Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,


Alice in Wonderland (1933 Paramount Dir. Norman McLeod)

Why did Tim Burton feel he needed to make a dark version of Alice in Wonderland? A nightmare-inducing version was made in 1933, and remains as horrifying as ever. Even in its cut down 77-minute version, it can scare an entire orphanage for months of sleepless nights and it wasn’t even trying. It’s just that the make-up is pretty creepy. I’m in my thirties, I’m not particularly squeamish and just the opening credit sequence is creeping me the hell out. I’ll explain about the open credits. See, Paramount wanted to exploit the fact that Lewis Carroll’s 100th birthday had caused a resurgence of interest in the Alice stories. This movie is based on one of the many stage plays going around at that time. In order to pull the studio out of a jam, they put all their biggest stars in the movie. However, the make-up jobs were so over the top that almost none of these big name actors could be recognized. The movie was sort of a massive, amazing, epic, almost studio ending… flop. Yeah, it crashed, burned, and took out a small village. Mae West had to shake her money maker like she’d never shook before in order to save the studio after this thing. A lot of people claimed the failure was that the actors couldn’t be recognized, I say it’s because the make-up creeped out strong men and scared weak and feeble women. Anyway, that’s a long enough opening paragraph, let’s dive in and see what we’ve got shall we?

You can see the attempt at an opening credit save here.

In order to try and salvage the situation a little, the studio made an extensive opening credit sequence in which the actor was shown in make up with the character name and then a headshot was shown with the actor’s name. It’s sort of neat, as it’s made into a large book that an unseen reader is flipping through. I always like old credit sequences like these, because it offers something different once in a while. I’m not so found of just being dropped into the movie and having to try and ignore the credits while I get into the story. So a sequence in which we get to see all the stars is sort of nice. The thing is, these are Paramount’s big stars, and I still only recognize maybe one in four. I’m supposed to be some kind of expert on old B&W movies, and I don’t know who any of these people are. Fame is transitory. Of course, because of the make-up, no one could tell who they were supposed to be. I go on about the opening credit sequence, because the movie does as well. We start having the cast listed at the one minute mark, after the Universal logo, the NRA logo, the Paramount Logo and the opening splash page (the first screen cap) and a second splash page saying who wrote the movie and such. The cast listing, with both photos then goes on for two minutes and forty seconds. We’re three minutes and forty-five seconds in (five seconds for a fade out from Charlotte Henry’s headshot to an establishing shot of a house in winter) and we haven’t even started the movie yet.

That’s a face that’s contemplating mischief.

Alice is annoyed because her governess won’t let her go out in the amazingly Hollywood style heavy snow, and… what in the name of Alan Smithee is going on in this sitting room? Okay let me explain, in order to cover up the fact that Charlotte Henry was about 19 at the time and a full-grown woman, they scaled up the room. Okay, her dress is loose and puffy to cover whatever adult attributes her body might have, but it looks strange. I assume the governess is remaining sitting in this scene to cover up the fact that she’s about the same size as Alice, who is supposed to be about seven. Several problems here, like the fact that Alice slinks about the room in a very not-seven sort of way. It’s not a sexual walk or anything, but it’s clearly the movements of a young woman who has managed to leave the awkwardness of childhood behind her. She walks around the room, playing with a turtle and some chessmen, and a few other things we’ll be seeing in the next 70 minutes or so. She prattles on, letting her imagination run her mouth, and gets admonished by her governess and… okay, you know what? Charlotte Henry is SOOO not a little kid in this thing. I don’t have a Lolita fetish or anything, but damn she’s being cute and seriously doable. She’s not trying to be coquettish or anything, but she’d seriously get anyone with a costumed girl thing going if this were made today.

And I’ll tell you another thing I love about gin!

Alice gets up, shows her cat the mirror, and talks to her about the Looking Glass House, which is pretty much the lines from the book. Then she falls asleep in her chair and the governess gets up and walks around, hammering home the fact that the room was scaled up to make Alice look more like a child instead of a cosplay fetish waiting to happen. Sorry to harp on it, but she’s adorable in a very adult woman looking cute sort of way. The fact that it’s unintentional makes it all the more alluring. Never mind the fact that she’d be fourteen years older than my grandmother if she were alive today, she was sort of hot then. Anyway, she gets up on the mantle and we get our first dodgy special effect as she walks through the glass. Then we get our first really good practical effect as she is lowered on a harness to the floor ala Hong Kong Kung Fu movie Wire Fu style, only with less kicking and more insinuating that her skirt is a parachute. Also, she falls down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and doesn’t pass through the looking glass until, well, Through the Looking Glass. Who cares? It works.

I always try to look for the “Not Poison” label when I pick out my drinks.

She looks at some books, realizing that everything is backwards in Looking Glass land. We then get our first good special effect as Alice looks at a picture, which turns and talks to her. It’s a pretty simple effect, a bit of rear projection to show within the area of the picture frame and then Alice reacting, but in ’33 it must have been a really rockin’ effect. It still works too, that’s the best thing about effects like these, and they never really look dated. Then we get a bit with a clock and the traditional scene of the chess pieces in the fire grate. It works, they get back projected behind Alice, who is then back projected herself behind Lily the pawn. The effects work involved in getting Alice to look like she’s putting the white king & queen on the table is done with a few different styles. Just like that, I’m reminded that this was as star studded, special effects, extravaganza. I’m also struck by just how much Alice looks like the John Tenniel drawings.

