Thursday, December 13, 2012

Alice in Wonderland (1951) - Culmination of a Dream

Alice In Wonderland: Reject All Inferior Imitations! This is the Real Deal!

Original film poster Alice in Wonderland 1951
Walt was struggling. His animation business in Kansas City just wasn't making it. He tried everything he could think of with short cartoons, but the public just didn't like them. Times were tough, but he wasn't choosy - live action or animation, it didn't matter, he just needed to eat. He gave it one last try, using an unknown local child who had been useful on some of his earlier shoots, Virginia Davis. The last-ditch project would be a combination of live action and animation based on English author 's "Alice in Wonderland." He filmed it and was pleased: excellent work, if he did say so himself.
Alice in Alice in Wonderland 1951
Alice looking surprised
Nobody cared.
White Rabbit Alice in Wonderland 1951
The White Rabbit. Jefferson Airplane must have loved this film.
Discouraged, Walt gave it all up and headed to Hollywood, desperate enough to give up animation completely and just try to become a regular film director. He banged on doors, he begged, he pleaded: just hire me. I will direct anything.
Tweedle dum dee Alice in Wonderland 1951
We're twice the fun!
Nobody hired him.
Alice and Cheshire Cat Alice in Wonderland 1951
Alice talking to Cheshire Cat. "I prefer the short-cut."
His older brother Roy believed in Walt, so together they scrounged up some cash, opened shop with the pretentious title "Disney Brothers Studio," and pulled the old "Alice" reel out of Walt's trunk. They showed it to M. J. Winkler, a local distributor.
Cheshire Cat Alice in Wonderland 1951
You may have noticed, I'm not all there!
He liked it.
Alice at tea party Alice in Wonderland 1951
Alice at the tea party
Elated, the brothers called all their old animation buddies from Kansas City and told them to head west. There was work in Hollywood! They wouldn't have to do anything that they hadn't been doing all along, somebody finally appreciated their work. They packed up and joined Walt.
Queen of Hearts Alice in Wonderland 1951
Queen of Hearts playing croquet
Over the next few years, the brothers and their friends put together over 50 silent shorts they called "Alice Comedies." Later, Walt came up with the idea of a talking mouse who did crazy things, and the public loved it.
Alice with bird Alice in Wonderland 1951
Aren't those the bluest eyes?
Walt's success grew, and soon he was one of the biggest movers and shakers in the film industry. "Alice in Wonderland," though, stayed on his mind. It was practically his baby: he knew it inside and out, knew just how to film it, and had the people in place with the experience to do it. it was a sure thing, like drawing to an inside straight. He almost got it going in 1933, actually doing a screen test with star Mary Pickford, but then his biggest nightmare happened: Paramount did a live-action version starring the biggest stars of the day, including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and W.C. Fields. He'd be laughed out of town if he tried to put on his own little animated feature in the face of all that talent.
Drink me Alice in Wonderland 1951
Hmmm, I don't know about that....
He reluctantly turned to other projects. After the boys in the back room gave hm a hit with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he felt the time was right. Once he finished off a few more pictures already in the pipeline, it would be ready to go. He even had the name registered - all he needed was a year to put behind it. But Pinnochio, Fantasia and Bambi all bombed, and while Dumbo succeeded, it didn't give him much breathing room. Worse, World War II had broken out and European and Asian markets were shut down for the duration. He turned his focus to smaller projects and bided his time.
Alice at giant teacup Alice in Wonderland 1951
One lump, or two?
The war finally ended, and Walt excitedly came back to the Alice project, as he liked to call it. Ginger Rogers was available, and it wasn't often he got to work with an Oscar-winning actress, but animation took time, and she had to move on to other projects. His people brought him proposals, but he turned them all down. This was his baby, and it was going to be special.
Alice looking through keyhole Alice in Wonderland 1951
No, Alice! Don't go through there!
Finally, Walt ran out of patience, as he wasn't getting any younger. He told his people to just do it. Rather than get cute, he wanted some of his usual reliable directors - Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luke - to play it straight and do it as they did all the other animation features. It was to be all animated, none of this fancy live-action/animation stuff, and heavy on the comedy and upbeat tunes. Once Cinderella was out of the way, it finally was time. The feature had his steady crew voicing it, including Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat, Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts, and Bill Thompson as the White Rabbit. To them, he had been able to add Ed Wynn, an old-time comic whose son Keenan was a rising star, as the Mad Hatter; famous comedian Jerry Colonna as the March Hare; and cute young unknown Kathryn Beaumont as blue-skirted Alice. Kathryn had just the right upper-class British accent, surely that would charm the British.
