armies rushing to Humpty-Dumpty's rescue and a Fleischer Brothers cartoon rendering of the Walrus and the Carpenter's oyster-eating frenzy are unexpected treats, as is Field's amusing turn. As Carroll himself might have said 'curiouser and curiouser', it is a definite curiosity.

The film was preceded by a not previously announced showing of the recently-restored 1903 version of the tale -- the longest British film to date when it was made: all of 12 minutes! There are now some eight minutes remaining -- still in very poor condition (and you can search it out on-line if you're so inclined). Unfortunately the proud curator took more than eight minutes to tell us how lucky we were to be seeing it with a new original score. While I suppose I am happy to have viewed it, what remains is so very primitive that it makes the not-that-wonderful 1933 version look like the epitome of film-making art rather than the strange oddity that it actually is.
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