Early Alice

The release of Tim Burton's overblown updating of Alice in Wonderland has inspired the National Film Theatre to run a season of various other films interpretations of Lewis Carroll's classic book. Yesterday evening's showing began with the first-ever filming in 1903. At that time cinema films were usually 2-3 minutes in length and shown in fairground booths and the like: this film was a first for Britain in running a whole twelve minutes (and too long for many, so that exhibitors could choose to show individual scenes): it was also the first British tinted film.

It was made by the Hepworth studio, and, together with many of their films, disappeared when the studio closed and was thought lost - a copy was discovered in the 1960s. It's missing four of the twelve minutes - mostly in small bits - and is in poor and damaged condition; but it gives a fascinating glimpse into cinema of the period.

It's pretty well a home movie, with the parts being played by studio regulars (and Alice by the secretary) - the Cheshire cat is played by a real (and disgruntled-looking) cat. Of course it's amateurish and clunky, but a remarkable first effort. (You can see the entire film on YouTube).

The main part of the programme was Paramount's starry 1933 version. It's certainly a stellar cast: Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, W.C.Fields as Humpty Dumpty, an many more including Sterling Holloway as the Frog (he would later be the voice of the Cheshire Cat in the Disney version). Alice was played by Charlotte Henry - a little too old but quite appealing.

A lot of work has gone into making it look like the Tenniel illustrations; however this involves heavy masks in many cases which render the stars unrecognizable - they look rather stiff, and in several cases have no movement at all. Cooper, Horton and Fields come off best, and the film benefits from most of the dialogue having been lifted straight from the books.

As with most adaptations, episodes from Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass are used: Alice starts by going through the mirror and encountering the chess pieces, then falls down the rabbit-hole: several episodes from the first book (including the croquet game but not the trial) are the followed by some from the second (including the final nightmarish feast), though the point of the chess game itself is rather lost. Carroll's dreamlike logic survives quite well, and there is an attractive score by Dmitri Tiomkin; the overall effect is quite enjoyable even though many of the performances are rather wooden. This film is very rarely shown - I don't think it's ever been on British television, but it is available on DVD (Region 1 only).

I've not seen the Burton: I may watch it when it turns up on television, but as no-one seems to be able to tell the difference between the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts I can't raise a lot of enthusiasm for the rest of it.

Posted: Sat - March 13, 2010 at 09:36 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM