Alice in Wonderland (1933)

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Alice in Wonderland (1933). 77 minutes. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Starring Charlotte Henry (as Alice), W. C. Fields (as Humpty Dumpty), Cary Grant (as the Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (as the White Knight), Edna May Oliver (as the Red Queen), Edward Everett Horton (as the Hatter), and Charles Ruggles (as the March Hare). Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies.

The 1933 Alice in Wonderland is an important early sound attempt at transforming a fantasy children’s novel into a live-action full-length feature film.  It conflates Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass to bring us a sprawling tale of a girl’s fantastic journey through the strange landscape of her dreams.  The screenplay was adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the visually inventive William Cameron Menzies, and the cast features some of the brightest stars of Golden Age cinema. The film was, however, considered a flop at the time of its release and has never gained much of a following among movie lovers.

One reason for this failure to connect with an audience surely must lie in the decision to dress the actors in rubber masks and costumes so that their famous features are completely obscured.  For example, in the sequence on the beach that takes place with Alice, the Gryphon, and the sobbing Mock Turtle, the only way to identify the man within the turtle costume (Cary Grant) is to recognize his distinctive voice. If it seems like an odd choice to cast the witty and suave Grant in the strange role of an oversized, tearful amphibian, it seems doubly strange to conceal his charismatic identity from view inside of a waterproof suit. Admittedly, though, it is not even clear that the dialogue from Grant was recorded while he was wearing the outfit; the lines sound dubbed, making the point of placing the star in such a costume even harder to grasp.

The actors’ costumes and masks do not merely obscure who they are: they are also deliberately grotesque.  The Duchess, always one of the ugliest characters in any adaptation, is an especially good example of this here, with her comically wide rubber face and small eyes. Individual prosthetic facial pieces are also used that distort the actors’ faces and render them utterly strange. The White Knight, played by Gary Cooper, for example, wears a strikingly large nose.  He is one of the few compassionate characters whom Alice meets in the novel, yet here his humanity is buried under an appendage.  Consider also the strange costumes of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with their enormous stomachs and protruding buttocks.  The decision to play on the cartoonish and ugly qualities of the characters contributes to a consistent, overall interpretation of the Lewis Carroll material: that Wonderland and Looking-Glass World are dark and twisted, not sweet and charming.  Further evidence of the film’s perspective can be found in its final scene when Alice, who has recently been queened on the chess board, attends a nightmarish banquet where people and dinner items fly around the table, disturbing-looking anthropomorphic food stands and speaks, the White Queen’s head emerges from a tureen, and the Red Queen begins to choke Alice, shouting, “Something’s going to happen!  Something’s going to happen!”  In particular, the details about the White and Red Queens are not part of the novels.  Carroll’s books are fantastic, to be sure, and much of the film is faithful to the images created by their illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, but the film also develops Tenniel’s concepts into something more sinister.

The strangeness of the characters’ looks is mirrored in the surreal sets.  The White Knight sequence in particular stands out with its hilly, tree-filled landscape.  It reminds me so much of the forest scenes in The Wizard of Oz (1939), another live-action children’s book adaptation that was unsuccessful upon its initial release but one that would eventually go on to become one of the most successful and beloved movies of all time.  Surely one of the reasons that The Wizard of Oz has enjoyed the success that it has while the 1933 Alice in Wonderland has lingered in obscurity must be that the Oz filmmakers chose to grant everyone in that film, including even the Wicked Witch of the West, a fundamentally human appearance, without the use of cartoonish prosthetics or masks—even against landscapes that look unreal.  Presumably the fact that Oz was filmed mostly in Technicolor has also helped it to connect with a modern audience, and one wonders what Alice would have been like had it been filmed using the same technology.

One of the most difficult aspects of adapting Alice as opposed to, say, Oz, is that for the most part, the Alice books lack a strong central narrative.  They are episodic and contain so many characters that it is difficult for them to succeed as modern Hollywood adaptations.  Yet the Alice of Carroll’s novels is still guided by vague goals: in the first of the books, she chases the White Rabbit and hopes to see the Red Queen’s beautiful garden; in the second, she is set on making her way across the giant chess board so that she may be queened.  These interests are not foregrounded in the film, with the result that the story is even more decentered than one would usually expect.  Thus, for the sake of cohesion, this adaptation must rely heavily on the character of Alice herself.  I am sorry to say that I am not too keen on Charlotte Henry’s Alice.  I must confess that her American accent is oddly foreign to me.  What is more, her speech is utterly devoid of the novel’s clever and playful patter.  There is no “Curiouser and curiouser!” here, none of the deliberate politeness of the Alice character that borders on rudeness, none of her poetry or wordplay–in short, nothing that makes her into much of a character.

I recently saw the supremely unusual Alice (1988) by Jan Svankmajer.  No one would accuse Svankmajer of having made a typical Alice movie, and since I am discussing how weird the 1933 Alice is, it seems fair to say that Svankmajer’s Alice certainly trumps it for oddness.  Apart from Alice, all of Svankmajer’s characters are depicted by dead, preserved animals, many of them disturbing in appearance.  Although no one casually viewing either Svankmajer’s unsettling Alice or the 1933 adaptation would confuse them with each other at first, I maintain that the earlier movie does establish a fondness for the grotesque nature of the material that anticipates some of what Svankmajer accomplishes.  This is especially important to keep in mind given how soft the Alice books have been made to seem in family-friendly twentieth-century cinema, in such films as the 1951 full-length animated Disney musical or in the two-part 1985 CBS musical miniseries.  In both of these versions, the story veers towards the didactic: in the Disney version, Alice has to learn not to be rude, and in the 1985 miniseries she learns a lesson about bravery.  Films like the 1933 Alice and Svankmajer’s production remind us of the unique and peculiar nature of Carroll’s vision, and in the case of the 1933 Alice, the unreal quality of John Tenniel’s original illustrations.  Their perspectives are valuable in an industry that strives to make Carroll’s stories palatable, predictable, and tame.

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