Blu-ray Review: Alice in Wonderland (1933) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, June 4th, 2020  

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

May 14, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

On the centennial of Lewis Carroll’s birth, Paramount Pictures launched into production on this big budget screen version of Alice in Wonderland—which was already at least the fifth time the classic work had been adapted for the young medium, but only the second time as a sound picture. A significant critical and commercial flop on its release, the movie is notable for its star-studded cast—including Gary Cooper, as well an unrecognizable Cary Grant and W.C. Fields under hideous costumes—and its impressive, if frequently grotesque, special effects and makeup work.

The movie follows Alice (played by a young Charlotte Henry) as she moves from one set of characters to the next, checking off most of the major Wonderland story beats at a breakneck pace. (The movie clocks in at just 77 minutes.) The sets are stylish in an almost German Expressionist manner, but it’s the crazy costumes—overseen by William Cameron Menzies—that will catch most viewers’ attention. Rather than go for whimsy, Marx Brothers veteran director Norman Z. McLeod and his team seem to have gone for a visual style that resembled what you might see today if you punched the words “haunted dolls” into the search bar on eBay. Animal characters—the dormouse, the white rabbit, the mock turtle—look like tattered old toys come to life, while so many of the human-like characters’ faces are mushed, twisted, and fattened under makeup to look as off-putting as possible. We could say that the design is ugly, but it’s so artfully ugly that it’s hard to look away. Some of it is pure nightmare fuel. This vision of Alice is a closer relative to Svankmajer’s than Disney’s. How’d a studio even think something that looked like this would be a hit?

That said, it’s a great piece off weird, Hollywood history. Cary Grant fans were probably really disappointed he wasn’t remotely recognizable in his terrifying mock turtle costume. The madness in the film’s final banquet scene is, quite appropriately, compared by historian Lee Gambin to the dinner scene in Freaks (1933).

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray edition of the film looks pretty nice, even if some of the makeup work in the film can’t be unseen, and may forever haunt your darkest nights. Gambin’s commentary sheds some light on the film, but even more on the cinematic history of Carroll’s timeless Alice tales.



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