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Forgotten dreams

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Of all the films to have faced censorship battles in the English-speaking world, there are few as apparently innocuous as Alice au Pays des Merveilles (Alice in Wonderland, Lou Bunin, Dallas Bower and Marc Maurette, 1949). An often-overlooked adaptation of the beloved Lewis Carroll novel, the 1949 film was the first screen incarnation of the story to make substantial use of animation. Its troubled production history offers a textbook example of how the state and the commercial sector can each work to crush artistic endeavours.

Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had already been adapted for the big screen five times by the late 1940s, culminating in its first major studio interpretation in Norman Z McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933). While these productions differed in various ways, they all used costumed actors to portray most of the characters of Wonderland and their narratives adhered to the basic framework of Carroll’s book. In contrast, the 1949 film relegated the events of the novel to a story-within-a-story, opening instead on the rarefied 19th century Oxford environment in which Carroll lived. The Wonderland that the live-action Alice (Carol Marsh) ventured into was a series of austere sets populated exclusively by stop-motion animated figures.

A side-by-side comparison of the 1949 and 1933 animated and costumed casts of Alice in Wonderland respectively

Alice au Pays des Merveilles' animated versions of Lewis Carroll's characters (left) and costumed versions from 1933's Alice in Wonderland (right)

Although this adaptation’s directorial credit is often solely attributed to British TV director Dallas Bower, its authorship lies primarily with its producer, Lou Bunin. Born in Kiev in 1904 and emigrating to the United States as a child,[1] Bunin developed his craft at a puppet theatre in Chicago and had previously worked as an assistant to the legendary painter Diego Rivera in Mexico.[2] Although generally admired for his mastery of the then-developing art of stop-motion animation,[3] he remains a marginal figure in film history. Besides Alice in Wonderland, his main screen credits were the World War II propaganda short Bury the Axis (1943) and animated sequences for Vincente Minnelli’s The Ziegfeld Follies (1945). By the late 1940s, Bunin had been fired from MGM as part of Hollywood’s post-war purge of supposed communist sympathisers,[4] and had no alternative but to make his Alice in Wonderland in France with a mix of European and independent funding. The film’s live-action sequences were shot twice – once in English and once in French – with the two versions directed by Bower and Marc Maurette (who went on to do second-unit direction for filmmakers such as Jean Renoir and Orson Welles) respectively,[5] while Bunin took charge of the animated sequences. 

Lou Bunin's World War 2 propaganda short film 'Bury the Axis' (1943)

The production proved something of a haven for leftist animators, with a small number of former Disney technicians joining Bunin in temporary exile.[6] The production, however, soon had a greater enemy to contend with than the House Un-American Activities Committee. Disney had its own ambitions of adapting Carroll’s novel and, sensing competition, sought to obstruct the release of Bunin’s film. This took place most visibly through a long-running court battle, covered extensively in the American press.[7] Although the case was eventually thrown out – having successfully delayed the French film’s US premiere by eighteen months – Disney had already struck one significant blow against Bunin’s production: because of Disney’s pre-existing arrangement with Technicolor, Bunin’s film had to use the Ansco colouring process, a method that produced inferior and sometimes wildly inconsistent results.[8] Bunin later claimed that many American theatre chains decided against screening his film for fear of losing Disney’s patronage.[9]

Remarkably, the film had an even worse fate on the other side of the Atlantic. The British Board of Film Censors took issue at Bunin’s gently impertinent portrayal of Queen Victoria in the live-action prologue and blocked the film from release entirely.[10] Through a combination of poor reviews and limited box office takings in the US and outright suppression in the UK, Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland soon disappeared, largely unremarked upon in the English-speaking world for the next three decades until a brief revival in the mid-1980s in the US.[11] Ironically, Disney’s 1951 adaptation also initially proved a critical and commercial flop.[12]

A black and white image of Pamela Brown as Queen Victoria surrounded by male Oxford academics

Pamela Brown as Queen Victoria

While there is no question that it was treated unfairly, Bunin’s film is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece. The Oxford-set prologue, to which a full fifteen minutes of the film’s runtime are given over, is insufferably twee. Its ostensible purpose, as explained in the opening crawl, is to demonstrate that Carroll based his characters on real figures in his circle of acquaintances, a device that allows for some Wizard of Oz–style dual performances (the actor playing the university’s Vice-Chancellor does the voice of the White Rabbit, and so on). While these sequences give the story that follows an unusually political dimension – the absurd authoritarianism of Wonderland can be seen as a parallel to the stuffy conservatism of England’s elite institutions – they only serve to highlight the limited extent to which Carroll ever sought to rebel against his privileged environment.

The Wonderland sequences are, by comparison, highly inventive. Bunin’s sets are often blank and alienating – reminiscent, in some ways, of the eerie landscapes of Piotr Kamler’s claymation feature Chronopolis (1982) – and his animation, while somewhat rudimentary by today’s standards, was groundbreaking for the time. But here, too, the film falters, its otherwise-faithful narrative periodically derailed by banal musical numbers.

The most successful adaptations of Carroll’s text – for instance, Jan Švankmajer’s Nĕco z Alenky (Alice, 1988) and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (1966) – capture the novel’s chimerical essence and immerse the viewer in their highly disparate worlds (constructed, respectively, from a Czech apartment block and an English military hospital). There is little dreamlike about Bunin’s film, on the other hand: its Wonderland is only ever abstract and distancing.

For all its flaws, however, the film remains a fascinating permutation among the many cinematic renditions of Carroll’s proto-Surrealist masterwork. That it should remain so obscure – to this day, the English-language version is only publicly available as a truncated VHS bootleg – while its one-time rival profits from the manufactured nostalgia that the Walt Disney Company trades on, is an injustice. Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland was a victim of something that capitalist greed and state censorship have always had in common, then as much as now: an insistent denial that the world has space for many different stories – or, for that matter, many different dreams.

David Heslin

 

[1] R Harryhausen & T Dalton, A Century of Model Animation: From Méliès to Aardman, Aurum, London, 2008, p. 147.

[2] P Albers, Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, p. 227.

[3] KA Priebe, The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation, Cengage Learning, Boston, 2011, p. 13.

[4] J Zipes, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, Routledge, New York, 2011, pp. 295–296.

[5] R Jeanne & C Ford, Histoire encyclopédique du cinema: Cinéma d’aujourd’hui (1945–1955), University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1947, p. 128.

[6] P Buhle & D Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950–2002, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2003, pp. 90–91.

[7] ‘Cinema: Battle of Wonderland’, Time, 16 July 1951.

[8] Priebe, p. 12.

[9] J Maslin, ‘At the Movies’, The New York Times, 19 April 1985.

[10] Nichols, p. 105.

[11] B Davis, Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960–1994, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, 2017, p. 160.

[12] Priebe, p. 13.