Wonderland By Way Of The Looking Glass House: A Review of Norman Z. McLeod’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’

by Rachel Bellwoar

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and the Disney animated feature, Alice in Wonderland (1955)), Alice enters Wonderland by following the White Rabbit down a rabbit hole. The same thing happens in Norman Z. McLeod’s version except, before Wonderland, Alice visits the looking-glass house that exists on the other side of a mirror. By combining Carroll’s Wonderland with the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933) stands out from other adaptations and makes the looking-glass house as an exciting place to visit as the more “traditional” Wonderland.

A lot of that is thanks to the work of art director, William Cameron Menzies, who cowrote the screenplay with Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Thanks to Menzies’ attention to detail, no opportunity is missed to make the looking glass house feel like another world, whether it’s a door that opens like a DeLorean, with the doorknob on the bottom, or a painting that’s shown from behind, so everyone’s backs are facing forward.

Before anything happen, though, there’s the opening credits sequence, which is especially necessary given how many of the actors in this movie are dressed in full costume. Even Gary Cooper, whose face is more visible than the others, is unrecognizable as the White Knight. Today shows like Doom Patrol would cast two actors to play the same role – one to provide the voice and another to embody the character in costume – but in Alice and Wonderland Cary Grant is dressed as the Mock Turtle. Only his voice gives him away.

Some of the masks and prosthetics are more successful than other, especially when it comes to the skin texture on some of the humans, like the Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and Tweedledum (Jack Oakie) and Tweedledee (Roscoe Karns). Their faces are all odd and bumpy, like clay that’s been melting in the sun.

What’s great about Charlotte Henry’s Alice is how much she takes everything that happens to her in stride. While other Alices have seemed to struggle with the zaniness, Alice runs into a mouse (Raymond Hatton) and tries to talk to it (and this is after she’s eaten the cake, so she’s the same size as him). Nothing throws her, which is good because McLeod’s film is nothing if not arbitrary. Take the scene where Alice is walking with a gryphon (William Austin), only to have the character change on her for no reason.

Film historian, Lee Gambin, discusses the film’s unusual structure in his commentary for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release and part of that discussion involves addressing the fact that Alice isn’t on a quest. She’s not in Wonderland to steal the Mad Hatter’s hat. She’s there to satisfy her own curiosity. She doesn’t even seem too concerned about getting home, the way Dorothy was in The Wizard of Oz. Without a goal to work towards Alice in Wonderland can be aimless but that’s the beauty of the piece. While the film might appeal more to adults than kids, it’s never dull and, more than twenty years before Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, it’s convincing on a technical level that’s amazing. For the lyrics to the song that plays over the main menu, be sure to check out the trailer that’s included.

Alice in Wonderland is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.

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