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Thursday, March 4,2010

Old-school 'Alice'

An elaborate 1933 adaptation is full of vintage stars and vivid images

by James Sanford

AliceBLB.jpgSearch the title “Alice in Wonderland” at the Internet Movie
Database, and you’ll find more than two dozen film and TV adaptations of Lewis
Carroll’s freaky fantasy, ranging from the well-known Disney animated version
to the obscure 1982 musical “Alice at the Palace,” in which Meryl Streep hurls
herself down the rabbit hole.


Next week, director Tim Burton adds his “Alice” to the list.
But the title is something of a misnomer. Burton isn’t retelling the old story:
The screenplay by “Lion King” author Linda Wooverton is actually a sequel to
the original, which sends a teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska) back to Wonderland
to bring down the maniacal Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who keeps her
terrified subjects under her thumb with the help of the vicious Jabberwock
(Christopher Lee).


Early word on the film is mixed, to say the least.
Considering the earlier screen versions of “Alice,” however, Burton was
probably wise to find a new plot. For a tale that’s been told so many times by
filmmakers, there aren’t many admirable “Alice”-inspired works out there.


The problem can be traced directly back to Carroll’s books
(“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What
Alice Found There”), which are basically strings of encounters with kooky characters.
Alice wanders from place to place and creature to creature in episodic fashion;
it’s a structure that works better on the page — where it naturally breaks down
into brief chapters — than it does on the screen.


In “The Wizard of Oz,” a story similar in many ways to
“Alice,” Dorothy has a clear goal. She wants to return to Kansas. Her journey
to the Emerald City and her battle with the Wicked Witch of the West are
motivated by her desire to find her way back home. Alice, in contrast, has
nothing much at stake, nor any major mission. She is merely traveling through a
loony landscape at a leisurely pace and, at the end of both books, she realizes
her adventures have been nothing more than dreams. (The same ending was tacked
onto the 1939 film of “Wizard,” even though in L. Frank Baum’s novel Dorothy
actually does go to Oz and has to be transported back to Kansas by way of
Glinda’s Silver Shoes.)


alice_in_wonderland_sm_1.jpgIf you’re looking for a comparison piece for Burton’s
version, check out the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland,” which arrives on DVD March
2. It’s an elaborate, ambitious extravaganza that Paramount originally released
during the holiday season. (It obviously was big news at the time since it was
featured on the cover of Time Magazine during Christmas Week; it also spawned a
now-collectable Big Little Book, illustrated with dozens of photos from the
film.)


The screenplay combines both Carroll classics into a
crazy-quilt of a story. So while a house-bound Alice (Charlotte Henry) does
notice the White Rabbit scampering around outside on a snowy night, she enters
Wonderland not by plunging into the rabbit hole, but by stepping through the
large mirror above her fireplace to enter what she calls “the looking-glass
house.”


Inside, she meets such familiar figures as the Mad Hatter
(Edward Everett Horton, who often played the second banana in the Fred
Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals), the weepy Mock Turtle (a very young Cary
Grant), the Cheshire Cat (one-time matinee idol Richard Arlen), the
accident-prone White Knight (Gary Cooper in a funny cameo) and Humpty Dumpty
(memorably played by a perfectly cast W.C. Fields).


Shot in black-and-white — which gives the visuals a look
similar to John Tenniel’s illustrations for the original editions of the
“Alice” books — the 1933 film is a treasure trove for movie buffs eager to play
“spot the star,” and the sumptuous sets and costumes are delightful. If the
special effects seem somewhat primitive to contemporary eyes, they still do a
reasonably good job of conveying the weird goings-on in Wonderland and most of
the books’ most famous scenes (including the “pool of tears” and the Red
Queen’s chaotic croquet game) are well-presented. A brief animated sequence
that tells the story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is a definite highlight.


This “Alice” has the same weakness as many other depictions
of Carroll: There’s no driving force behind the story, which quickly becomes
something like a vaudeville show, in which you don’t expect any sort of
connections between the various acts. If you don’t like a particular character
or situation, just sit tight — a new one will be along shortly. While Henry
looks the part of a prim Victorian maiden, her Alice doesn’t develop much of a
personality. She’s primarily on hand to serve as the slender thread that ties
the package together.


Some versions of “Alice” emphasize the humor and playfulness
of Carroll’s material; this one frequently pushes the stories’ darker sides. In
a truly demented denouement set at a bizarre banquet, many of the characters
Alice has encountered return to crown her as a queen, first honoring her and
then humiliating her as the evening spins out of control. It’s an utterly
surrealistic scene full of disturbing images, such as a talking leg of mutton
that could easily have popped out of a David Lynch movie. This “Alice in
Wonderland” reminds us how easily wacky fantasy can give way to
nightmarishness.

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