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The Early Cinematic Life of "Alice in Wonderland"

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A pair of Lewis Carroll classics: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

A pair of Lewis Carroll classics: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

In 1865, the children's book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by English writer Lewis Carroll—born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—was released to massive success. This book has never been out of print and has been translated into over one hundred languages.

The tale begins with young Alice sitting on a riverbank. She sees a clothed White Rabbit with a pocket watch run past. Curious, she follows and falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world of anthropomorphic animals, food that makes her grow and shrink in size, and the foul-tempered Queen of Hearts. In the end, Alice is woken up by her sister and realizes it was all a dream.

Carroll followed up with a sequel novel in 1871 entitled Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. This book has been adapted to film on its own, but has also been combined with its predecessor in several adaptations.

Looking-Glass opens with Alice at home, playing with her kittens. She climbs through a mirror and lands in an alternate world where everything is reversed, like a reflection. While some characters from the previous book appear, new characters are also introduced, including some based on chess pieces. Alice ends up crowned as a queen and is expected to host a royal party. In the end, Alice wakes up in an armchair, revealing this was another vivid dream.

Both of these novels have been widely adapted into films, theatre productions, television shows, comic books, and even video games. Due to their loose narrative structure and lack of cohesive storyline, filmmakers have not been concerned with textual accuracy so much as capturing the basic elements of the novels: namely, Alice's surrealistic journey through her imagination and her attempt to navigate a nonsensical world.

1. Alice in Wonderland (1903)

British filmmakers Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow directed the first adaptation, Alice in Wonderland (1903), which was restored in 2010. The only copy of the original film is kept at the British Film Institute.

The original ran for twelve minutes, which made it the longest film produced in Britain at the time. The restored version is only nine and a half minutes. It was filmed mostly in Port Meadow in Oxford, England, and follows the plot of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with no content or characters from Through the Looking Glass. Released just five years after Lewis Carroll's death, it was noted for its impressive special effects, such as Alice growing and shrinking in size.

Alice was played by May Clark, who originally worked as a film cutter and production secretary for Hepworth Film Studios. She went on to act in several other films and later married Norman Whitten, who played the Mad Hatter.

Hepworth himself played a frog, while his wife Margaret played both the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. Other characters that appear are the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Cheshire Cat (played by a real cat).

2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1910)

Directed by Edwin S. Porter and produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1910) starred Gladys Hulette as Alice and Yale Boss as the Mad Hatter. There is no further record of the cast and crew.

This film, adapted solely from its titular novel, was the first to feature Alice's sister, who in the beginning is too distracted by the book she's reading to notice Alice going after the White Rabbit. In the end, Alice wakes up besides her sister and tells her about her dream.

Prior to playing Alice, Hulette made her film debut at age three and her film debut at age seven. Her career wavered in the early 1930s with the introduction of sound films, and she became a ticket seller at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

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Three prints of this film are known to exist. They are owned by the Library of Congress, the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, and film collector David Schaefer.

3. Alice in Wonderland (1915)

The sole directing achievement of W.W. Young, Alice in Wonderland (1915) was the first adaptation to combine elements of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. This film is partially lost, with most of the Looking-Glass portions kept separate from the rest. The Library of Congress possesses a five-reel print, while UCLA's archive has four reels.

Unlike previous adaptations, this one does not include Alice's tea party with the Mad Hatter and March Hare, yet does include the characters the Caterpillar, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle from Adventures in Wonderland. The featured Looking-Glass characters include Humpty-Dumpty, Tweedledee, and Tweedledum.

The surviving fifteen minutes of the Looking-Glass portion show Alice interacting with chess piece characters, including the White Knight, the Red Queen, and the White Queen. The White Rabbit bestows Alice with her own golden crown and scepter, and the film ends in a celebratory feast with a large crowd of characters, rather than the book's ending of Alice waking up.

Viola Savoy—an accomplished child actress who appeared in more than 125 plays—starred as Alice. She only did one other film, The Spendthrift (1915).

Walt Disney's The Alice Comedies (1923–1927)

Walt Disney's The Alice Comedies (1923–1927)

4. The Alice Comedies (1923–1927)

Though Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) is the most famous film adaptation, that wasn't the first time the company adapted the novel.