Alice on Mushroom Alice in Wonderland 1951
Alice, eat the mushroom!
Not taking any chances, he made sure high quality songs were included. He received more song submissions, in fact, than he could possibly use, and put some aside for the planned "Peter Pan" and other projects. He skimmed off the cream and indulgently used some for just a few seconds each. The art direction by Mary Blair was a bit crazy, he admitted to himself, especially that scene at the end where she runs to the door in slow motion, but he still liked the look. With everything in place, he went to the premiere full of confidence.
Caterpillar Alice in Wonderland 1951
The caterpillar. Whooooooo are you?
The film's plot followed the original book fairly closely, though with a few typical Disney alterations. A young girl named Alice daydreams and tells her cat, Dinah, that she is bored with studying and wishes she could live in a different world. She then spots a formally dressed rabbit who runs by claiming to be late for an appointment. She follows him down a rabbit hole and engages in a series of bizarre adventures, always chasing the rabbit but never quite catching up with him. It is a completely different world, as she had desired, but it's not what she had expected at all. She is surrounded by madness, with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse drinking tea of all things. When she tries to run away, she runs into the Queen of Hearts, who puts her on trial and orders her execution. Alice runs away, chased by everyone she has met.
Alice and gian rose Alice in Wonderland 1951
Some parts of this just defy description
Upon release, the critics hated the film, but Walt didn't care. He had made this film for the fans, and he was sure they would love this project over which he had obsessed for over thirty years.
Mad Hatter and March Hare Alice in Wonderland 1951
The 1950s version of Beavis and Butt-head
They didn't really like it. After all he had been though with the project, though, Walt wasn't too surprised. The British claimed he had "Americanized" the sacred text, while others complained that the film seemed disjointed and that the Alice character wasn't sympathetic. Box office receipts were bad, very bad, but fortunately he had some set aside from the smash success of "Cinderella."
Alice and Queen Alice in Wonderland 1951
Such a good girl!
Dejected, Walt refused to give up. He recalled that he had a new outlet for his studio, a weekly television show. It would - after some minor cuts - fit right in there and get bonanza ratings! He used "Alice" in the second episode, cut down to match the time slot. Reaction was positive, and after that he shelved the film until the times changed.
Alice in court Alice in Wonderland 1951
Quite a court! Notice the cards are all Hearts. Alice on Trial.
Times did change, but unfortunately the desperate genius from Kansas City didn't live to see them. Only a couple of years after Walt Disney had passed away, the world suddenly caught up with "Alice in Wonderland" (1951). The pot-heads and acid freaks loved the twisted and bizarre visuals by Mary Blair, and college campuses around the country started screening it. A re-release followed in 1974, which was successful and led to later releases in the theater and on home video. It became so highly thought of that Disney made it one of the first titles available for rental in the 1980s. It has been on store shelves ever since.  Finally, the picture was making money, good money.
Running House Alice in Wonderland 1951
Now this is kind of crazy....
Costumed versions of "Alice" characters are mainstays at all of Disney's theme parks. One of the rides is the "Mad Tea Party," a teacups ride for children. Disney indirectly owns the theatrical rights, and the play is staged regularly at high schools and colleges. There's even a video game for Nintendo Game Boy.
Alice and Pink Flamingo Alice in Wonderland 1951
You can see why the '60s college kids thought this was trippy.Applaud the Queen!
Today, "Alice" is seen as one of Disney's classic films. Its latest release was on February 6, 2011 on Blu-ray to celebrate its 60th anniversary - which Walt would have crossed out and put down as its 88th anniversary, from the time he put together that first short with Virginia Davis.
Alice and Peter Pan Alice in Wonderland 1951
Don't worry, Peter, your turn is coming next
There was a 2010 live-action version with Johnny Depp, but it didn't touch Disney's animated version. It may go in and out of style, but if you like classic Disney, you'll love this film. Below are both the original theatrical trailer and the entire film.



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