Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

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You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

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Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

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Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?

 

Straight No Chaser: The Marx Brothers in MONKEY BUSINESS (Paramount, 1931)

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After filming their stage successes THE COCONUTS (1929) and ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), The Four Marx Brothers made their first movie written directly for the screen. MONKEY BUSINESS showcases the anarchic comedy style the brothers were famous for in a very loosely plotted script by humorist S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (with “additional dialogue” by Arthur Sheekman) full of crazy comic moments.

The brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner bound for America who get mixed up with a pair of rival gangsters. Groucho, of course, gets mixed up with gangster Briggs’s wife, the wonderful Thelma Todd. She takes the role usually reserved for Margaret Dumont, but her youth and beauty give it a different spin. Groucho and Thelma are perfect foils, whether it’s their comic banter (Thelma: “My husband will wallop me” – Groucho: “Always thinking of your husband. Couldn’t I wallop you just as well?”) or their zany dance routines. Thelma would make one more with the Marxes (HORSE FEATHERS, 1932) before her tragic death at age 29 in 1935.

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The jokes come fast and furious. Groucho’s timing, freed from the conventions of the stage,is better then ever, his rhythmic one-liners roll off his tongue (‘Is it true you wash your hair in clam broth?”) The eye-rolling, eyebrow raising, and rat-a-tat delivery are far superior here than in the first two films. Harpo’s sight gags (the frog in the hat, the Punch and Judy scene) are great, and he’s still chasing every girl in sight. Chico mangles the English language like no one else can, and his trick piano playing’s always a treat. Even Zeppo does well in a larger than usual role as the love interest for rival gangster Helton’s daughter.

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The most famous scene is when the four brothers try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “You Brought A New Kind of Love to Me”. When the other three fail, Harpo almost gets away with it until it’s discovered he has a phonograph strapped to his back! There’s plenty of slapstick to go along with the non-stop puns and back-and-forth verbal gymnastics. Director Norman Z. McLeod (who also did the follow-up HORSE FEATHERS) was a gifted comedy director who guided pros like W.C. Fields (IT’S A GIFT, 1934) and Red Skelton (PANAMA HATTIE, 1942), as well as several Bob Hope vehicles (ROAD TO RIO, 1947, THE PALEFACE, 1948). McLeod was also responsible for the classic ghost comedy TOPPER (1937) and the all-star IF I HAD A MILLION (1932).

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MONKEY BUSINESS is right up there with DUCK SOUP as one of the Marx Brothers best. I’m a huge fan of their early Paramount movies. That let-it-all-hang-out spirit just really wasn’t there at MGM. Most critics think different, that the brothers needed to be reigned in. I disagree. I like the undiluted, anything goes style found in MONKEY BUSINESS and their four others at Paramount. If you like your Marx Brother straight with no romantic subplot chaser, MONKEY BUSINESS will not disappoint!