In the early 1920s, brothers Walt and Roy Disney declared bankruptcy, then used the last of their money and resources to produce the first Alice Comedies short, which was screened for cartoon distributors. This earned them a contract with Winkler Pictures, and all subsequent Alice Comedies were screened in theaters before feature films from 1923 to 1927.

This series of 57 short films—sixteen of which have been lost—feature a live-action Alice having adventures in an animated Wonderland, often accompanied by her animated cat sidekick, Julius. These films are loose adaptations, as they don't feature any scenes from the novel, or any characters except for Alice herself. Some of the early shorts end with Alice waking up, revealing the adventure as a dream, which echoes both novels' endings.

Alice was played by four different actresses: Virginia Davis, Margie Gay, Dawn O'Day (who later changed her stage name to Anne Shirley), and Lois Hardwick.

Alice Through a Looking Glass (1928)

Alice Through a Looking Glass (1928)

5. Alice Through a Looking Glass (1928)

Alice Through a Looking Glass (1928), directed by Walter Lang, was the first adaptation of Through the Looking-Glass, as opposed to films that simply combined the book with its predecessor. No records exist of the cast and crew, including their names.

Later adaptations of Through the Looking-Glass include an NBC musical special in 1966, a BBC film in 1973, an animated film in 1987, and a Channel 4 film in 1998.

G.K. Chesterton's article about Lewis Carroll, NY Times, January 24, 1932

G.K. Chesterton's article about Lewis Carroll, NY Times, January 24, 1932

6. "Alice Fever" of the Early 1930s

January 27, 1932, marked the 100th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's birth, which made headlines worldwide. Celebrations of this event were held year-round, with universities holding formal exhibitions dedicated to Carroll.

Film companies attempted to cash in on Carroll's centennial, with some releasing adaptations in anticipation of the event and others capitalizing on the subsequent "Alice Fever" that came after.

The musical film Puttin' on the Ritz (1930) included an Alice-inspired musical sequence, with actress Joan Bennett in the role of Alice and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Though the film was shot in Technicolor, some reels have only survived in black and white, including the Alice sequence.

While many theaters nationwide adapted both books for the stage during this time, the most successful was a Broadway production that debuted at the Civic Repertory Theatre in December of 1932. The play was written by Florida Friebus and Eva Le Gallienne, with the latter also playing the White Queen. It starred Josephine Hutchinson as Alice and ran for one year. It was revived in 1947 and 1982.

In 1934, Fleischer Studios released Betty in Blunderland, an animated short starring the popular character Betty Boop. She gets captured by the Jabberwock, a creature from the poem "Jabberwocky" featured in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

7. Alice in Wonderland (1931)

Despite being a low-budget, independently made film, Alice in Wonderland (1931) has the distinction of being the first sound adaptation. It was filmed at Metropolitan Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey and scored by Irving Berlin.

Ruth Gilbert, then an unknown actress, starred as Alice. She recieved national recognition for her role and went on to great success in radio and on the Broadway stage. She occasionally acted in television, including episodes of NBC Presents and The Milton Berle Show.

Though it follows the plot of Alice in Wonderland, the film does not begin with Alice chasing the White Rabbit, but rather with Alice landing in Wonderland, having already fallen down the rabbit hole. The ending has Alice waking up in a lawn chair in her backyard and being called indoors by her sister.

8. Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Paramount Pictures tried to capitalize on Alice fever with Alice in Wonderland (1933), a big-budget film that featured many of the biggest stars of the time. A combination of the original book and its sequel, the script was heavily influenced by the Broadway version that debuted the year before. Much like the 1915 adaptation, the film ends with a crowned Alice hosting a royal party, rather than waking up from her dream.

The cast included Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as The White Knight, and W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Over 6,800 actresses auditioned for Alice over the course of five months before Charlotte Henry was cast.

This film was a box-office bomb and received negative reviews. This was partly attributed to the star-studded cast being mostly unrecognizable under makeup and costuming. Though the original runtime was 90 minutes, the film was cut to 77 minutes after being screened for the press, as early reviews contained complaints about its length.

