‘Alice in Wonderland,’ as silent film, musical and … porn movie?

Feb. 06, 2010 | 5:26 a.m.


Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she in fact the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today and Saturday it’s a look back at the character’s past Hollywood history by Susan King. 

The first known “Alice in Wonderland” film, above,  was made in 1903, just 68 years after Lewis Carroll first published his fantasy “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The print of the one-reel silent is in desperate need of restoration, but even with the ravages of time and the limitations of filmmaking of the era, the charm and whimsy of Carroll’s story still shines.

Alice 1933

Over the past century, there have countless versions of “Alice in Wonderland” on screen and TV and, of course, on stages both professional and amateur — a new musical called “Wonderland” is currently playing in Houston, for instance. Alice has been animated, musical, serious, funny and X-rated. On screen, Hollywood heavyweights such as Cary Grant and Meryl Streep have gone down the rabbit hole long before Johnny Depp. With the March 5 arrival of Tim Burton’s lavish 3-D take on the classic tale, here’s a look back at some past version of Alice…

The 1903 version of the film, which was made in England, stars Mabel Clark as Alice. Cecil Hepworthis listed as the co-star, cinematographer and co-directed. Hepworth wasn’t above a little nepotism as “Mrs. Cecil Hepworth” is also listed in the cast. A 1910 American version , “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” was directed by the seminal early silent director Edwin S. Porter (“The Great Train Robbery“) for Edison Manufacturing Co. Gladys Hulette starred. The 10-minute short received a thumb up from Variety, which declared it was as good as the “foreign” film fantasies playing in the U.S. And the Alices just kept coming: Viola Savoy had the title role in a 1915 version, which was re-released in 1924.

Ruth Gilbert, a stage actress who was discovered by Eugene O’Neill and later played Milton Berle’s secretary on his TV series, is the first talking Alice. She starred in the 55-minute adaptation in 1931 directed by “Bud” Pollard. Alice really hit the big time in 1933 when Paramount produced an all-star cast version of the tale. Charlotte Henry was cast as Alice. The supporting cast featured the studio’s stable of stars hidden behind tons of strange makeup and costumes — Cary Grant is the Mock Turtle; Gary Cooper, the White Knight, Richard Arlen the Cheshire Cat and even W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Gordon Jennings and Farciot Edouart supplied the cutting edge special effects, but for all of its expense and star power, this version laid an egg bigger than Humpty.

Alice x-rated

  Not everyone intended their Alice to be child-friendly. Back in 1976, adult film mogul Bill Osco released his first mainstream adult film, an X-rated musical version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with Playboy centerfoldKristine DeBell as Alice, a young woman, who after rejecting the advances of a young man (Ron Nelson) falls asleep reading “Alice in Wonderland.” Larry Gelman, best known as Dr. Bernie Tupperman on “The Bob Newhart Show,” plays the White Rabbit who takes Alice down a rabbit hole into a sexually active wonderland. The movie was a huge hit, making some $90 million worldwide. Three years later, it was given an R-rating after a few minutes were snipped. And DeBell, who is now 55, did eventually go mainstream appearing in “The Big Brawl” and “Willie & Phil.”

Then there were the singing Alices. John Barry supplied the music and Don Black, the lyrics of this traditional telling of the 1972 British musical version starring Fiona Fullertonas Alice. The terrific supporting cast includes a pre-“Phantom of the Opera” Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit, Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Dudley Moore as the Dormouse and Peter Sellers as the March Hare.

Decades before she belted out ABBA tunes in “Mamma Mia!,” Streep strutted her musical stuff as Alice in Elizabeth Swados’ musical “Alice in the Palace,” which originally played at the Public Theater in the late 1970s. In 1982, PBS’ brought this hip combination of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” to TV. Streep, dressed in a long white blouse and pink overalls, is a feisty delight and she’s ably matched by Mark Linn-Baker., Michael Jeter, Deborah Rush and Debbie Allen.

Check back Saturday for more on the history of “Alice in Wonderland” in Hollywood.

— Susan King


Alice poster Mia Wasikowska on Depp: “He’s so brave and smart”

“Alice” star says “Wonderland” is more like a sequel than a remake

Danny Elfman searches for the sound of “Wonderland”

Johnny Depp explains how he picked his poison for “Alice”

Tim Burton and “Alice” feel the love at D23 Expo

Depp: “There’s a crack in my enthusiasm” for “Pirates” 4

Tim Burton’s graveyard cabaret

Burton on past “Alice” films: “There wasn’t anything underneath”

Tim Burton on working with Depp on a darker “Alice”

“Looking-Glass” owned by “real” Alice goes on sale

Frank Beddor takes “Alice” to a strange new Wonderland


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