With apologies to Tim Burton, the version of Alice in Wonderland that I most treasure is Norman McLeod’s 1933 film for Paramount. As an adaptation of the book—or, in this case, books—it’s certainly peculiar. First, Alice manages to go through the looking glass and then fall down the rabbit hole. Talk about overkill! But then overkill is the order of the day with this movie and its all-star cast. Even so, it preserves more of Lewis Carroll’s actual wordplay than any other version I can think of and is endlessly watchable.
Actually, for an all-star film, Alice in Wonderland is a little light on actual star power. Only Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie and W.C. Fields could fairly be called major Paramount stars. One wonders why, for example, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Maurice Chevalier and Fredric March weren’t involved. Bing Crosby is said to have been offered the role of the Mock Turtle, but felt he was too important for any such thing. Yes, Cary Grant is on hand—and as the Mock Turtle—but Grant wasn’t a major star in his own right in 1933.
It’s really more like an all-character-actor film, with such familiar players as Charlie Ruggles (the March Hare), Edward Everett Horton (the Mad Hatter), Roscoe Karns (Tweedledee to Jack Oakie’s Tweedledum), Edna May Oliver (the Red Queen), May Robson (the Queen of Hearts), Alison Skipworth (the Duchess) etc. Still, one of the criticisms of the film from the onset was that it was distracting to play “spot the stars” under the—often slightly creepy—masks and makeup that set out to reproduce the John Tenniel drawings from the books.
Much of the film’s modern appeal stems from W.C. Fields’ performance as Humpty Dumpty. It’s reported that Fields disliked the assignment and was ill-tempered on the set, yet it feels like a role he was born to play. The dialogue is appropriately Fieldsian without requiring any significant alteration. And if he truly was objectionable on the set, it fits the tone of the character, who is more than a little belligerent to begin with.
Like the source books, there’s not much in the way of a plot. Alice goes to Wonderland and encounters the strange characters she finds there. It’s disjointed and messy to such a degree that it feels almost anarchic—something Paramount was good at in that era. Since it really isn’t going anywhere, the film simply becomes increasingly strange, frenzied and nightmarish—pausing just before the climax for its quietest and least satirical scene (Alice’s encounter with Gary Cooper’s White Knight). The climax itself is freakish and becomes more so as it progresses. By the end, it feels and looks like a horror movie—made all the more unsettling because it simply erupts into all hell breaking loose.
The director, Norman McLeod, signed so many great movies in his career—Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), It’s a Gift (1934), Road to Rio (1947), The Paleface (1948)—that it’s strange he’s so little remembered. That’s probably because he has very little visual style and seems more competent than inspired. It’s almost as if the films happened all by themselves and he just happened to be there. Still, it’s unreasonable to assume that he had nothing to do with what made them work so well.