Alice finds her voice
In celebration of our Wonderland exhibition, Dan Golding investigates the first time Alice spoke on screen.
Alice arrives in the land of sound cinema with a certain sangfroid: ‘I wonder if I have fallen right through the Earth?’ asks 19-year-old Ruth Gilbert, underneath a barely disguised New York accent. ‘And this is,’ she grins to the camera, letting us in on a secret, ‘the Antipathies!’
Alice’s first words on film appear in the opening moments of Bud Pollard’s 1931 adaptation, made for Metropolitan Studios. Yet why this Alice arrived in the world of sound cinema in 1931 is its own curious question and one with no certain answer. This first Alice In Wonderland with sound is a strange film, made on a seemingly very small budget by an independent New Jersey studio with possibly amateur performers and minimal aesthetic flair, by a director who specialised in the quick and the crude.
By 1931, synchronised sound had fairly comprehensively taken over the film industry, and the vast majority of studio films were now at least released in a talkie version. At the same time, a new wave of enthusiasm for the works of Lewis Carroll was finding momentum in America. The centenary of Carroll’s birth was approaching, and the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland manuscript had recently been bought by a collector and put on display in New York. ‘People were doing whatever they could with “Alice.” There were marionette shows and stage productions,’ notes historian Richard Koszarski. In some ways, then, it is unsurprising to find a sound version of Alice In Wonderland around this time.
Yet Pollard’s 1931 version is hardly the talkie-era spectacle that you might expect, given the historical moment. It is austere and spare and takes much of its dialogue almost verbatim from the pages of Carroll’s novels. Many of the actors seem to be non-professionals: indeed, although Gilbert later went on to find a modicum of fame on American televisions of the 1950s with The Milton Berle Show, her performance as Pollard’s Alice suggests little of her future career. ‘She wears a blond wig and gives her own sincere impressions, which are acceptable,’ demurred the New York Times in their review at the time.
The amateur nature of the cast has led some to suggest that Pollard’s Alice in Wonderland might have evolved out of a local play. Certainly, as a director, Pollard seems to have been a filmmaker who made do with what he could, and it makes sense that he might have made Alice In Wonderland in a moment of opportunity. ‘Pollard’s long, not-nearly-fully-understood career suggests multiple, often simultaneous, dimensions of hucksterism,’ writes Kyle Westphal. Early in his career, Pollard proudly adopted the ‘exploitation’ label (using it in his advertising at one point), making everything from ‘race’ films (The Black King, 1932), pre-code sex scandal films (Girls for Sale, filmed in 1930 and released in 1934), a pacifist World War I documentary (Forgotten Men, 1933), an Italian-language film (O Festino o la Legge, 1932) and The Horror, an uncredited adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four shot in 1932, left unreleased, and later recut by Pollard and released in 1944 as an anti-alcoholism tract called John the Drunkard.
Pollard shot Alice In Wonderland where he made most of these films, far from the glamour of Hollywood, for the independent Metropolitan Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. ‘Alice had to go through the ordeal of coming to shadow life in an old studio in Fort Lee, N. J., instead of enjoying the manifold advantages of her rich cousins who hop from printed pages to the screen amid the comforts of a well-equipped Hollywood studio,’ condescended Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times at the time.
Certainly, Alice In Wonderland reveals its pedigree (or lack thereof) through the absence of flourish and its unpretentious directness. Pollard allows a spare few moments of expressiveness – multiple Alices swirl when moving between reality and Wonderland, while the camera whips between Alice, the Mad Hatter (Leslie T King) and the March Hare (Meyer Beresen) at their tea-party – but for the most part, the film is staid and unvarnished. Alice frequently ponders aloud to herself in her affected English accent, to camera, while a number of the sets and costumes are austere at best. Nothing here quite approaches the imagination or clarity of the 1910 Edison production or the 1915 WW Young version; in fact, the Mock Turtle (Gus Alexander) in Pollard’s film seems to be somewhat pained by his own existence, and when the Caterpillar (Jimmy Rosen) decides to wander off from his perch, Alice has little to do but look on dejectedly. It’s all rather more dreadfully weird than delightfully eccentric. Even with the pre-code production flexibility and Pollard’s exploitation background, the only signs of menace in the film come from an axe-wielding cook marching straight towards camera, and the possibly unstaged force with which the Queen of Hearts (Vie Quinn) thwacks her luckless Knave (Pat Glasgow) at one point.
The soundscape is a little more successful, even if technically poor-quality. From a historical perspective, it’s interesting to see how much of the film is given over to sequences of singing. Much of the Mad Hatter’s personality is carried by his deeply silly falsetto, which he alternates with deathly serious hymns, accompanied by the Mouse and Hare. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat’, again with Carroll’s original lyrics, gets an extended performance. This singing is entirely unaccompanied (as is more from the Mock Turtle and Alice herself) and feels very rough, which certainly fits with the rest of the film’s charms.
Despite its low-budget beginnings, Alice In Wonderland had its official premiere at the glamorous Warner Theater in Times Square, where free toys were handed out to children. Its theatrical run was not a major success, and afterwards Pollard and Metropolitan Studios took the film to schools and churches as a kind of second run. Some have suggested that this was the plan all along – to make Alice in Wonderland as a kind of educational tool or illustrative aid for children about to embark on a centenary celebration of Carroll’s work.
It may well have been. However, Metropolitan also re-released the film when the considerably more lavish Paramount production hit theatres in 1933: ‘Competition looms on “Alice in Wonderland”,’ wrote the American film industry magazine Motion Picture Daily. An opportunistic re-release of Alice In Wonderland, along with taking the film to schools and churches as educational material, seems entirely in keeping with its production ethos. After all, exploitation is what Pollard did best.
- Dan Golding
 D Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931, University of California Press, Berkeley, New York, 1999, p. 171.
 L Rose, ‘The First Talking Film Of “Alice In Wonderland” Was Shot In Fort Lee’, NJ.Com, 10 March 2010, http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2010/03/the_first_talking_film_of_alic.html.
 Rose, 2010.
 M Hall, ‘The Screen: Alice Of Wonderland Fame, With Several of Her Friends, Comes to Shadow Life’, New York Times, 28 December 1931, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B02E5DB1430E03ABC4051DFB467838A629EDE.
 Rose, 2010.
 K Westphal, ‘Excavating Beware’, Chicago Film Society, 15 April 2011, http://www.chicagofilmsociety.org/2011/04/15/excavating-beware-2/.
 R Koszarski, Hollywood On The Hudson: Film And Television In New York From Griffith To Sarnoff, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2008, p. 303.
 Hall, 1931.
 C Nichols, Alice’s Wonderland, Race Point Publishing, New York, 2014, p. 61.
 Koszarski, p. 241
 Rose, 2010.
 Rose, 2010.