Alice in Wonderland: Part One (1985)
Int. An MGM Studios Soundstage – Day
As various gofers and PA’s rush about, producer and “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen approaches director Harry Harris as he lines up a shot. An elaborately decorated banquet hall featuring banners of white and red hang above a huge table covered in colorful goodies. Wildly-dressed characters make their way to the set while a large, scaly creature lurks in the shadows, waiting for its cue. Allen tentatively taps Harris on the shoulder.
Excuse me, Harry? Don’t you think this might be a little too scary for a kids movie?
Harris, in a haze of creating, whips around.
This completely fabricated behind-the-scenes moment from the batshit crazy 1985 TV movie Alice in Wonderland pretty much sums up my assumption regarding the creator's intentions when unleashing this weird-ass two-parter into the world. It was the 80’s after all, so films supposedly intended for children were hardcore. There’s a reason so many films from the 80’s are both beloved and deeply problematic. Somehow, during the decade of excess, movies and TV shows suddenly found themselves able to depict gloriously dark or inappropriate material at an alarming rate.
I was three years old when this unusual beast premiered. There’s no guarantee I saw it upon its original broadcast, but I suppose it’s possible. Regardless, this film, and my older sister can confirm this, is one of the most important movies of our childhood. Way before the advent of DVDs, we had to record it on a VHS tape using the long-play setting in order to fit this 3-hour adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s iconic novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Alice through the Looking-Glass (1871). The tape is long gone, likely due to our voracious appetite of watching it ad nauseum and the wear-and-tear it suffered. I’m sure it was also a favorite of my parents. Who wouldn’t love a near 3-hour break from those loud ass kids? How did such a gigantic undertaking, featuring an unbelievable number of stars and costing an estimated 14 million dollars, come to be?
Oscar-winning documentarian Irwin Allen, like the less-talented but equally ambitious Bert I. Gordon (The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants), believed that bigger was better. For a time, he was one of the most powerful and famous producers in Hollywood, thanks to his megawatt productions of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Prior to this, he would produce and/or create some of the best fantasy/sci-fi TV series of the 60’s: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel. Land of the Giants, and of course, Lost in Space. To his credit, he would continue working in both television and feature films, unlike many other producer/directors who would abandon television as soon as they got a taste of success in the upper echelons of the film industry. His hot streak came to a screeching halt with the artistic and commercial failure of The Swarm (1978), a legendarily terrible killer bee movie that he unwisely chose to direct as well. Following up with the calamitous volcano pic When Time Ran Out... (1980), he’d retreat back to his bread-and-butter, television. Sadly, even the relatively familiar terrain which he’d help revolutionize brought him little success, with poorly-received TV movies made throughout the 80’s. Prior to legal drama Outrage! (1986), Alice in Wonderland would be Allen’s penultimate production, but what a movie to go out on!
Allen’s formula for success was relatively simple. Find a large-scale story and stuff it with as many celebrities as possible. It would appear that most of the cash went to the stars and not the crew departments. Despite the hefty price tag, the Emmy-nominated costume design does leave something to be desired. Several of the “stars,” whom I do regard as celebrities but acknowledge many of them were past their prime, are shoved into shockingly unconvincing, ill-fitting, baggy costumes. Look, I’m not saying I want a form-fitting cat suit clinging to Telly Savalas’ body or a curvy lion onesie for Ernest Borgnine, but I expect more than a hot, musty Halloween costume I could buy for $12.99 at Wal-Mart. Ditto the make-up, although this is understandable since executives at CBS balked at such big stars being unrecognizable under pounds of latex and make-up. “If we’re paying these people, we’d better damn well get to see their faces, damnit!” And this was event TV. The major networks still held sway over the country’s viewing options so they often dictated what audiences watched. This in turn brought about huge mini-series and multi-part specials of varying quality.
