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Alice in Wonderland (1933) (DVD Review)

1 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/2/10
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Charlotte Henry, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields.

Just as you or I would demand if charged with its marketing chores, the box for this (semi-) all-star version of Lewis Carroll’s perennial exclusively lists three marquee busters in the cast: Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields. This is true as far as it goes.

A strange movie even by “Alice” standards, it’s a curio even before we get to the players, given a screenplay by future All About Eve writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and top-gun production designer William Cameron Menzies (also an occasional director, as with 1953’s 'B' kiddie classic Invaders from Mars). And Dimitri Tiomkin did the score (I had always more or less assumed his career began with the tsunami splash of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon four years later).

Infrequently shown (my only previous viewing was on TV in 1961 or ’62), the Paramount studio's 1933 Christmas release has the reputation of being somewhat of a stiff — and it is for the opening 10 or 15 minutes until the script gets Alice (Charlotte Henry, 20 when she starred) into a state of slumber so that she can begin dreaming what follows. While it would be a stretch to call the rest engaging a la Disney’s animated 1951 version (itself once regarded as a disappointment), it is carried to some extent by its innate weirdness and some captivating décor. This is very good print and a nice mastering job, by the way.

Most of the cast is made up of character actors who meant more now than then: Skeets Gallagher, Louise Fazenda and Ned Sparks are three — though the more familiar Edward Everett Horton and Jack Oakie respectively play the Mad Hatter and Tweedledum. And here’s Richard Arlen, co-star of the first Oscar-winning feature (Wings) cast against type as the Cheshire Cat.

The deal, however, is that you can’t really see or at least recognize the actors. Paramount basically took its performer roster and buried it under mounds of makeup, as if the entire gang were appearing on an old TV episode of "Masquerade Party." Missing are contractees Bing Crosby and Mae West — damn! — but that box art doesn’t lie, and there are a handful of hallucinogenic interludes.

Grant is decked out in “Mock Turtle” garb to play guess-who, and though the voice is unmistakable, it could be Huey Long under there for all we know. As the White Night, Cooper (also unrecognizable) is bald on top and with a bushy mustache, suggesting David Crosby at age 200 and after as many acid trips; it’s unlikely Cooper ever fell off his horse in any other movie, but here, he does so constantly.

Fields plays Humpty Dumpty, and a glob of makeup helps him look the part. You wouldn’t think it would be the easiest role to cast, but here we’ve had two DVDs in three weeks (1966’s Alice Through the Looking Glass was the other) where Jimmy Durante and Fields “essayed” Humpty and did fairly well.

In contrast, director and comedy specialist Norman Z. McLeod wasn’t as well cast for this kind of fantasy, but just a year later, he and Fields would re-team for It’s a Gift (which is on Vol. 1 of Universal’s two Fields box sets), which is still my favorite screen comedy ever.

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