Thursday, March 18, 2010
Curiouser and curiouser! ~ Alice
Long before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp filmed Alice in Wonderland in 2010, a big budget, all star version of the children's classic was produced at Paramount Studios in 1933. Based on both the Lewis Carroll tales Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (written in 1865) and Through the Looking Glass (in 1870), the 1933 version of Alice, unlike it's modern counterpart (or the 1951 animated version by Walt Disney), made this trip through the looking glass a major flop. I must agree with moviegoers from the Depression era. With all the money and big name draw that went into the film, it indeed was a big fizzle.
But it had potential. Half of the Paramount lot was cast in the film in all the supporting roles. The big problem was that they were either barely recognizable or not at all in extremely heavy make-up or costumes that completely covered both their face and body. The tedious garb was based on John Tenniel's famed illustrations for the original book, and painstaking detail was taken to create the right look for each character, but they look wooden, unnatural and toyish. Cary Grant (pictured below with his overwhelming costume), not yet the superstar he would become, played the Mock Turtle and was even required to sing! Another Paramount star, whom one would never recognize if not for his name on the credits, is Gary Cooper. As the White Knight, constantly falling off his horse, Cooper is disguised as an old man, and there is none of the virility and dash of early Cooper to be found here, which is fine, just another example of bad casting to fill the marquee with big names. Some notable performances, and ones which were examples of good casting were W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen and Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter. Horton's version of the Hatter is particularly suited to his fussy, madcap humor and the actor actually favors his character.
Many reviews of the film call it a faithful adaption of Carroll's classic, but this blogger begs to differ. First of all, it combines elements and characters of both Wonderland and Looking Glass to form one story, sort of Alice's Odyssey to Crazy Land. Secondly, from the very beginning, the film is nothing like the story. Unlike Carroll's tale, where Alice is outside in the country with her sister, the film begins with the little girl holed up in her home on a snowy day with what appears to be her governess. She then goes "through the looking glass" BEFORE she gets to the rabbit hole, which is in a completely different story.
Then we come to Alice herself. Paramount was said to have brought Ida Lupino, then only 18 years old and a complete novice to the screen, from England to play the part, but instead, cast Charlotte Henry, an 18 year old American with only a couple of years on-screen experience, though physically, she fit the role nicely. Lupino stayed on with Paramount and became a star in the next decade with Warner Brothers. The film had been considered a vehicle for silent star Mary Pickford, and would pair her with the animation of the Walt Disney studios, but the idea didn't gel before Paramount retained the rights.
Although not a barnburner at the box office nor with critics, this version of Alice in Wonderland in still an interesting novelty, if only to see early Grant and Cooper in bizarre getups. It's also fun for Fields fans and though the backdrops are quite amateurish, there is still some inventive use of special effects for some of the fantasy scenes. Worth a look just to say you did.
Note: After nearly seventy years this version of the Wonderland tale was released on DVD in early March 2010 to coincide with the theatrical release of the new Burton/Depp film.