Friday, November 29, 2002


I'm a child of the 60's and therefore a child of TV, and I have fond memories of watching children's fantasy movies over Thanksgiving weekend, sandwiched between football games and variety shows. I thought over the holiday weekend this year, I'd re-watch some of the movies I most associate with Thanksgiving viewing. This 30's all-star version of Lewis Carroll's fantasy was one of my favorites back then, even though most of the stars weren't familiar to me. This movie cropped up fairly frequently back then, but is hard to catch these days. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I was able to see it again with an adult eye, and while some of the magic I recall is gone, other delights remain. The movie is, I believe, fairly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Carroll's books--it's based on both "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass"--and this viewing made me realize that, whatever ALICE'S charms, a strong narrative is not one of them. There's no need to rehash the plot, such as it is, in detail: Alice, a young girl, is frustrated with being kept inside on a snowy winter's day, so she falls asleep and dreams an extended visit to the land on the other side of the mirror. She has silly and surreal encounters with strange creatures and wakes up all cozy back in her overstuffed armchair, with her kitten in her arms.

This movie may well have had an influence on THE WIZARD OF OZ six years later, not just in the trajectory of the plotline (it's not a big stretch from Alice to Dorothy), but in the fantasy sets, magical effects, and elaborate costumes. The impact of having so many guest stars is blunted because most of them are under so much makeup, they are unrecognizable. You certainly can't prove by me that it's really Cary Grant under the Mock Turtle outfit; he might have just dubbed in his weepy dialogue and odd song. The same thing goes for Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, and even W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. The most recognizable are Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and the wonderful Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. Other stars who pop in and out briefly include Ned Sparks, Jack Oakie, May Robson, Gary Cooper, and, in the most grotesque makeup of all, Alison Skipworth as the Duchess. As an adult who was watching largely to spot the stars, the film came off to me more like a revue of short and vaguely comic sketches that, more often than not, have no real punch line or payoff.

My favorite bits: Horton and Ruggles singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat," which would not have been out of place in a Monty Python episode; the Duchess' freaky baby who turns into a pig; and Polly Moran as the Dodo, reciting "dry" history in order to dry off a soaking wet Alice. Charlotte Henry as Alice is serviceable but nothing more; she seems far too unflappable given all the bizarre and chaotic transformations she is witness to throughout. There is a lot of sadness and crying in the story: Alice's tears when she keeps growing and shrinking, the caterwauling pig-baby, the Mock Turtle, and the ill-fated oysters in "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which is done as a cartoon. If this had been made in the 60's, it might have been a favorite of the stoners, what with the strange creatures and the non-linear and non-logical story. The creepiest (but also funniest) thing in the movie is the talking leg of mutton at the climactic party. The movie doesn't quite have a conclusion as much as it just comes to an end, perhaps when the budget ran out! Not totally successful, but still a fascinating movie that should be seen by all classic movie fans at least once. Whether young children of the 21st century would enjoy it, next to Harry Potter and Toy Story, I cannot say.

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