December 22 is the anniversary of the release of Paramount’s all-star 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Norman McLeod.
A.I.W. is one of those works of literature that has been adapted for the screen many, many times, but never truly definitively. Yet I am partial to the one in question for a couple of reasons. While the best known and loved version today is Disney’s 1951 animated one, that one falls short by filing off the edges. The book Alice in Wonderland is as much a nightmare as it is a dream, full of fear, anger and violence, much of it perpetrated by adults on a child…just like real life. The cartoon feels unavoidably sweeter and softer, and leans toward the comic aspects as opposed to those that might give the kiddies night sweats. Further, because both Wonderland and Alice are animated, one is just as real as the other. Alice never enters a dream; she is already in one.
Because it is a live-action concoction, using make-up and costume and sets to achieve its effects, the Paramount version retains that unsettling, uncanny quality of the book, gazing backwards at German expressionism and forwards towards The Wizard of Oz. That’s one reason to love it; it’s just plain weird and grotesque.
But secondly, there is the all-star cast, with parts apparently assigned randomly by lot. The surreal sight and sound of W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty is what stands out in my memory. Some of the casting is downright inspired: Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen; Alison Skipworth as the Duchess. Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare. Ned Sparks as the Caterpillar. Some of it is, “meh, okay”, like Louise Fazenda as the White Queen, May Robson as the Queen of Hearts, Skeets Gallagher as the White Rabbit and Ford Sterling as the White King. Gary Cooper is both wrong and wasted as the White Knight. In fact many great talents (stars, former stars, future stars) are wasted in small, unrecognizable parts: Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Roscoe Ates as a Fish, Sterling Holloway as a Frog, Mae Marsh as a Sheep, Polly Moran as the Dodo Bird, Billy Bevan as the Two of Spades, Jack Duffy as a Leg of Mutton, and George Ovey as Plum Pudding. Plenty of these tiny parts could have been played by anyone, really. Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns (see above) are downright disturbing as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (I suspect they are the models for two similar creatures in Dan Aykroyd’s Nothing But Trouble). And Billy Barty plays the sneezing Baby!
The film was a flop upon its release, which explains why it is such a sui generis. It was an experiment; it failed, and so this type of thing was not repeated. Today it is a curio, but one to which I love to periodically return.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.