The home video market is awash in versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland this week, all evidently intended to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Tim Burton's new 3-D interpretation of the classic Lewis Carroll book, set to be released tomorrow by Walt Disney Studios.
But only one can boast the endorsement of the original Alice: the 1933 Paramount Alice in Wonderland, being released to DVD by Universal Studios Home Entertainment ($19.98, not rated), the current rights-holder. In a Jan. 7, 1934, article in the New York Times, Alice Liddell, quoted under her married name, Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves, expressed admiration for the film that Hollywood had wrought from the story Carroll had invented for her some seven decades before.
"I am delighted with the film and am now convinced that only through the medium of the talking picture art could this delicious fantasy be faithfully interpreted," she declared, her words possibly burnished by a Paramount publicist. "Alice is a picture which represents a revolution in cinema history!"
Mrs. Hargreaves might have been overstating the case, but the Paramount version, directed by Norman McLeod from a screenplay that uses episodes from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, remains among the most faithful and insinuating of the dozens of films and television shows derived from the source material.
For baby boomers who first encountered it on television in the 1950s, the Paramount Alice, with its ominous atmosphere, distorted sets, and cast of contract players (including Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and W.C. Fields) hidden behind heavy, outlandish makeup based on the famous John Tenniel illustrations represented something closer to a horror movie than a benign children's fantasy.
Seen today, it's still a profoundly creepy experience. This Wonderland is not the proto-psychedelic playground of the 1951 Disney animated version but a distorted, claustrophobic environment populated by menacing, bizarre figures.
The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton) and March Hare (Charles Ruggles) seem less like lovable eccentrics than recent escapees from Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, fully capable of exotic, unspeakable acts.
The transformation of the howling baby (played by the dwarf actor Billy Barty) into a squealing, squirming flesh-and-blood pig could be an outtake from Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. And the croquet party hosted by the Red Queen (Edna May Oliver) turns into an Ubuesque scramble of authority run amok, in which the terrorized participants ("Off with their heads!") flail around in violent desperation using actual flamingoes as mallets. (The end credits bring no comforting reassurances from the ASPCA.)
Two other versions of Alice in Wonderland were released this week.
The first, a BBC production ($14.98, not rated) from 1966, is a glorious, Gothic black-and-white program starring Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, and Anne-Marie Mallik as Alice.
Jonathan Miller directed this surreal version of the Lewis Carroll classic. Bonus features include Cecil Hepworth's 1903 silent film version of Alice in Wonderland and a 1965 biopic by Dennis Potter about the real-life Alice Liddell, who inspired Carroll's creation.
The other entry is the three-hour miniseries Alice that aired on the Syfy cable channel in December ($19.98, not rated).
In this story, Alice is a young woman who finds herself on the other side of the looking glass, in a boldly colorful dreamscape of twisted towers and casinos built out of playing cards. Caterina Scorsone plays Alice, who is pursued by the devilish Queen of Hearts (deliciously played by Kathy Bates). Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) plays the White Knight, Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show) plays Dodo, Colm Meany is the King of Hearts, and Andrew Lee Potts is the Mad Hatter.