Alice In DVD-Land
Ann peeked in the other night while I was watching Universal’s Alice In Wonderland DVD and said it looked grotesque. That’s sorta like an endorsement for me. So many kid pictures today are self-consciously "dark." Back in 1933, that was more an unintended consequence. Even cartoons then were creepy. I’ve looked at photos of youngster crowds waiting outside to see things like the 1930 Tom Sawyer and they appear primed enough for mean reality inside. Grotesque for us was just life for them. Whatever Wonderlands they dreamed of might not suit children so well today. Still they look orderly in their drab-wear. Girls all wore dresses and some of the boys turned out in knickers. The luckier ones had wool overcoats. Alice In Wonderland was made for them, not us. The new Tim Burton remake won’t play to a handful that ever read Lewis Carroll’s book. 1933 audiences likely knew that source lots better. People read more then before television (and more movies) came along to debase them. Paramount tried keeping faith with Carroll and even duplicated as best they could Sir John Tenniel illustrations that accompanied early editions. Remakes can sometimes justify themselves just for instigating release of a better early version of the property. Would Universal ever have gotten around to Alice were it not for the new one whose coattails this DVD rides? To my mind, it should be others way around, but I wasn’t among those wearing 3-D glasses these past weekends when Burton’s Alice opened to stellar grosses. Charlotte Henry, there are less of us to champion you, but a light will always burn in Greenbriar’s window for your Alice and all the grotesqueries that come with her.
Alice In Wonderland was the treat Paramount put into children’s stockings for Christmas 1933, and object of a campaign massive even by today’s standards. Whoever was around then might still remember drum beating for this one. Trade ads went on for pages delineating the tie-ins. Paramount had trained selling guns on kids before and obviously it worked. Their Tom Sawyer spawned Huckleberry Finn the following year. Skippy begat Sooky. By 1933 and Alice In Wonderland, the machine was sophisticated to levels I’ll bet Disney aspired to when he began organizing the Snow White campaign in 1937. I was lucky enough to come across an Alice pressbook recently. Some of its content decorates this post. Paramount’s merchandising intensity took me back to age seven when the 1961 Babes In Toyland was invading our collective consciousness. The deuce of it is Alice was 1933 when I understood most folks were down on luck and had not disposable dollars for Alice dolls, tea services, soap cakes, play sets, and jewelry. I’m beginning to wonder if that so-called Great Depression was all it was cracked up to be. Movie studios obviously had easier access to public institutions then. Paramount infiltrated schools nationwide via co-ops with The National Council Of Teachers of English which culminated in a contest conducted by instructors to make pupils Alice-aware. Four million school-agers were said to have gotten the memo to see Alice In Wonderland. They will be advised to do that by their teachers, said a confident Paramount.
Now here’s where history gets cruel. Alice made a big enough noise for holiday 1933 as to alert Hal Roach and MGM to possibilities of a next Yuletide’s Alice with but slight variation. She was still Charlotte Henry, only this time it was Bo-Peep the twenty-year old (by then 21) enacted, and instead of Wonderland for Christmas 1934, we’d get Toyland. Difference lay primarily in fact that Babes In Toyland still plays and is remembered, while Alice In Wonderland might just as well have fallen down that rabbit hole referenced in its narrative. Alice had the all-star cast, but few were recognizable beneath disguises. Babes was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy plus music. Alice fast-tracked to oblivion after general release. I found no indication of a reissue. Babes saw rebirth as March Of The Wooden Soldiers and filled theatres clear into the seventies. There was also that TV station in New York repeating it each Thanksgiving as a holiday perennial. I doubt if a fraction as many people saw Alice In Wonderland over the last forty years. Until this DVD release, it would not have been untoward to call Paramount’s a lost film. Only it wasn’t their property anymore. Universal had owned Alice since then-parent MCA assumed ownership of the film in March 1958 among 700 pre-48 Paramount features. Alice was for a half-century very much misplaced in syndication’s shuffle. We had one station down here that ran it during the sixties, though Channel 8 took greater interest in Dialing for Dollars, sports breaks, and other such disruptions of their movie’s progress. A dedicated package MCA put together in the early seventies, called Comedy Film Festival I, combined twenty-six titles that comprised most of what they had of W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers bearing Paramount logos (and occasion for which they finally cleared Fields’ You’re Telling Me for broadcast). Alice In Wonderland is clearly an odd bird among this lot, being that Fields has relatively little to do in it. I was grateful to finally (if barely) see AIW on Johnson City, Tennessee’s remote Channel 11, but had not again until Universal’s recent arrival. Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are to have these DVD’s?
It’s no good arguing Alice In Wonderland is a good picture. Not a patch on Babes In Toyland and certainly no threat to the primacy of The Wizard Of Oz among 30’s fantasies, Alice still merits respect for sheer bungled perversity. Credited names like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William Cameron Menzies, and Dimitri Tiomkin (one of his first scores) guarantee it won’t be altogether forgotten, and theirs are just names behind the camera. A 76-minute running time minimizes fatigue. I spent none of those clock-watching. It’s hard to completely muck up any oldie dealing with imaginative content. All-stars of the cast are well concealed in weird chunks of plaster and such. I couldn’t reconcile his costume or voice with Cary Grant, and Uncle Bill indeed went to waste encased in a giant egg. I read in James Curtis’ book that Fields was loath to play Humpty Dumpty. Child visitors escorted to the set found him drunk and incoherent in the oversized get-up. He was promised wide exposure for accepting the part, and indeed a lot more patrons saw Alice In Wonderland than would have gone to a Fields-starring vehicle. Lovers of things twisted can luxuriate in set decorations Paramount never got to use again. Didn’t Disney come pretty close to doing his own Alice featuring Mary Pickford as companion to cartoon Wonderlanders? Could a 30’s marketplace have absorbed both? Walt did release an all animated AIW in 1951 with rough edges of the source material smoothed to a genial gloss (note in this ad how all the characters wear big non-threatening smiles). That returned a disappointing $2.4 million in domestic rentals and became the first Walt Disney cartoon feature to play television (on ABC’s Disneyland series in November 1954). There was a mid-seventies theatrical revival launching this Alice In Wonderland to new popularity as a "head" movie. A college playdate I remember emphasized the film’s animated caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe, with advertising art maintaining a distinctly "pop" flavor. Google searching further enlightened me as to modern uses of the hookah. One helpful site explained how to acquire my own and load it up with cannabis. Maybe Hollywood overlooked an ideal opportunity to do a full-blown Alice remake during that late 60’s/70’s era when audiences were most receptive to tripping out with its fantastic themes and settings (and no, I haven’t forgotten there was 1976's Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy).