Thursday, January 14, 2016

Reeling and Writhing: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Seldom seen since its 1933 limited release,  ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Paramount's champagne and hashish centerpiece, can stand on its head proudly, for it turns out to be awash in the same surrealist insanity that so scintillatingly varnishes the studio's peak pre-code '32-34 comedy output, i.e. MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, SNOW WHITE, DUCK SOUP and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933 Paramount was, sez I, the best). For a long time we had to take it on faith that this movie was as boring as those few who saw it said it was. Well, now that it's all pretty as paint on TCM, it turns out those few were wrong.

All I know is that I would have flipped my lid to catch this ALICE on a five AM Saturday morning UHF station as an early-rising kid in the 70s (or an up-all-night acidhead in the 80s catching it on Night Flight). This is its rightful place. For the rest of us, in the age of cable and hydra headed options, we can at least imagine, or if we're old enough, remember back-ack-ack-ack.

Come with me then, back to a time before cable, before even Betamax, a time when there were three main channels (ABC, NBC, CBS) + PBS (Channel 12 in Wilmington Phila, Channel 13 in NY); and then local TV on UHF (a separate dial and antenna) which ran lots of weird stuff like Wee Willie Webber presenting Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot. Kids' TV was a big tent, lack of choices made us all much broader in our horizons. Rising up at the crack of dawn as a kid on Saturday mornings, a 5-AM late night PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE or VELVET VAMPIRE showing would segue into weird Z-grade European 'kiddie matinee' nightmares like RED RIDING HOOD AND THE MONSTERS before finally morphing into stuff like HONG KONG PHOOEY and LAND OF THE LOST. This was our magic time, a solid three-to-four hour stretch with parents still asleep, sugary cereal creating a special mental space where the lingering images of dreams from mere minutes ago in bed would seamlessly into surreal late night monster movies segueing into early kid puppet show imagery.

And finally seeing ALICE on TCM the other night, I know it would have fit right in there, the living link between Seals and Marty Kroft shows, the Marx Brothers, and Ed Wood. That director Norman Z. McLeod (MONKEY BUSINESS, HORSEFEATHERS), screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz (DIPLOMANIACS, MILLION DOLLAR LEGS) and set designer William Cameron Menzies (CHANDU, SVENGALI) have somehow alchemically combined all those influences and so it makes sense that now, in 2016, it all feels brand newer.

But I still haven't captured the vibe. Let me go back: can you remember when you were a small kid on some haunted house or pirate ride at an amusement Park, when everything was so much bigger and scarier as it was all so much more vividly imagined? You know, the feeling of cozy excitement in the darkness and cacophony? And maybe, like me, you imagined what it would be like to sneak out of your little car/log flume and into the elaborate animatronic forests on either side of the car/log, to get off at the corner and hide there, amidst the robotically moving figures and twisting anamorphic papier mache trees? Well, if there was a 1933 Paramountland, or a Fleischerland, with a ride through Max Fleischer's surreal pre-code classic dioramas, all rendered in black and white, and you were kind of stuck there--and, like Lisa Simpson at Duffworld, drank the acid-spiked water, and were hanging out with a spookily calm and fearless ten year-old blonde who dragged you off the flume long and around to all the little vignettes after the ride closed but the lights and engines stayed on--then you would have this ALICE IN WONDERLAND. And if that sounds like a good time, and if you love cheap rattletrap carnival haunted houses, and miniature golf courses, and psychedelic mushrooms, then with the help of Mankiewicz's absurdist wit, Carroll's trippy source material, McLeod's zippy unpretentious pace, and Menzies' surreal backdrops, this Boopland paradise for you, as it is for all the other acid-addled pre-code Paramount devotees who've had Mystery Cave dreams after too much rarebit or cold medicine.

Flash forward 15 years or so, to my late 80s-early 90s Deadhead/Floyd period --there was no better time of the night for an older kid like me than when the show was finally over, and I and my crew were safely home with the whiskey and VCR and every last parent and wally long tucked away, able to sit down in a comfy chair or couch and not have to stand there, swaying to yet another encore. Still tripping our faces off, but all the anguished paranoia of driving home without getting arrested being finally over, and us safe and able to finally take our shoes off, with hours and (presuming the whiskey stash as flush) and highballs to go before the color bands flashing behind our eyelids would be muted enough for sleep, we needed to watch something that wouldn't bum us out, and I mean we 'needed' it, desperately, for our good trip could still become a bad one with a single ugly scene.

And at those times, when they were needed most, Paramount pre-codes (before anyone knew what that meant)--Betty Boop, W.C. Fields, Marx Bros, and Cary Grant--were like glowing toasty fires in the cold darkness. One look into their crazy eyes and we'd know they could see us watching them, somehow, they would lean out of the mise-en-scene and shoot us sly winks. They "got it." If MGM was the studio of amphetamines and apple pie, Warners of beer and coffee, and Universal of laudanum and black tea, then Paramount was the studio of psychedelics and champagne and thus ALICE IN WONDERLAND was and is their ideal 'literary adaptation.'

That said, there are missteps: fully obscuring Cary Grant's beautiful head in the mock turtle costume, for example. Then again, which Alice adaptation is--for kids' and critics' alike--perfect?  None. Disney's 1951 cartoon version is too literal; Tim Burton's lacks surrealist savvy; Jan Svankmajer's is hallucinatory and uncanny childhood nightmare-level disturbing but lacks class and diction; and all the BBC versions are too much the same other way around. But Paramount's pre-code Alice is sooo wrong on the other hand, it's better than right. It dissolves like a sugar cube under a steady stream of absinthe, maybe a headache will result later but for as long as now lasts, magical. Woozy, weird, dizzy, and then --before it gets older- over.

Anyway, I had trouble getting past the first few minutes that last time it was on TCM, the whole opening bit of Alice back on 'Earth' with her aunt or guardian is zzzz, but this time I came in after the first quarter, half-paying attention and soon there was this crazy mock turtle with a strange yet familiar voice, and I wasn't at all sure it even was Cary Grant inside the shell, until he sings "Turtle Soup" with a bizarro British music hall trill and suddenly there it is, the foundational bedrock upon which 'the' Cary Grant was formed-- the vaudeville pratfalls and "love to be beside the seaside" hoofery that fell below the surface, deep into ocean canyons (surfacing occasionally, as in Sylvia Scarlet) until to provide the bedrock underneath his rising star. So it's rather gratifying to see (or rather hear) this sudden resonant force, returning like the repressed under the safety of this inscrutable sea horse turtle persona. It's so out of character for his usual cool that it made me think of that scene when he breaks down in front of the child services judge in Penny Serenade and you're like whoa, Cary, we never ever see this side of you. It makes us weak in the knees all over again to realize the vast wealth of brilliance and jubilance folded and edited and streamlined until Grant was, as Stanley Cavell put it, "fit to stand the gaze of millions."

Amongst the stand-out sights are a king and queen of hearts perfectly gussied to resemble the English pattern playing deck, the king especially looks exactly like him. We've all seen that face since we first learned 'Go Fish' as a child, and suddenly wham here he is, in black and white and surrounded in a curiously 2-D dream space, as if childhood memory, card game, and fever dream had crashed ceremoniously together, launching us into the primal magic zone from which all the symbols of our lifetime are born. 
Here, though, that gaze is rendered moot, so there's no image of cool to live up to. The turtle shell armors and anonymizes so he cuts loose and large. One wonders what kind of miracles Grant could put into, say, a Pixar film. You won't find, say, Tom Hanks or Will Smith going out on a far limb into madness in their roles, not ever, not like Grant does here. Grant is committed to the madness, like he's reading/acting out a story book for agog infant children while hopped up on mescaline backstage at a 1920's Vaudeville show.

And just when you're wondering why they didn't just make this whole thing a 
cartoon (there was, after all, a Betty Boop version, in 'Blunderland' the following year), 
a Fleischer animation of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" shows up, providing a nice break
 from the live action, which by then has settled into miniature golf course tableaux 
connected by all sorts of surrealistic dissolves, implied drug use, and dotted line followings. 
Other familiar faces and voices help navigate the off-putting (and rather flatly lit) weirdness, like recognizing an old friend in a throng of strangers during a bad trip moment at a Dead show and then realizing - whoa, it might not be them! But then... deciding it is, wait - do I even know them, really? So there's old Ned Sparks snarling through his clenched hookah stem jaw as the caterpillar; there's Edna May Oliver, strangely sexy with upturned nose extension as the Red Queen; Roscoe Karns and Jackie Oakie as the Tweedles; Edward Everett Horton singing about the tea-trays in the sky (and waving around saucers to make sure we get the UFO connection) as the Mad Hatter; Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare; Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat; W.C. Fields as an exquisitely churlish Humpty Dumpty; Louise Fazenda--looking like a hybrid of Ginger Rogers and the girl in the Eraserhead radiator--as the White Queen'; and Gary Cooper as the vertigo-ridden White Knight.

As Alice, Charlotte Henry is a tripper role model, demonstrating how to keep cool and open-minded in a crisis. Moving from freak tableaux to freak tableaux, size to size, being to being, with an open mind, her deadpan performance never lapses into treacle, camp or obnoxiousness. Where other people would surely cower or freak out or stare rudely or wince in disgust, she just politely notes that things just got "curious." Is it any wonder a nervous sensitive Mad Hatter-type artists like me would worship her? (1)

whoa - I've had childhood 'too much chocolate' nightmares that look just like this!

any similarities to a human ass may be coincidental
This is your dinner on drugs --but  play it cool, bro
It's tempting to be like other lazy critics and dismiss the film for the crime of hiding Cary's and Gary's faces, each then at the peak of their beauty, but instead we should appreciate how, protected from the job of persona-guarding via such anonymity, they show us the character actors they might have been had they not become such huge stars. Grant becomes a music hall maniac, trilling his "sorrow of a sorrow" while a gryphon laughs and chessmen chortle, and Cooper goes deep into his own laconic cowboy persona for the White Knight (below). It's pretty funny to think this tall laconic drink of water could ever fall off a horse, but he does--with great, typically laconic low-key nonchalance--again and again. Unshaken even with his head in a ditch, he tells Alice: "what does it matter where my body happens be? My mind goes on working all the same." Showing Alice his bizarre inventions, like his little box (upside down to keep the rain out), his empty mouse trap, and beehive, he's proud but reticent, like a shy ten year-old boy trying to impress his babysitter by showing off his action figure collection--half shyly, half with little boy bluster.

