Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (1933): Box Office Down the Rabbit Hole

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.


  1. I've been dying to see this ever since TCM started advertising the new DVD release, so I'm excited to see a review on it!

    I'm appalled at the studio's shocking lack of foresight, though. Honestly, what kind of crazy person would cast two complete dazzlers like Grant & Cooper in all-encompassing costumes?! Cooper was my main reason for wishing to see the film in the first place!

    The possibilities of Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter are enchanting. It sounds like it's worth watching just to see him. And with Edna May Oliver & WC Fields! Even more inducement!

    Thank you so much for writing this! :)

  2. I have to admit, I've never been a fan of the story. The Disney version is probably my least favorite of their classics. Yet no matter how disappointing this is, it may be one of those a person has to see just once in order to be able to say, "I've seen it."

  3. Never a fan of the story either, too disconcerting for children I love the new version.
    Grant's costume looks like a giant Easter egg!!! How things have changed.

  4. I kind of liked the 33' version, i can definitely see why it flopped, but its interesting to watch the costumes are incredible and kind of frightening, I still wonder if that was really Cary Grant in the giant heavy looking tortoise costume. Edward Everett Horton makes the greatest mad hatter.!

    Walt Disney's 50s animated version is still my favorite though, its simply perfect!
    Tim Burtons is one of the best takes on the story minus the unnecessary 3D, I think its a great story for children and adults. I'm sure there will be many more remakes in the future.

    great post! :D

  5. The 33 version was certainly a misfire for all the reasons mentioned by Rupert, but I think I will purchase it anyway-I am almost afraid NOT to buy a curio like this with the stream of classic film on dvd releases down to a trickle.If this release doesn't sell I am afraid it would be one more excuse for the studios to keep classic movies in the vault- unseen & unreleased for home video

  6. That's an excellent point Tom, about unreleased video continuing to be holed up due to lack of interest from viewers. Thanks for bringing that up to those that may make a decision to buy.

  7. It's sad to see this film take such a beating. I first saw it at a little movie house in the sixties, and while I can understand that it's reputation has tarnished over time, it is still my favorite of all the Alice movie incarnations. Part of the fun was in trying to figure out who was playing which character. I loved the White Knight, and thought he was hilarious. And while I thought the Mock Turtle sobbed too much, I thought the Mad Hatter couldn't have been more perfectly cast...even to this day.
    It was this version that got me to not just read the originals, but to study them in depth. It isn't until one does that, that one realizes that, although the original verbal telling to little Alice Liddell may have been intended as a children's adventure, the books were most definitely not.

  8. Thank you for article I liked it so much


  9. Fascinating!! Great post! I'm very intrigued by the idea of seeing Grant and Cooper in crazy costumes...

  10. Have they finally re-released it? It's too bad that it takes a box-office hit to pay any attention to forgotten classics. This Alice version is really weird! I was so shocked when I realized that both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper was in it. Why don't anyone mention that more often? It's hilarious.

  11. I have very fond memories of seeing this film on television when I was a child. It's probably been over 35 years since I last saw it and I'm dying to see it again. When I first saw it as a little kid, I had no idea who Gary Grant or Gary Cooper were so it didn't matter to me who was inside the costumes, all I know is that I was intrigued by the strangeness of it all. The only other film that I recall seeing Charlotte Henry in is another film based on a children's story - Laurel and Hardy's version of Babes in Toyland usually referred to as "March of the Wooden Soldiers." Ms. Henry played Little Bo Peep. That's another film I have fond childhood memories of because it use to be shown on TV every Christmas.



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