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Alice in Wonderland - 1985
Poster by caricature artist Bob Bentoloy
Alice in Hollywood!

  Despite being one of the most popular and frequently adapted works of literature, on-screen or otherwise, the Alice stories were never given the full Hollywood treatment during its Golden Age. Any attempt, such as Paramount's in 1933, was misguided and unsuccessful. Some purists might consider this a blessing, as Walt Disney's heavily-Americanised animated version arguably overshadowed the original text to some degree, but still it seems a shame no glitzy Technicolor classic was made for Alice fans to curl up with on a rainy day. At least, not until December 1985, when a very special mini-series was broadcast on CBS. Filmed at the MGM studios in Los Angeles, formerly home to Shirley Temple and the land of Oz, complete with a full-blown musical score and a whole host of stars, this extravagant production is truly Wonderland, Hollywood-style.

  This is unquestionably one of the most ambitious adaptations of Alice's adventures, covering both Wonderland and Looking Glass comprehensively within the time-constraint of three hours. The episodic nature of the books is embraced and exploited to full effect, with the vast majority of Carroll's characters and sequences present, and although the dialogue is highly abridged, many of the best-loved lines are intact. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Paul Zindel adds a heightened sense of drive and purpose to the proceedings, utilising Alice's mission to reach the eighth square and become a queen, and also introduces character motivation in her desire to grow up and find her way home (borrowing heavily from The Wizard of Oz).

  Produced by the renowned "Master of Disaster", Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), the film is a risky fusion of different genres, from classic MGM musical to science fiction, with a surprisingly agreeable result. According to Allen: Alice in Wonderland cast - 1985

  "There never has been a great fairy tale written that wasn't a horror story, mystery, thriller, scare-'em-up-alive adventure. Pure hysteria is what makes famous fairy tales. That's why Alice in Wonderland has been so popular for more than a century. This picture has fire, flood, hair-breadth escapes, cliff-hangers, ghosts, haunted houses and all the things I've done in the past combined in a single production. Our version of Alice was made for kids from eight to 80. We've done everything possible to make it fast-paced, exciting, musical and amusing. Looking at the finished product, I believe we have captured the feeling of wonder that Carroll wrote about so long ago; a bigger-than-life escape adventure that I've dreamed of producing for 11 years."

  Incredibly imaginative casting assembles notable performers from a variety of backgrounds in entirely unpredictable roles; The Beatles' Ringo Starr frolics as the Mock Turtle, Telly Savalas (Kojak) appears as a grinning, singing Cheshire Cat, and Sammy Davis, Jr. is an all-rapping, all-tapping caterpillar. Other outstanding turns come from Imogene Coca as The Cook, Anthony Newley as The Mad Hatter, Roddy McDowall as The March Hare and Arte Johnson as the Dormouse. Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence are an inspired choice as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, while Ann Jillian and Carol Channing, as the Red and White Queens respectively, are a real match made in Wonderland. Directed by Emmy Award winner Harry Harris, the principal cast comprises 37 stars, approximately half of whom take part in multiple scenes or musical numbers, with the remaining half making cameo-type appearances. Sensibly, selection was not based merely on current popularity; many of the participants' careers spanned up to five decades by this time, and this wealth of experience is reflected in the quality of their performances. Some critics described this as a Wonderland for washed-up celebrities, but for less cynical viewers it is a pleasure to see seasoned entertainers and established personalities breathe new life into their favourite timeless characters.
Natalie Gregory as Alice
  However, the incontrovertible star of the show is nine-year-old Natalie Gregory, who won the role of Alice over precisely 623 candidates from England, France, Italy and various American cities. Of all leading roles, Alice is particularly demanding for an actor of any age and is rarely given to anyone younger than a teenager. The pressure of playing the central character in the equivalent of two feature films over a 60-day shooting period, appearing prominently in every scene, is unimaginable for most adults, but Gregory makes it look effortless. Evidently a "natural", she is blessed with a photographic memory, which made learning seven or eight pages of lines each day a possibility:

  "I memorise them in the car as we drive to the studio. The drive takes 35 minutes and that's how long it takes me to learn them. I'm grateful for having a good memory. Sometimes it gets complicated, but it could be worse. At least I don't have to wear those heavy, hot costumes."

  The instinctive intelligence and composure she displays are remarkable, and she has a real knack for comedy; but above all, she plays the part with a warm, genuine quality that makes Alice more realistic than ever, while still staying true to the original character. Perhaps Gregory's youth was more of an asset than an obstacle; children have always been drawn to Alice because, as a personification of childhood itself, they can relate to the way she thinks and feels:

  "Alice has fun on her adventures because she meets many people. I'm having fun for the same reason. I meet all these famous actors. I do my acting as though it is me pretending to be Alice in Wonderland. I don't try to be somebody I'm not. I like being me, most of all." Aspiring actors, take note.

  Undaunted by the pressure, Gregory enjoyed her time on set and said every day was like her birthday, not surprising given the volume of gifts showered upon her by enamoured co-stars and crew members; Alice in Wonderland cast - 1985a confectionery clown from "Candy Man" Sammy Davis, Jr., a bird statue from Martha Raye, a giant Easter basket from Harry Harris, a 14-karat gold and opal necklace from the studio guard, her own petite, pink, personalised director's chair from Irwin Allen and, as a parting gift from the entire team, the miniature set of the White Rabbit's house, which, with its tiny ornaments and furniture, made a perfect and unique doll's house. By all accounts, the atmosphere amongst the cast was of great camaraderie and humility, as inflated Hollywood egos do not fit comfortably into eccentric Wonderland costumes; even the most honoured veterans cannot take themselves seriously when dressed as a fluffy bird or woodland creature.

  For one particular star, the production was both a deeply emotional experience and considerable personal achievement; singer and actress Ann Jillian had already begun work, playing the Red Queen, when she was diagnosed with highly aggressive breast cancer, requiring immediate surgery. Returning triumphantly to the set just two weeks after a double mastectomy, and with a clean bill of health, Jillian said:

  "I was really worried I was going to be fired. I begged Irwin to let me finish the part. When he agreed, I felt he had done a wonderful personal favour for me. As it sank in, though, I realised that he had really set an industry precedent. I'm not going to say that Irwin wasn't worried about it, because he certainly took a chance. This was, in fact, major surgery, and all my desire to finish could have backfired if I didn't have the physical stamina. This is just a case that shows the human spirit can overcome obstacles." Wonderland set

  Her performance is flawless, and as she cavorts alongside a wacky Carol Channing and sings to a mesmerised Alice, the only tell-tale sign of her private ordeal is a glimmer of renewed vitality:

  "I'm incredibly happy to be here. Cancer has validated and verified my reasons for living. I'm a dreamer, I love fairy tales, but I can also love life."

  Even with its MGM musical, sci-fi and 80s television influences, the overall style of the film largely reflects the stories' background of Victorian England. The costumes are based somewhat loosely on Tenniel's traditional designs; the animal suits are somewhat hit-and-miss (and apparently very uncomfortable), reminding some viewers of a Halloween party, but the human characters, playing cards and chess pieces are right on the mark. Alice's ensemble of peach-coloured dress topped off with bouffant platinum blonde wig is an unusual choice, but not without its charm. The 122 expansive sets represent a quintessential English Country Garden landscape, with colourful flowerbeds, babbling brooks and winding paths through sprawling woodland. Presumably the abundant foliage is artificial, indicated occasionally by a seam running through a perfect patch of grass, but the visuals are suitably natural and easy on the eye for such a lengthy presentation. The lighting and camera-work are fairly simple, but also entirely satisfactory.
Sammy Davis, Jr. and Natalie Gregory
  The film's 19 songs, from comedian, author and music man Steve Allen, have been described as a "cheeseburger commercial" and even "preachy", but are unlikely to offend more even-tempered viewers. Some blend with the tone of the story better than others, and while Steve Allen is no Lewis Carroll where lyrics are concerned, the standard is generally high, incorporating a decent range of melodies and styles. Allen had great enthusiasm about the project:

  "I wrote 40 songs for 'Alice' and Irwin kept squeezing more into the script. I'm not sure anyone has written more songs for one show. We put together a demo score for the producers, director and the head of Colpix music. During that session I played more than 20 songs. They loved everything. It was one of the best days of my life. Although I have been writing songs for most of my life, nothing in my previous experience as a composer-lyricist has given me such pleasure as that derived from working on 'Alice in Wonderland'. Having one's songs performed by such a long list of distinguished entertainers is a unique honour, for which I am duly grateful."

  Especially effective are the numbers that combine Carroll's original phrases and poetry with musical accompaniment. Attempted so often elsewhere with limited success, the result here is tremendous; Allen's spirited rhythms and tunes suit "The Walrus and the Carpenter", "To the Looking Glass World", "Can You Do Addition?", "The Lion and the Unicorn" and "Father William" to a T.

  With choreography by Miriam Nelson and Gillian Lynne (Cats), other highlights include the Tweedles' vaudevillian show-stopper How Do You Do, Shake Hands, the White Queen's outlandishly jazzy Jam Tomorrow and the White Knight's emotional, grandfatherly We Are Dancing, Alice in Wonderland - 1985which gently touches upon the meaning behind quite possibly the most profound encounter in the Alice stories, believed to be an expression of the author's fond farewell to his friend and inspiration.

  The soundtrack's true strength, however, is the sweeping orchestral score and song arrangement by Morton Stevens, a double Emmy Award winner for his composition of the Hawaii Five-O theme tune. His instrumentation is characterful, dynamic and stirring, and the overture accompanying the opening credits rivals that of any Hollywood classic. The recurrent "love theme", simply entitled Alice and performed by the cast as the finale, is the score's signature piece, sounding familiar, yet fresh and ambient throughout.

  The main downfall of this production is the special effects by John Dykstra (Star Wars). $2.5 million of the $14.6 million budget was dedicated to 40 fantastical sequences, including Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole and many shrinking and growing scenes, but the use of "cutting edge" technology in favour of traditional, tried-and-tested techniques produced less than impressive results. The extensive use of blue screens (one reason for the peach-coloured dress) made the film appear dated in just a few years, and those shots can look false even to very young viewers. Rear projection set-ups work much better, but still fail to create a truly convincing illusion. Perhaps most of the money was spent on the Tom Burman Studios' Jabberwocky, who lurches from Carroll's poetry to terrorize Alice and her friends, a monstrous manifestation of her childish fears. This may be a scaly step too far for many Alice devotees, as the meaning of Carroll's nonsense verse, so comprehensively interpreted by Humpty Dumpty in the original books, is completely disregarded here, along with the creature's name itself (Jabberwock, without the Y). Still, the physical presence of the slavering, fire-breathing dragon/tyrannosaurus hybrid is undoubtedly successful in adding an element of excitement, danger and conflict, CBS READ MORE ABOUT ITsomething of a requirement for a prime time television event. Unfortunately, on a technical level, the Jabberwocky isn't a great deal more compelling than the other effects, and there are moments when viewers can literally see the strings.

  The film was initially aired as a four-hour mini-series on 9th and 10th December 1985, supporting the CBS/Library of Congress "READ MORE ABOUT IT" book project. Gregory made an appearance (as herself) after the presentation, recommending viewers to visit their local library to learn more about Alice and Lewis Carroll. Reviews were mixed, and the production won no Emmy Awards despite five nominations, but for children of the time, the film became an instant favourite. Many of those whose parents recorded the broadcast recall watching the tapes until they wore out, only to be followed by subsequent home video editions. Originally intended for an additional theatrical release in Europe, the film was re-edited into two stand-alone features, with part two becoming Alice Through the Looking Glass, but instead these were marketed on videocassette to meet demand in the USA. Alice in Wonderland - 1985The film was distributed in the UK and various European countries on home video and television in its original two-part structure. A consistently popular seller on videocassette in both the USA and UK over some 20 years, unauthorised DVD editions soon began to appear online, however this activity was quashed by an official DVD release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on 1st August 2006. A European DVD edition with a German audio track followed in May 2010.

  For all the chops and changes made here in projecting Wonderland onto the small screen, this rendition cannot be accused of simply using Alice's popularity as a launchpad for something completely unrelated. This is a genuine adaptation, clearly executed with great affection and regard for the original work. Irwin Allen considered Alice one of his all-time favourite stories, and this comes across loud and clear. Subtle and sophisticated it is not, but for the countless people drawn to the books by their sense of humour and fun, and those who enjoy classic Hollywood pictures or a diverse variety of performances, this film really is a dream come true. That's entertainment!

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