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Better on a second viewing but still less than the sum of its parts
on 16 February 2011
Curiouser and curiouser doesn't even begin to describe Paramount's lavish 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland. Few films of the Golden age can boast quite so impressive a roll-call of talent both in front of and behind the cameras: while stars like Richard Arlen, Leon Errol, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks, Charlie Ruggles, Sterling Holloway, Jack Oakie, Baby LeRoy and May Robson may have faded, there's still Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Gary Cooper as the White Knight and W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty and a screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies, a score by Dimitri Tiomkin and direction by Norman Z. McLeod. How could it miss? Surprisingly easily...
To be fair, the film is nowhere near the disaster of its reputation: intended to save Paramount from toppling into bankruptcy by roping almost all their major contract players into one film regardless of whether they were right for the film or not, the reviews were mixed - with many, like Variety's, incredibly savage - and the box-office poor, with Paramount cutting the film by some 13 minutes shortly after previews (it's the shorter version that's made it to DVD). It didn't endear itself to fans of Lewis Carroll by combining both Wonderland and the Looking Glass and not being especially faithful to either, while star spotters will have their work cut out by the grotesque masks and heavy makeup they wear - so heavy that you wonder why they didn't just have the actors dub the dialogue over standins. Few make much impression, though Cooper shines through his Don Quixote makeup to give a surprisingly good turn as the elderly doddering knight who can't stay on his horse and who sounds oddly like a geriatric Groucho Marx. Charlotte Henry makes a good Alice, the effects are generally pretty impressive, the design sometimes rather good and there are even a couple of surreal background gags to add an extra layer of unsanity, but the tone doesn't seem quite right, with key scenes like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party falling horribly flat. The film manages to feel both drawn out in its opening stages and rushed once it reaches Wonderland even though few scenes show visible signs of being heavily trimmed. Nor does it really know how to end, a fault you could also lay at Carroll's original but which is magnified here with a surreal banquet that becomes increasingly nightmarish. And for all the whimsy, this is a production that at once stresses the grotesque over the absurd while constantly diluting it with reassuring asides.
There's enough that does work to make it worth a viewing, but there's also enough that doesn't to stop it from being the classic its heavyweight credits imply. Indeed, the roster of talent is the film's biggest problem, raising hopes the film cannot possibly satisfy, making it one of those films that seems so much better - though still not hitting the bullseye - on a second viewing. No extras on the DVD, though.