Posted on 3/15/13 05:42 PM
Why Bother Hiring Gary Cooper If No One Can Tell It's Him?
To be perfectly honest, the thing this movie does best is to show why you can't just adapt the books to the screen as a completely literal interpretation. It doesn't work. We are more prepared to accept flights of whimsy with no particular plot when we are reading than when we are writing. I don't know why this is true, but it appears to be. And with very few exceptions, this might be the most beat-for-beat accurate version of the books I've ever seen. Which is part of why it isn't very good. The movie hits every single major, memorable moment of the books, including the ones that people don't necessarily remember because no one else bothers putting them into movies. When you do that, there isn't much room left for plot, because Lewis Carroll didn't really bother with plot. I really do love the books, but you can't fit all of both of them into an hour and a half and get a good movie back.
Alice (Charlotte Henry) is bored, of course, and first, she slips through the large mirror over the fireplace and then, from the garden of Looking-Glass Land, she falls down the rabbit-hole. We don't get Bill or the trial, but we do get pretty much every other thing that happens in both books, from Alice's encounter with the Dodo (Polly Moran) through to something approaching her croquet match with the Queen of Hearts (May Robson). From there, she encounters the Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), who introduces her to the chessboard that is Looking-Glass Land. She crosses it, encountering the Sheep (Mae Marsh), the Tweedles (Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns), and the White Knight (Gary Cooper, of all people), among others, before finally getting all the way across and becoming a queen, as befits a pawn who makes her way all the way across the chessboard. If there's a bit or a piece you remember from an Alice book, it is almost certainly here.
This was to be the picture that saved Paramount. Vast amounts of the Paramount contract players were in it. Unfortunately, there are two problems with that. The first is that Paramount does not, based on this and a few minutes' research, appear to have had as great a stable of actors as several of the other studios. I mean, to a modern viewer, you get, "Oh, hey! Cary Grant! And who are all those other people?" To an eye in 1933, what you're mostly seeing is moderately known comedic actors, most of whom did vaudeville. There's Gary Cooper, who was of some minor renown, and W. C. Fields. Most of them hadn't heard of Cary Grant. (Though he would be in the two films that did actually save Paramount, the two Mae West vehicles that came out that year.) At that, he wouldn't have been in it if Bing Crosby hadn't refused the role of the Mock Turtle on the grounds that it made him look foolish. Strangely enough in those days of contract players, they let him do it and didn't force the issue.
You basically couldn't have told it was him under there anyway, which was the other problem. Even if you knew who Sterling Holloway (now, of course, better known as the Cheshire Cat from the Disney version) was, you probably wouldn't have recognized him under the admittedly pretty good Frog costume. This is almost expected these days, because we've gotten used to voice casting. However, what you got in this production was people you'd barely heard of in costumes that made them unrecognizable even if you did know who the people were under them. This, of course, is why the opening credits are as long as they are; they show us each and every person in and out of makeup. This, I would imagine, is to appease all the Jackie Searl fans who couldn't spot him under a dormouse costume. I was mostly able to work out Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, but that's because I have been familiar with their voices since childhood. And, again, have a lifetime of recognizing actors from their voices.
It seems ridiculous to say that the writing is bad, given that I can recognize certain lines lifted directly from the text. However, it's not strung together well. I won't say "worst Alice ever," or even "worst Alice," because there are a lot of versions of the story that I haven't seen. But it's a bad Alice, and not a very good Alice, come to that. Alice shouldn't have an American accent. She seems a bit old for the part, though I'm not sure how old book-Alice is. (Young enough for nothing but picture-books, it seems.) They auditioned thousands of actresses, and Charlotte Henry was one of the first few dozen. This I find silly on several levels. For one, why did they keep auditioning? Or had they reached her, thought, "Well, there must be someone better, but we'll keep her in mind," and eventually gave up and decided there wasn't? Which I don't believe, because I can't believe they couldn't find someone better.