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Over the years, Lewis Carroll's two children's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have served as the inspiration for numerous moviemakers who have attempted to capture Carroll's bizarre imagination on film. To be expected, the various interpretations vary drastically in tone from Walt Disney's audience-friendly animated version in 1951 to Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988), a dark and disturbing version which is NOT recommended for children. Falling somewhere in between is the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland which alternates between being a whimsical children's film and a nightmarish satire of English royalty with images which wouldn't seem out of place in a Salvador Dali painting. Paramount Studios spared no expense in its production and recruited its top stars for the major characters but for some strange reason, they buried their big name cast under pounds of heavy makeup and elaborate costumes. In some cases, only the actors' voices were used while their characters were impersonated by puppets or animated figures. At any rate, the final effect is disorienting and becomes a guessing game of who's who. Is that really Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle or Gary Cooper as the White Knight?
Originally, the role of Alice was intended for Ida Lupino but ended up going to Charlotte Henry. The rest of the casting was more unconventional with such familiar faces as Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Louise Fazenda as the White Queen, Skeets Gallagher as the White Rabbit, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Sterling Holloway as the Frog, and W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Fields, despite his bizarre egg-shaped appearance, is easily recognizable by his distinctive voice and is one of the film's highlights. Straddling a wall with his spindly legs quivering, he makes a particularly grouchy Humpty Dumpty and gets to assail Alice with a long, complaining tirade before his big crackup. Although his role is brief, it gave the Paramount publicity agents a chance to generate interest in his appearance in the film with this press release:
"W.C. Fields, Paramount's funny screen comedian, dashed out of his Toluca Lake home one morning at a tremendous speed.
'Help, help!' ejaculated Mr. Fields loudly, 'there's a crazy man in there!'
'Crazy?' query the neighbours.
'He's trying to measure me for an egg!' roared Mr. Fields indignantly.'
Indeed, the costumes by Wally Westmore and Newt Jones are remarkable as are the special effects by Gordon Jennings and Farciot Edouart. Yet Alice in Wonderland received no Academy Award nominations in any category which is surprising considering its prestigious behind-the-camera talent. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, 1950) worked on the screenplay with contributions from William Cameron Menzies, who is best known as the set designer for Kane and as a minor director of B pictures like Invaders From Mars. The director was Norman Z. McLeod, who normally specialized in romantic comedies, and the music composer was the esteemed Dimitri Tiomkin who later won an Oscar for his score for High Noon (1952).
Despite the lavish production, however, Alice in Wonderland remains a big-budget studio anomaly that grows 'curiosier and curiosier' as the years go by. It should prove a fascinating research subject for any film scholar who wants to do a film by film comparison of all the Lewis Carroll movie adaptations.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton, Benjamin Glazer (uncredited)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William Cameron Menzies
Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Henry Sharp
Costume Design: Newt Jones, Wally Westmore
Film Editing: Edward Hoagland, Ellsworth Hoagland
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Cast: Charlotte Henry (Alice), W.C. Fields (Humpty Dumpty), Richard Arlen (Cheshire Cat), Roscoe Ates (Fish), William Austin (Gryphon), Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher (The White Rabbit), Louise Fazenda (The White Queen), Sterling Holloway (The Frog).
by Jeff Stafford