It came back. The doctors said I was cured but I can see it again.

So she goes through a door, which is more like a doggy door than a human door and floats down some stairs and out of the house. We’re now in summer, because that’s how Looking Glass Land rolls. So now we get our first look at the White Rabbit, who looks like a rabbit. Now what I mean is that it’s not red buttons with a fur hood that had two bits of fur that are meant to be ears like it was in the last Alice in Wonderland I reviewed. That’s a positive thing when the characters look like puppets. Not cute puppets, but passable by comparison. When we get to the lumpy faced monstrosities, you’ll understand why that’s faint praise. Of course when we get to the people with the visages of dough, you’ll want to know why we can’t watch something wholesome and good… like Snuff. I give this movie extra points for trying to keep things to scale. The rabbit is running around a set that’s approximately the size it would be if he were about the size of a small rabbit.

This is probably symbolic of something. We just have to figure out what.

So anyway, Alice follows the rabbit and slowly floats down the rabbit hole and enters the little room with the table and the small doors. Then she drinks, grows, cries, you know the drill. Interesting point. There is different girl used for the effects shots. I noticed it at the mirror, but it’s not until they do the effect to show her growing that you get a really good look. It’s not Charlotte Henry, it’s some other chick, and she looks much younger than our main actress. Aaaaanyway, she falls in the pool, talks to the mouse and then meets the Dodo who strangely starts by talking about William the Conqueror despite the fact that it’s the mouse’s shtick to talk about that. Again, the puppet work is excellent for the time, but it’s sort of disappointing if you were hoping to see Polly Moran. Unlike in the book, the dryness of history manages to make Alice’s outfit dry. This is probably a good thing since when wet, the dress was clingy and while it wasn’t overly obvious, it was pretty clear the actress was not a child. She’s not voluptuous, we’re not talking Dolly Parton here or anything. However, that being said, she’s not a little girl and I don’t want to think of sweet young Alice in those terms. This is why having a 19-year-old play a 7 year old is a problem. I have similar issues with The Wizard of Oz. Little girls should be played by little girls, not adults who had fully flowered. I shouldn’t be crossing my legs and saying “Don’t think about it! Ignore it! It doesn’t exist! Must not fear! Fear is the mindkiller!” while watching a movie. The ‘30s had a fetish for de-sexualizing young women, they wanted women to be little girls forever. The current fetish is for sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages, we want to sex them up as soon as posible. The mid-ground for this is the sexy Disney Princess thing, which I personally hate. I want little girls to be little girls and I want adults to be sexy. What I’m saying is that I don’t need things like this complicating the issue. I want to think of Alice as an innocent child, without even a hint of adulthood about her.

Yeah, in that wet, clingy, form reveling dress, you can tell.

Anyway, she meets the caterpillar and eats some mushroom. After that, the fish and the frog exchange pleasantries while our heroine watches. Then she goes to the Duchess’s house and OH MY SAINTED AUNT! Okay, you remember me talking about dough-faced monsters? This is beyond unpleasing, beyond ugly, beyond scare the children. This is some “Cthulu rose up, took one look and went right back home” style shit this is! These faces are made of bread dough, and they are truly the sort of things that would come out of my nightmares if I ever had any. As you know, my dreams are always the same, evil cheese in a pitch battle against noble waffles things. The Cheshire Cat turns out to be just a puppet. His vanish effects are simple fades and so on. Nothing too special, but hard to do right at the time. So then we get a bit of animation on the back projected screen and that changes the scenery for Alice to head off to the bit that everyone, even people who don’t know the story, know about. We’re off to the mad tea party! Poor Edward Everett Horton has to wear a huge putty nose and a truly massive hat on his head.

Even the actress is creeped out and she lives in Hollywood, where you see plastic surgery mistakes everyday.

Can we discuss something for a moment? There is something in the editing of old movies that always bugs me, particularly as a trained editor. This scene has a few of this error, so I’m going to discuss it. If I made video reviews, this would be easier to show, but I’ll get there in discussion. In old movies, the editing tends not to be invisible, and in fact can become quite a problem. Here is my example. Shot 1: The party members are standing together. Shot 2: Alice is sitting in a chair, she’s the only thing the camera sees. These two camera angles might have been done hours, days or even weeks separate from each other and it shows in the delivery. Mad Hatter asks “What day of the month is it?” and Alice answers “Fourth.” Except, that’s not really how it goes. Really it’s Shot 1: “What day of the month is it?” and then cut to Shot 2: (Alice sits for half a beat, turns her head and says) “Fourth.” You get this a lot in older sound productions. For whatever reason, there is always this half beat when you suddenly cut to single shots or close ups. They leave it for just half a beat too long before they have the actor say their line. It seems like a problem with the performance to some, but really it’s an editing error. It also doesn’t help that Charlotte Henry keeps flirting with the camera. In a chaste way, not in a sexy, dirty way, but still flirty. Think Carole Lombard instead of Jean Harlow. It’s still a problem though, she shouldn’t be flirting.

So, despite the warnings I ate the brown acid. When I woke up, I was here and dressed like this.

So anyway, the tea party goes like you’d expect and Alice leaves. We’re then taken to the garden where the cards are painting the white rose tree and… they don’t look bad. Just the same sandwich board and hood thing they always put on everyone who plays this no matter if the production was done in 1899 or 1999. The only makeup they’ve got are some spades painted on their faces. The queen and king of hearts aren’t too offensive as far as make up goes. They seem to be using live flamingos as well, which is a bit odd to me in the modern OH DEAR SWEET WAFFLES THE DUCHESS IS BACK! AAAAUGH! The only thing that distracts me from the Duchess’s dough ball countenance is the fact that Alice’s flamingo is clearly getting restless in her hands and starts struggling. After the doughface runs away, we get the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. Pretty standard. The odd bit is that when Alice and the Gryphon leave the run in the air as the background rushes by and the gryphon suddenly changes into the Red Queen. The only bit of weirdness on the Red Queen is a bit of putty on her nose.

We’ll haunt your dreams! You’ll never be free of us!

She talks to the Red Queen a bit and then OMIGOSH! The Tweedles are just creepy, they are f*ck-*gly. I’ve always disliked the Tweedles anyway, but these two could make you doubt your faith in a good and loving grilled cheese sandwich. The Tweedles tell her The Walrus and the Carpenter, which is par for the course. What isn’t par, is that the story is told in the format of a cartoon. This movie has everything. Special effects, a cute protagonist, epic nightmare fuel, an animated cartoon, a couple of songs and Cary Grant. It’s a pretty great rendition, even if Charlotte Henry is a bit too grown up and flirty for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, I like her. I’d just prefer to see her flirting with someone as the romantic lead in a comedy or something. So, the crow shows up and scatters the Tweedles, and a massive wind lands The White Queen’s shall on her head.

There has GOT to be a joke here somewhere. I’ve just got to find it.

The White Queen arrives, they discuss almost nothing before the queen turns into the sheep and we actually have the store scene for once. You almost never get the store bit from Looking Glass, even if all the other bits are done, that one always seems to get skipped. Like the book, Alice buys and egg, which become Humpty Dumpty. Humpty is done by rear projection, since it’s just W.C. Fields’s head in a mask to make up the character and the sizes wouldn’t work right any other way. In this version, Alice claims to be twelve years and four months old. I guess they had to up her age at least a little, since otherwise the question as to why a seven year old has breasts would be raised. Why a twelve year old is being such a flirty little minx with the camera is a question we’ll never get the answer for.

Oooh! The red ones ARE spicy.

Okay, so everyone says Citizen Kane is such an influential movie, using tricks never before seen, right? One of the big scenes I keep seeing is of Kane walking past a mirror that’s actually two mirrors so his reflection goes off into infinity. That’s being done here! Six years before a frame was shot on Kane, it’s here! In a sad attempt to make it look like hundreds of soldiers are walking past. The White King is supposed to be summoning his men to come put HD back together, but he runs off before any of them arrive and it’s just used as an excuse to have the neat effect. So you see, Michael Bay didn’t start that. If we get a really leering look up Alice’s skirt and the White Knight’s horse explodes in a fireball of jingoism, then we’ll know that it all started here.

No lie, as soon as I wrote the sentence about having an ups-skirt, this shot appeared on the screen. So yeah, Hollywood stayed classy.

The scene with the White Knight is as charming as usual, but then as I remember it, the White Knight is the only person remotely nice to Alice. So Alice clearly gets to the ninth square because a crown lowers onto her head. Once we get to the wide shot, we find that her entire outfit has changed. She now in a white satin dress and is wearing some kind of boots. It is also impossible now to pretend Alice isn’t an adult as the new dress is somewhat tighter in the chest than her original. She’s quizzed by the two queens, as usual, and they fall asleep. She leaves them to their nap and goes to the banquette where everyone is singing and enjoying themselves. The banquette is pretty nuts, getting more insane as things go on, like they should. Everyone climbs on the table, madness ensues, and then Alice wakes up and the movie just sort of ends.

It’s nice, but I was just hoping for a straw bonnet.

So how do I feel about this movie? Well, on the whole I liked it. They didn’t include a pointless frame story, like so many other versions do, and they didn’t try to shoe horn in the Jabberwocky. I’d like to see a full version, instead of this cut down one, but I’ll take what I can get for now. Over all, this is a good movie, at least for a historically minded person. The effects are cool, the performances are pretty good, and they let the insanity happen. It does leave me with a slightly creepy feeling though, I feel like a creepy uncle for thinking she’s cute even though she’s old enough and the make up will haunt me for months. This movie creeped me out in so many different ways and has left me feeling three levels of dirty. However, even with the nightmare fuel and the older than needed Alice, I still approve.

You didn’t think this nightmare was over, did you?

Official Score: 49 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

You ever completely forget someone else is in the room?

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