I would rather sit through ten viewings of Tim Burton‘s reportedly painful Alice in Wonderland than a single one of Norman Z. McLeod and William Cameron Menzies‘ 1933 Alice in Wonderland, which comes out today on DVD via Universal Home Video. I came to this conclusion after watching three YouTube chapters yesterday. I will never expose myself to this film ever again.
It’s closely based on Lewis Carroll‘s original works (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass), but to my ears the dialogue represents some kind of pinnacle of archness.
Alice in Wonderland is oddly repellent in ways that I’m not sure I can describe, but a terrible foreboding feeling began to build as I watched those episodes yesterday. The vibe it puts out is beyond creepy. The black-and-white images remind me on some level of a childhood nightmare I might have once had. Menzies’ sets are obviously inventive and curiously skewed, but everything else is theatrically leaden. The performances are all “acted” in the most artificial sense imaginable. For this aspect alone Alice may be the most oppressively coy and indigestible film I’ve ever (partly) endured.
Cary Grant‘s brief portrayal of the tearful Mock Turtle is probably the worst emoting he ever did in front of a camera in his life. It’s agonizing. You’re saying to yourself as you watch, “Cut…cut! Just stop it!” W.C. Fields‘ acting as Humpty Dumpty is…well, his usual-usual, but the egg makeup he’s wearing (or which was worn by a stand-in) is grotesque. All you want to do is escape. I haven’t sat through Gary Cooper‘s White Knight performance, and I think it’s better not to.
In his N.Y. Times review, DVD columnist Dave Kehr agrees that it’s “a profoundly creepy experience…not the proto-psychedelic playground of the 1951 Disney animated version, but a distorted, claustrophobic environment populated by menacing, bizarre figures.
“The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton) and March Hare (Charles Ruggles) seem less like lovable eccentrics than recent escapees from Martin Scorsese‘s Shutter Island, fully capable of exotic, unspeakable acts. The transformation of the howling baby (played by the dwarf actor Billy Barty) into a squealing, squirming flesh-and-blood pig could be an outtake from Tod Browning‘s 1932 Freaks. And the croquet party hosted by the Red Queen (Edna May Oliver) turns into an Ubuesque scramble of authority run amok, in which the terrorized participants (‘Off with their heads!) flail around in violent desperation using actual flamingoes as mallets.”
Kehr then goes into tribute mode over Menzies and his distinctive visual imprint.
“Although Alice in Wonderland originated with McLeod (an unobtrusive studio functionary best remembered for his Marx Brothers vehicles, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), the dominant creative force appears to have been the brilliant, unclassifiable art director, William Cameron Menzies,” he writes.
“By 1933 Menzies had become known as Hollywood’s leading production designer (a title he is sometimes said to have invented for himself) for his work on elegantly stylized films like Raoul Walsh‘s Thief of Bagdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, and The Bat (1926), an early dark-old-house mystery directed by Roland West. His work on Gone With the Wind earned him an honorary award at the 1940 Oscars that cited his ‘use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood.”
“But he was also a gifted director in his own right, with a particular interest in the fantastic. His sparse but consistently inventive body of work includes Things to Come, the 1936 British production that was among the first post-apocalyptic science-fiction epics, and the nightmarish Invaders From Mars (1953), in which a young boy discovers that his parents are actually zombies controlled by a Martian spaceship buried in a sandpit near his suburban home.
“As dazzling as today’s digital effects can be (and Mr. Burton’s Cheshire Cat is sure to be memorable), we remain all too aware of how they are accomplished (computers!) for them to possess the seductive sense of mystification that Menzies and McLeod achieve here, using practical techniques derived from Victorian stage magic.
“Menzies’s hand seems evident in almost every frame of Alice in Wonderland, yet his only credit on the film is as the co-author, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, of the screenplay. In those days credits were not union mandated, and it is likely that Menzies, on loan from Fox, would have played down his role in the production so as not to offend his home studio. (According to the AFI Catalog, a Hollywood Reporter item from 1933 stated that Menzies was ‘loaned by Fox to co-direct the ‘trick sequences,’ and an article in The Times from October 1933 notes that “Mr. Menzies made careful scale drawings of each scene in the proposed picture, while Mr. McLeod prepared footnotes showing how Mr. Menzies’s pictorial conceptions could be photographed.”)
“But Menzies might also have relished his role as an authorial eminence grise, exercising his creative power in indirect, elusive ways. It was a part he would play in any number of pictures, including Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun. A bit of a Cheshire Cat himself, Menzies fades away, leaving movies as distinctive and mysterious as this Alice behind.”