Everyone is familiar with the Walt Disney animated feature film “Alice In Wonderland” (1951) but in actuality there has been approximately over thirty film adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Since the era of the “silent pictures,” Alice and her wonderland of zany characters has captured the imagination of film makers all over the world. But would you believe that in 1933, there was a live-action black and white film adaptation of the story which had an all-star cast including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and W.C. Fields?
There was such a film made in 1933, a year after Lewis Carroll’s centennial birthday. Both Broadway and Hollywood wanted to bank on the adaptations of Caroll’s visionary world. At the same time, the bankrupt Paramount Studios decided to make their own adaptation of “Alice In Wonderland.” Their adaptation was an ambitious one, combining elements of "Alice In Wonderland" with Carroll's "Through The Looking Glass." Paramount made sure all of their most popular stars were in the picture and that it would be made on a grand scale in order to draw in a lot of money. And on a grand scale it was.
This film demonstrated real movie magic in a pre-CGI world. In this adaptation, Alice soared through the air, grew tall, and shrunk small. With the heavy impact of lavish costumes, gifted make-up artists, and surreal set design, it is amazing this adventurous money was only made a few short years after Hollywood ‘discovered sound’.
In this version, there were characters which are often neglected in other "Alice In Wonderland" adaptations. And most are played by some of the biggest stars in classic film. For example, Cary Grant played the blubbering "Mock Turtle". But, he was under such perfect disguise inside the costume and managed to disguise his well-known British accent. Actor Gary Cooper sported a bald cap, gray mustache and sideburns to play "The Awkward Knight." Cooper’s iconic “drawling” voice was perfect for the part and provided an even bigger guessing game of “Can it really be him?” Another notable performance was W.C. Fields as “Humpty Dumpty” with Fields’ consummate grumpy, cynical self. Not to mention actor Richard Arlen who lent his voice as the "Cheshire Cat."
Paramount believed this “Alice In Wonderland” would be their potential goldmine. They used every resource in order to promote the film, including a study guide for school teachers. But they were wrong. Because no one could recognize the stars behind their make-up and costumes, it failed at the box office. Paramount would ultimately be saved by the curvy and vivacious Mae West.