Released in 1939, MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz perfectly fused Hollywood spectacle and the wonder of L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic, using the transportive qualities of lavish filmmaking to capture the novel’s heightened emotions and dreamlike tone. Oz looks all the more remarkable in comparison to Paramount’s 1933 adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, a striking effort in its own right, though not in the ways that make one generation pass a film lovingly down to the next. (It’s only now appearing on DVD for the first time.) As critic Dave Kehr has rightly observed, it feels closer to a horror movie than a film for children.
Comedy journeyman Norman Z. McLeod directs from a script credited to Joseph Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, the latter more famous as a director (Things To Come, Invaders From Mars) and production designer (The Thief Of Baghdad, Gone With The Wind) than a writer. And in spite of a cast of enduring stars (Gary Cooper, Cary Grant) and names that meant more in 1933 than they do today (Ford Sterling! Charlie Ruggles!), the film is dominated by its expressionistic sets and elaborate, largely creepy costumes. Charlotte Henry plays Alice as sweetly unflappable, which does little to soften the nightmare around her. When a baby played by a young Billy Barty turns into a pig in Henry’s arms, her smile seems out of place, to say the least.
But even though hearing Cary Grant’s voice emerging from a grotesque Mock Turtle costume—modeled, like much of the film, after John Tenniel’s famous illustrations—will fill few with wonder and delight, and McLeod’s onto-the-next-episode pacing feels draggy at a mere 77 minutes, the film’s ingenious staging gives it a disturbing allure. Where other adaptations of Alice, including Tim Burton’s 2010 edition, have smoothed out Carroll’s fantasia, McLeod and Menzies plunge into the deep end, marching Alice from the swollen faces and bellies of Tweedledee and Tweedledum into conversation with a White Queen (Louise Fazenda) who turns into a bespectacled sheep selling an egg. The egg in turn becomes Humpty Dumpty, who dispenses laconic, grumpy witticisms in the unmistakable voice of W.C. Fields. “When I use a word,” he says, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” In that moment, the distance between Hollywood and Wonderland has never felt shorter.
Key features: Maybe the looking-glass-world version of the disc has special features.