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Monday, March 15, 2010

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 know Lewis Carroll’s book like 1933 audiences did. 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).


Anonymous Scott said...

There were also a couple of all-star TV versions I remember that might have been the reason that the movie studios left Alice alone after 1960: What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? in 1966 adapted by Bill Dana, and one in 1985 adapted by Paul Zindel.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

"Uncle Bill" Fields drunk on a movie set?


12:07 PM  
Blogger la peregrina said...

Calling the 1933 Alice grotesque is perfect. I saw this movie on television as a child. At first I thought it very bizarre when compared to the Disney version but I did watch until the end.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The 1933 ALICE was also one of the most curious selections for a Castle Films treatment. The 10 minute 16mm edition (not to mention the 3 and a half minute silent 8mm version) is pretty darn incomprehensible.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I loved the "grotesque" remark as well.
Last night, I was watching "The Magician" on TCM in my little corner of the house. My wife walked in to tell me good night during one of the great close-ups of Paul Wegener. She paused and watched about 30 seconds, shook her head and said "What the hell are you watching?".
It made my day!

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

Let's not forget the 1972 ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, a fairly expensive live action musical version with a score by John (GOLDFINGER) Barry and an all star cast. It was "four walled" as many films were in the 70's and more or less sank without a trace. I remember seeing in my college days. There is a poor quality pan and scan dvd of this.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Joe Dante said...

I love the '72 version, which was apparently a big flop and I recently revived for a screening at LA's New Beverly Cinema.
It went over very well. John Barry's score is one of his best and although a bit stiffly directed by one-timer William Sterling, the movie casts a minor-key spell all its own. Now P.D> in the US, decent widescreen transfers are hard to come by, but it's really worth checking out, especially in light of the current fake 3D (done after shooting) meha-hit.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you seen the SIMPSONS episode where they do a spot-on parody of 30s fantasy films(the few that were made)with masked gremlins invading Santa's workshop and one of them crooning to (looks like)Lttle Miss Muffet.I'll bet that was inspired by "Babes/March....."

8:40 PM  
Anonymous David said...

*Accompanied my niece to Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND this past weekend and was surprised to learn that, despite the title, it's actually a sequel, telling of Alice's return visit to Wonderland thirteen years later, rather than a straight adaption of the novel.

*A local station got a lot of use out of that package of comedies that included Paramount's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but ALICE was the one title in it that they almost never trotted out. My mother actually gave in when I pleaded with her to let me stay home from school one day to catch a very rare daytime showing of it.

*By the way, do you know how ALICE did financially? I've read a couple of reviews of the new DVD that claim it was a boxoffice bomb that nearly bankrupted Paramount.

10:45 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

It's possible the 60's came pretty close to having a major screen "Alice". Several sources indicate that Walt Disney had seen footage of teenager France Gall (the most adorable looking -and sounding - of France's 60's pop stars). Intrigued, he approached her with an offer to play the lead in a new live-action "Alice in Wonderland". Exactly how he would have presented a French accented Alice remains a something of a question mark. But certainly - seeing as this was in 1965 - psychedelic flower power would've been in full bloom by the time the film hit theatres. Mlle Gall considered the offer - but Disney's death in '66 took the project off the table. France Gall was still in her early 20's some years later when Bertolucci supposedly offered her the lead opposite Brando in "Last Tango in Paris". But she nixed it. And - as far as I know - this fascinator of famous filmmakers still hasn't made a movie. She did however continue with a monumentally successful singing career that lasted into the new millennium. She remains a beloved (though now pretty much retired) institution in her native country. For a peek at Mlle Gall around the time Disney's "Alice" project was apparently afoot, here's a youtube link:

or if you don't feel up to typing all those letters, just go to youtube and key in France Gall Quand On Est Ensemble 1966

11:36 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

In preparation for the Tim Burton Alice, I decided as a stunt to sit through as many Alice films as I could find.

The Disney Alice gave me a headache with all of that frantic animation, however I thought the croquet sequence was very well done.

The Paramount version is no classic but at least it's interesting with that weird chess scene near the beginning of the film. That film is still somewhat of an endurance contest.

I would strongly recommend the 1966 BBC Jonathan Miller version of Alice. The actors aren't wearing those stupid animal costumes and the Alice character might possibly be a very disturbed girl hallucinating the whole thing a very interesting take on the story.

I tried watching the musical version with the John Barry songs and I threw in the towel on that one. The songs added nothing but length.

The Irwin Allen TV version is also kicking around on You Tube and has some camp value with the "all star" cast of TV actors, however it's still pretty bad.

Also watched the 1906 Alice in Wonderland which at least was short and probably but should be blamed for starting filmmakers down the path of constantly remaking Alice in Wonderland.

After my all Alice all week marathon, I decided to take a pass on the Burton film.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Well, if you want a real psychedelic version, check out Jonathan Miller's 1966 BBC version. There are clips on YouTube, but you may find it hard to take more than a few minutes; this is Alice meets the Marat/Sade, with the Victorian characters portrayed as bus station schizophrenics while sitar music plays in the background and the whole thing is shot in Bergmanesque black and white. Sort of fascinating (and an extraordinary cast), but the surreal, depressive atmosphere is definitely love it or hate it.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I had the old Castle films super 8mm version of the 1933 Alice..Which I remember used to get sandwiched in with the tv paramount-mca package along with the Fields's the Marx's and the Mae Wests..I don't think I've seen it since the days before Cable and VHS..

2:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson weighs in on Alice via e-mail:

The Paramount Alice shows Wonderland as randomly nuts, when the book offers a world that's driven by its own system of logic and wordplay. That's the biggest problem. It's like a Sherlock Holmes movie with plenty of gaslight but none of the trademark deductions. You want to see Alice come to grips with these loons, either by trying to play their game or by smacking them with Victorian common sense. Alice's polite passivity works on the page, but in a film your heroine has to DO something.

The new film, while impressive and often inspired, is ultimately Alice & Company acting out a generic Hollywood fantasy film: The hero(ine) with a destiny, the over-the-top villain, colorful (and more interesting) sidekicks, impossible CGI landscapes and camera moves, odd bits of junk or data that turn out to be Surprisingly Important later, and the inevitable Big Battle -- oh, and a sort of moral or something. Equal parts Star Wars, Wizard of Oz and old computer game, with characters who THINK they came from Lewis Carroll. When the Cheshire Cat takes sides, you know something's wrong.

Walt Disney famously admitted he was defeated by Alice and/or the expectations of her fans. Reportedly they toyed with standard movie plots involving a hero and villain before retreating to the book's random wanderings. If you watch it as a very long short that doesn't have to add up, it's pretty good. But again, Carroll's logic gives way to flat-out looniness.

5:48 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

The '33 Paramount "Alice" used to play out-here in the L.A. market continuously when I was a child, as part of a rotating group of Paramounters on what was called The Early Show, just prior to "Jerry Dumphey and The Big News", which looking back must have been someone's attempt at a sequal to "The Big Store", but no Tony Martin!

Actually, I have always thought that "Duck Soup", with it's strangely too-manicured gardens, and landscapes, bizarre tea parties and weirdly silent art-deco little dwellings, came much closer to capturing the spirit of Carroll. (Same year, same studio, who knows?)

Re your beautiful masthead for today, I can remember meeting Betty Grable as a little boy one afternoon at Del Mar Racetrack. I found her somewhat less than enchanting, but maybe her bets' just weren't coming in that day!

10:28 AM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

I've always had a fondness for the '72 version, also, but I must say that even the '76 X-rated one deserves some love here! Alice, Kris DeBell, went on to TV and mainstream film success for a number of years (NIGHT COURT, Bill Murray's MEATBALLS, TV's THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS) and many of the songs were memorable and hummable. There was even an attempt at a stage musical version using these songs. The film can be found in the originally released softcore version as well as a restored hardcore version. The former is much better as the more explicit sex scenes slow the film and change the light-hearted mood but for open-minded grown-ups it can be a lot of fun!

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, isn't there some controversy about the running length of the 1933 film? The full 90 minute version apparently exists -- why wasn't it released?

I just watched (for the first time since it was first broadcast) the 1999 TV movie version, the one with Gene Wilder, Miranda Richardson, Martin Short, etc. It was quite well done, actually. It's a tough book to adapt to film because it's episodic, and the heroine doesn't change or transform at all (at least not permanently -- she grows and shrinks quite a bit). I understand Disney himself struggled with that.

I have quite a fondness for the Disney version of the film -- yes, it's episodic, but just watch it as a sketch comedy film. It's great fun to hear so many familiar radio voices, like Jerry Colona, Ed Wynn, Ed Kearns, Bill Thompson, etc. (Everybody watching the film in 1951 would have recognized that the white rabbit shared the same voice with Wallace Wimple, from Fibber McGee and Molly. That character was much better known at the time than Droopy Dog.)


2:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Dr. OTR --- I've read discussions about Alice's running time, and am satisfied that what we have on DVD is what audiences saw in 1933-34. I'm also doubtful that a longer version exists today, but am prepared to be proven wrong if someone had information to the contrary.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Remember this particularly well as it was on the day we finally got a TV of our own. Settled at George AFB near Victorville Calif so maybe a station from SanBernadino?

5:40 AM  

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