Gary Cooper, "seated"

But the real selling points for this as the bad acid rarebit fiend K-hole nightmare miniature golf course-cum-carnival-ride childhood fever dream are the grotesque images that linger in the mind afterwards, etched on the soul like dark scars in the thick unconscious muck where nothing ever dries or heals, just festers until it erupts into sudden hallucinations and terrifying vertigo with the right 'trigger'. When I see this big lumbering dude in a mouse costume flopping around in a shallow concrete pool (of Big Alice's tears) as if some plushy Overlook refugee paddling forward in the Freaks climax rain, I feel as if the deep well of my childhood nightmares (which I thought long since paved-over) was flooding up all over the basement couch and soaking my kitchen floor. By the time we get to the scene with the crazy fat mom throwing the baby around while the cook hurls insults and pots and the frog (Sterling Holloway) sits outside, the water's up to my knees. Then Alice holds the baby, who oscillates from an actual baby to Billy Barty (in a baby costume) and back, and then to a plastic doll, and then a real piglet-- the water's up to my neck.

It's over my head and leaking into the above floor for the croquet scene. Ask yourself, are their croquet mallets drugged flamingos who stiffen when they try to play dead, just limpid puppets, or dead flamingos in the process of rigor mortis? Like gramps in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), they waver between all three, and it's in that in-betweenness wherein they become truly creepy. Then there's the way the white queen says "better" over and over like a mantra until the word slowly turns into a sheep 'baaa'-ter and she dissolves into a sheep selling a giant egg, which Alice stares at until it turns into W.C. Fields as a giant Humpty, demanding she stop staring at him like he was an egg, and state her name and her business. At that point the water goes up my chimney and hits the bell. A winna!

At dinner there's a talking roast (it's bad manners, we learn, to slice off a piece of someone we've been introduced to) illustrating perfectly what it's like to eat dinner with your parents while trying to hide from them the fact that you are peaking on an unexpectedly strong and delayed psychedelic trip. Then, Alice is crowned queen, and everyone dances around and the dancing intensifies until they choke her and it all meshes in a swirl like a combination of the big circus FREAKS and BLUE ANGEL wedding dinners and the entirety of Allendro Jodorowsky's canon, boiled and distilled into one black and white raging fever dream bad trip delirium tremens nightmare peak moment. And everywhere we look, things change. The more we stare the more what we're staring at seems to breathe, to grow or shrink.

Our gaze, in a sense, makes monsters cohere from the shadows. Is this not how 'reality' passes itself off as something concrete?

Bringing as he does the same sense of deadpan fluid riffing absurdity that made his MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and DIPLOMANIACS scripts so pitch-Paramount perfect, I'm not sure if adapter Mankiewicz ever tried mescaline or reefer or anything, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had. For he's aces at nailing the freestyle way staring at something long enough turns it into something else, or saying any word more than once or twice renders the words themselves alive and fluid, strange and absurd. Taken as a whole, this 1933 ALICE could be the bad trip counterpoint to YELLOW SUBMARINE and like that film it's also the perfect guide to tripping, offering the same sage counsel employed by any good 'guide':

The sage advice: Don't try to recapture the sense of where you just were, are, or what size you are or where you're 'meant' to be or where you will wind up next. Let go of trying to judge or control anything that happens. Most of all, don't worry what those words someone spoke at you, don't try to nail words to the cross of meaning for they'll wiggle farther away the harder you try. Don't try to reclaim the perception of yourself and the world you had before you started to 'get off.' A wilder weirder more wondrous world is yours as long as you don't try to own it, tie it down, recreate it, or control it. Don't worry some dark corner of Wonderland is going to ensnare you, for the flux of constant change works both ways: Nothing can keep you--whether you want to be kept or not--all things are transitional. Nothing can last or be returned now that you're finally loosened from the bonds of self, language, and linear time. Just accept this truth: when you wind up were you started, you still won't be 'back' - the old 'you' won't be there to welcome you, any more than a spring husk of a summer cicada welcomes or endorses the thing that steps out of it. So if you can let go of needing even a single string back to sanity, if you can throw that last breadcrumb thread into the wind and fall fall fall, then Hole-in-One, baby. You're awake for the first time again, and ready for a whole looking glass country of archetypal forces to reshape what seemed so mundane before you left. It's all real, and you were there, Uncle Gus in your patched pants, and oh Auntie Em, there's no place like home's...
in a mirror...
stared at
until the illusion of its 2D space deepens inward
and you can crawl inside

Longtime readers note one of my graven image idols of worship is the giant Alice statue in Central Park - see Erich Kuersten: A Poet's Journey


  1. That first pic made me hungry for eggs.

  2. This seems like a natural for TCM Underground but maybe this is one Mankiewicz movie they want to forget.

  3. HI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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