Hollywood’s All-Star ‘Alice’

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has always held great appeal for Hollywood. Johnny Depp is a big lure, but back in 1933 Paramount put almost all of the studio’s star-power into its production, including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and virtually every actor it had under contract—including W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, later to take home multiple Oscars for his brilliant films All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives, fashioned the screenplay and was faithful to Carroll’s text—perhaps too faithful, given that it was meant to be read and not performed. Co-screenplay credit is given to preeminent production designer William Cameron Menzies, who visualized each character and scene. The director was former cartoonist Norman McLeod, who had recently steered the Marx Brothers in their comedies Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.

There’s only one thing wrong with this trip to Wonderland: it’s a frightful bore. I hadn’t seen the film in ages, so when Universal recently released it on DVD for the first time I was glad to have a chance to revisit it with fresh eyes. I remembered it being an oddity, but that’s being kind.

19-year-old Charlotte Henry won the title role after an extensive talent search, and whatever is wrong with the picture isn’t her fault. (The following year she was cast as Bo Peep in Laurel and Hardy’s delightful Babes in Toyland.) One could forgive the rudimentary special effects and makeup, but the production is ponderous from start to finish.

Even the Fields sequence—in which he provides the voice for a grotesque puppet-like Humpty Dumpty—is leaden. Other talented comedic actors like Charlie Ruggles (as the March Hare), Edward Everett Horton (as the Mad Hatter), Roscoe Karns (Tweedledee) and Jack Oakie (Tweedledum) do the best they can, but the film sucks the air out of their performances. Odd, off-putting makeup and costumes (intended to resemble the original Alice illustrations by Sir John Tenniel) disguise some of the actors completely, which virtually negates the value of having them in the film.

Paramount had high hopes for this endeavor, and even licensed a handful of tie-in products including one of the popular, illustrated Big Little Books—as seen above.

Just before Paramount launched this project, Walt Disney floated the idea of producing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that would combine live-action and animation. His goal was to feature America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, in the leading role, and surround her with cartoon costars. Too bad he didn’t beat Paramount to the punch.

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July 2024