While Harry Harris was a reliable choice for director, being a TV veteran and a major force behind The Waltons in particular, the real stroke of genius was hiring celebrated author Paul Zindel to write the teleplay. The Pulitzer-prize winning novelist had already been a force in the theatrical, literary, and film world since the late 1960’s. He wrote the seminal The Pigman series, the humorous but intense My Darling, My Hamburger, the screenplays for the disastrous Lucille Ball-starring Mame (1974) adaptation and the incredible Runaway Train (1985), and finally, a successful Broadway play: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. His ability to make adult issues palatable for younger readers and his unique perspective made him the perfect writer to bring Carroll’s frustratingly bizarre and elliptical characters to the small screen.
Let’s get this out of the way. Natalie Gregory as Alice. As the youngest onscreen Alice, she was 9 when the production took place, this would be a daunting project for anyone, let alone a child. She had worked on enough television series to justify her triumph over nearly 600 other auditionees for the coveted role, and this would remain her most famous performance, save for her sweet voice work in Oliver & Company (1988). Is she a revelation in the film? Negative. Her performance, though a bit choppy, I find rather charming. There’s a great deal of monologuing and although most of her interactions with so many over-the-top personalities amounts to little more than reaction shots, she’s at least playing a character whom you root for. Yes, it’s a bit hilarious nowadays to read fawning, mid-80's articles about the brilliant career everyone on set believed Gregory was destined for. Saddling a little girl with a part requiring her to sing, dance, and be onscreen 90% of the time deserves at least a modicum of respect for the young actress.
By the way, did I mention this thing is a musical? Although legendary writer/comedian Steve Allen is credited as having written 19 songs for the movie, it feels like at least 40 or 50, with some songs coming about 30 seconds after the last. Originally attempting to pitch Irwin Allen (no relation) on a musical version of A Christmas Carol, the producer suggested he write a few “ditties” for his upcoming Alice in Wonderland adaptation. I love musicals, but growing up in the 80’s, it was difficult to connect with the MGM musicals of old, and the ‘Musicals’ section at the video store was often quite barren. Let’s just say Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) was definitely NOT an adaptation of Chicago.
A bit of snooping reveals the reason for the less-than-stellar production numbers is due to the Herculean task of procuring so many stars on such different schedules. The shoot lasted 55 days, with the great choreographer Gillian Lynne, the unsung hero of Cats the Musical, meeting the day’s guest stars around 4am, teaching them some very basic moves, then turning them loose onto the lovely but very phony sets by Oscar-nominated production designer Philip M. Jefferies (Grease). These sets, by the way, make major use of flowers, adding color to what’s otherwise just a constantly re-used fake forest. The celebrities of the day would head over and meet with Harris, Allen, and Allen’s favorite cinematographer, Oscar winner Fred J. Koenekamp (The Towering Inferno). They’d hastily rehearse the steps they’d just learned, get into costume (yes, I say costume, because this looks like an elementary school play) and begin shooting soon thereafter. This explains the rather rudimentary dance moves performed by most of the cast. Not all, mind you. Sammy Davis Jr. shows up halfway through the first part, and even though it’s not mind-blowing, his work is head and tails better than most of rest of the cast as they stumble through awkwardly staged romps.
“It’s just a guy in a costume!” Well, so much for the magic of fucking movies. Yes, my daughter wasn’t fooled for one second when she glimpsed Red Buttons as The White Rabbit. I don’t recall my own awareness of the shoddy nature of the costumes (yes, I’m calling them costumes again rather than wardrobe, despite what the wardrobe people on a film set would say), but I must’ve been so taken with the kooky characters and weirdness of the material that I must have simply accepted it and moved on. Speaking of material, there’s a certain irony to the production being shot at the same studio as The Wizard of Oz (1939). Although Zindel’s adaptation is regarded as, for better or worse, one of the most faithful Alice in Wonderland productions, one overall change is made that steers the film away from Carroll’s story and more into Oz territory. While book Alice wishes to explore her surroundings, movie Alice almost immediately wants to return home, much like Dorothy Gale and later Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s Alice-inspired Spirited Away (2001). I do say worse because while the justly-famous Walt Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1951) featured some frustrating exchanges between Alice and the oddballs she encounters, the conversations she has in the TV movie are downright nerve-shredding. The peculiar and quasi-philosophical nonsense spouted by these wackadoos is enough to make you throw a shoe at your television. The dialogue, strange as it is, does serve the purpose of holding up the central theme of the film. Each conversation she has with these otherworldly beings imparts some sort of lesson, though sometimes the lessons can be a bit enigmatic.
It’s difficult to credit the lush and beautiful music accompanying the massive opening credits, depicted in a chessboard-style featuring all of the famous faces we’ll soon see. The musical score is credited to Emmy-winner Morton Stevens (Hawaii Five-O), but the song “Can You Hear Us, Alice?,” sung by the cast in the finale, is clearly the musical theme of the film and was written by Steve Allen. Still, the sweeping nature of the music foreshadows the grand adventure young Alice is about to embark upon. Alice dutifully places silverware on a table in the parlor of her very posh home while her mother (Sheila Allen, veteran of several Irwin Allen films and the producer’s wife) gently reminds her that “teatime is for grownups.” Alice longs to be treated as an adult, but she’s constantly reminded of her status as a small child, particularly by her sister (Gregory’s real-life sibling, Sharee Gregory). Alice spots the frantic White Rabbit and gives chase. We get the first of the “very special” effects provided by two-time Oscar winner John Dykstra (Star Wars IV, Spider-Man), who was clearly doing Irwin Allen a favor here. After rushing through an underground tunnel that inexplicably contains thunder and lightning, Alice falls down a hole. There’s an odd forced-perspective shot that’s supposed to show her falling downward but due to the obvious angle of the shot, it looks as though she’s moving sideways, like the gopher in Caddyshack (1980), which Dykstra also worked on, so maybe the joke’s on me.
She drops into that famous room with the many doors, including the tiny one she can’t fit through. Making the first of many rash decisions, she takes a sip of that infamous ‘Drink Me’ bottle, although to her credit, she does check the bottle for a poison warning. You know its standard practice for any poisoner to put a label on their handiwork. First, she shrinks, but forgets the door key on the table. A tiny cake materializes, which I always wanted to eat due to the purple frosting, and it says ‘Eat Me.’ Of course, the little genius eats it. Now she’s gigantic. Desperately wanting to be brave, she refuses to cry, but her emotions gets the better of her. Scared and frustrated, she cries, unconvincingly, hands on her face as way too many drops from hidden hoses pour out of her “eyes.” Shrinking down once again, she escapes through a crack in the wall and discovers she’s flooded part of Wonderland.
Floating to safety, she meets the first of the plethora of insane characters and the first of the many, many, songs by Allen. Sherman Hemsley (The Jeffersons), dressed in a baggy mouse suit, angrily sings about his hatred for dogs and cats while various birds, including Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain) and two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, The Delta Force, yes, I’m going with The Delta Force) jump around like idiots. As a way to minimize repetition, the general rule in this film goes like this: Alice encounters some weirdos, wild shit goes down, Alice leaves. Rinse. Repeat.
The White Rabbit mistakes Alice for Marianne, a house maid, supposedly, and orders her to retrieve his fan and gloves, making him both absent-minded and an asshole. She checks out his house, which features rabbit-centric knick-knacks, and spies a bottle. Maybe Alice isn’t really ready to be a grown-up, since she decides “I ought to see what that bottle does.” Should you, though? She grows huge, of course, and the Rabbit, along with a pig (Scott Baio, whom I highly recommend if you have legal issues. Check out Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog), and Bill the Lizard (stuntman Ernie F. Orsatti), who gets kicked through the air by Alice’s giant foot, throw rocks, or are they berries(?), at her. The mini-set is pretty cool, with Alice reaching her giant arm through the dollhouse-style cottage. The objects turn into cakes and once again, Alice draws a lot of conclusions and eats shit off the ground. She shrinks and runs off.
In a confusing detail, she’s apparently shrunken down enough to encounter a caterpillar (Sammy Davis Jr.), but is later the same size as the rabbit and pig with no visible transformation (although supposedly there’s a deleted scene where she eats part of the caterpillar’s mushroom). The song is unmemorable, but Davis Jr. is electric as always, dancing with Alice and busting out some tap moves. Alice walks past a frog footman and into the home of the duchess (Martha Raye, whom I’ll always remember from the filmed version of Pippin starring Ben Vereen and the tone-deaf William Katt) and her plate-smashing cook (comedian Imogene Coca, Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation). They sing a song about hatred, extolling the virtues of “suffering and pain” while the cook cracks pepper on a poor, wailing baby. In one of the most disturbing scenes, Alice steals the baby to protect it and the child promptly transforms into a squealing piglet in a bonnet. The recurring motif of characters inexplicably disappearing with little to no explanation could be viewed as both a strength and a weakness. While it certainly would be a burden for Alice to be caring for a child for the duration of the movie, the fact that the child becomes a pig comes off as extremely random and odd for odd’s sake.
If you’re depressed by a freaked-out pig, you’ll be downright suicidal when the Cheshire Cat (Telly Savalas, Kojak, Kelly’s Heroes) shows up. This scene has been discussed over the years for having an unintentional air of sexual danger, particularly when the Cat informs Alice, through song no less, that there’s “no way home from this strange land.” With his creepy smile, Savalas warbles about an “adventure that’s only begun” and thoroughly upsets Alice, leading her to believe her quest is hopeless. In a shameless bit of meta-humor, the Cat says, Kojak-style, “Meow, baby!” then disappears.
Fortunately, one of the strongest, but no less outlandish scenes arrive when she makes it to the famous tea party with The Mad Hatter (Tony nominee Anthony Newley, Willy Wonka composer, Dr. Dolittle), the March Hare (Roddy McDowall, Fright Night, The Planet of the Apes franchise), and The Dormouse (Arte Johnson, Laugh-In). The lesson to take away from the denizens of Wonderland is simple. They are all assholes. Seriously. The Hatter, Hare, and Dormouse (who appears to be drunk) insult Alice up and down, calling her a “plain little girl.” There’re some fun touches, like Newley dipping his clock in a tea cup and a bit about “stickling,” but I admit that the “Un-Birthday” song from the Disney version is sorely missed. Still, while I bemoan the fact that EVERYONE seems to get a song, I can’t deny my delight in hearing Anthony Newley bust one out. Newley is a singular musical performer. If he were better known to today’s audiences, he’d probably be a very popular impression. Let’s not forget that his Charles Chaplin musical had closed out of town two years prior and he was only two years away from absolutely destroying what was left of his career with The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987). Here, he sings a gentle and sweet song called “Laugh,” before Alice is off again.
She comes across a fawn resembling Bambi and sings a nice song (dubbed by Lana Beeson, All Dogs Go to Heaven). In the piece, she asks a very reasonable question: Why do people act as if they’re crazy? Very good question. She also feels a connection with the animal, since it too is looking for its mother. It’s a bittersweet moment, reminding one of her plights despite the wackiness of the previous scenes.
She spies an ugly door and steps into a rose garden, where she launches into an impromptu dance, which I assume Gillian Lynne responded to by saying: “Do whatever the hell ya want, love. I’ve gotta go teach Harvey Korman to dance and find out if Carol Channing is an epileptic.” In one of the most elaborate sequences, human-sized cards repaint white roses red and warn Alice about The Queen of Hearts’ penchant for decapitation. The Queen, played by Jayne Meadows with very amusing intensity, is accompanied by her permanently befuddled King (Oscar nominee Robert Morley, Theatre of Blood, an amusing cameo in The Great Muppet Caper) following a large procession. She avoids getting her head chopped off and plays croquet using flamingo mallets, human wickets, and a fucking robot guinea pig as the ball. The Cheshire Cat shows up to fuck things up. Cat: Do you like the queen? Alice: Not at all.
Wandering off, she runs into The Gryphon (comedy legend Sid Caesar), who seems to be doing his act for her, then Ringo Starr shows up as The Mock Turtle; his first name is Mock, thank you very much. And yes, he does have an earring for whatever reason. The Gryphon asks him to sing her a song. So, you’re telling me that in a musical filled with unnecessary songs, the one time someone actually requests a song, it’s to a member of one of the most important rock n’ roll bands in history?! Ridiculous! By the way, the fact that Merv Griffin shows up in part two and doesn’t play ‘The Gryphon,’ is a giant missed opportunity. Anyway, he sings a song about “nonsense” and how there’s “too much sense in the world.” “Nonsense will save the gloomy, doomy race,” he intones. It’s a cute song, especially with Alice playing the turtle’s shell like a xylophone, but the film remains deeply episodic as she gets pulled into a trial.
What trial you might ask? I watched it twice and I still have no idea. Something about a Knave (Jim Galante, one of Irwin Allen’s buddies) and a note. The cook shows up to crack pepper on people and the Hatter, Hare, and Dormouse take the stand and make absolutely no sense. I wonder whether the dialogue was incredibly easy or unbelievably hard for some of these actors. There’s a very clever line where the Queen confirms that she’s much better at cross-examining witnesses; she says “examinations are supposed to be cross!” Alice suddenly grows, literally, and the king attempts to dismiss her by reciting a rule that “all persons over a mile must leave the court.” Alice gets super pissed and the cards attack her in some rough special effects that don’t detract from the fact that a little girl is getting stabbed with spears. The cards chase her off, there’s a ripple effect a la Wayne’s World, and the cards become leaves. She wakes up and sees her house.
We arrive at the most eerie and upsetting bit of the film. The final scene of part one. Alice runs in to find her home empty. No parents. No sister. Not even Dina, her fluffy cat. For a child, being all alone in a big house is already off-putting. Suddenly, there’s Dina in the mirror. Turning around, the cat is nowhere to be seen. To her horror, she realizes she’s on the other side of the looking-glass. Her mother and father appear and check themselves in the mirror; all the while Alice is calling and waving to them, “Mother! Father!” They don’t see her and she doesn’t know what to do. Noticing a thick book, she reads a scary poem about the dreaded Jabberwocky. A synth effect goes off and the lights begin to flicker. She says to herself, “Good thing I’m all grown up now,” indicating the silliness of being afraid. She turns and... it’s a fucking DRAGON!
There are two camps when it comes to the Jabberwocky’s appearance. One side says it’s an awkward, bulky, unconvincing beastie that’s clearly a man in a rubber suit. The other more impressionable side, of which I’m a member, still believes this big bastard is pure nightmare fuel. The cheapness of an inversion effect to occasionally change the monster’s color doesn’t soften the impact of its menacing presence. Number One: Nothing like this has happened throughout the entire film that even begins to approach the horror of this moment. Everything has been flowers, goofy characters, and silly songs. Number Two: Alice is a little girl and this creature towers above her. Number Three: Criticize all you want, but the thing has sharp claws, scales, wings, and worst of all, bright red glowing eyes. Alice screams and the words “To Be Continued...” appear on the screen. Holy shit! THAT’S how you’re going to leave the millions of children you’ve just traumatized?!
The program does wimp out a tad, at least on the DVD version that I own. There’s an immediate and abrupt preview of the second part, with plenty of singing and inept dancing to shake your jangled nerves at. For me, the sudden appearance of the Jabberwocky has been seared into my brain since childhood. Now, on to part two, where Broadway baby Carol Channing will kindly explain the proper time to have jam.
Click here for Part Two.