One review in Variety read, "A series of scattered, unrelated incidents definitely won't do to hold interest... It takes 10 minutes to get Alice through the looking glass and into topsy-turvy-land. Then the adventures start, each adventure being just another detached incident surrounded by the same fantastic absurdity... It's like reading a whole volume of separate four-line gags."

Having made her Broadway debut at thirteen and her film debut at sixteen, Henry was nineteen when she played Alice. After making over thirty films, she retired from Hollywood at age twenty-eight, claiming she simply lost interest, and went on to live a quiet life in San Diego.

Theatre Parade: Alice Through the Looking Glass (1937)

Theatre Parade: Alice Through the Looking Glass (1937)

9. Theatre Parade: Alice Through the Looking Glass (1937)

On January 22nd, 1937, Theatre Parade—a BBC television series that broadcasted scenes from popular London theatre productions—aired the episode "Alice Through the Looking-Glass." The production took place at the People's National Theatre and was directed by the theatre's founder, Nancy Price.

The cast was made up of Ursula Hanray as Alice, Esme Percy as Humpty-Dumpty, Elizabeth Maude as the White Queen, Fred O'Donovan as the White Knight, and Ernest Butcher and Andrew Leigh as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, respectively.

Theatre Parade ran from 1936 to 1938. As with all television programs at the time, the episodes were performed live. No footage survives of this series, only a few still photographs.

Alice in Wonderland (1937)

Alice in Wonderland (1937)

10. Alice in Wonderland (1937)

Ursula Hanray reprised her role as Alice for a BBC movie adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which aired three months after the "Looking-Glass" episode of Theatre Parade. George More O'Ferrall, who produced several episodes of Theatre Parade, directed this film.

Fred O'Donovan, who previously played the White Knight, this time played the King of Hearts. Earl Gray played the Mad Hatter, Walter Tobias played the March Hare, and Alban Blakelock played the White Rabbit.

Hanray appeared in a few more BBC productions, including the miniseries Pride and Prejudice (1952) and the anthology series Armchair Theatre (1956-1974). Much like this film, most of her later work is considered lost.

Alice in Wonderland (1946)

Alice in Wonderland (1946)

11. Alice in Wonderland (1946)

George More O'Ferrall once again directed a BBC adaptation eleven years after the first, this time starring Vivian Pickles. The production was broadcast live from Alexandra Palace in London.

This film has been lost. Judging from the cast information available, this appears to have solely been an adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as no characters from Alice Through the Looking-Glass are listed. Among the more well-known actors in the cast were Erik Chitty, who played the White Rabbit, and Madge Brindley, who played the Duchess.

Pickles went on to have a prolific career, appearing in films, television shows, and productions at London's most prominent theatres. She recieved several awards for her starring role in the BBC biopic Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966).

12. Alice in Wonderland (1949)

This French film is a unique adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as it portrays Lewis Carroll, then a scholar at the University of Oxford, and his friendship with the daughters of Dr. Liddell, the Dean. One of these daughters is Alice, the real-life inspiration for the character, played by English actress Carol Marsh.

As Dr. Liddell's three daughters are not allowed at Oxford during a visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Carroll takes them on a boat ride. He tells them a story in which Alice falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland.

Most of the Wonderland characters are stop-motion animated puppets, created by the American puppeteer Louis Bunin. Stephen Murray, who played Lewis Carroll, provided the voice for the Knave of Hearts. Ernest Milton, who played the Vice Chancellor of Oxford, voiced the White Rabbit. Felix Aylmer played Dr. Liddell and voiced the Cheshire Cat. David Reed played Prince Albert and voiced the King of Hearts.

In the end, Alice wakes up in the boat just as Carroll finishes his story, revealing the stop-motion Wonderland sequence as a dream. The film was not released in the United Kingdom until 1985, as the Queen of Hearts was considered an offensive caricature of Queen Victoria.

Though Marsh's film career lagged in the late 1950s, she went on to perform in over a hundred BBC radio plays, finally retiring in the 1980s.

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