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Thursday Treasures

October 3, 2013

Disney and Carroll

A Wonderful Collaboration

By Kelvin Cedeno

As the short film Thru the Mirror demonstrated, Walt Disney certainly had his mind on Alice in Wonderland throughout the 1930s. His animated short subjects had gained much acclaim and won Oscars nearly every year that decade. Always the type of person to move forward, though, Walt had his sights set on a feature film. There were a great deal of stories that meant a lot to him personally from his childhood, but there was a particular one he had in mind he wanted to bring to life. To do so, despite looking forward, he would also look to his past for inspiration on how to approach it.

Part 3: How Do You Get to Wonderland?

In 1932, Walt Disney decided he was going to make a feature film of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. He made inquiries to obtain the rights and was delighted to find that in America, both Alice books went in the public domain in 1911. Around the same time, popular actress Mary Pickford was interested in starring in a film based on the books. She and Walt collaborated, and it was decided that (like the 'Alice Comedies' that started all this), it would feature Pickford surrounded by an animated Wonderland. A Technicolor screen test was filmed, but before any further progress could be made, a wrench appeared in Walt's plans. Paramount Pictures was working on their own star-studded live-action film that would combine both novels into one feature. While Carroll's works were public domain in the United States, they still had a copyright in the United Kingdom ' a copyright Paramount had already purchased.

Mary Pickford Alice in Wonderlnad

Years went by, and Walt still refused to let this idea go. With the record-breaking and industry-changing success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he decided that instead of a live girl in an animated world, he would make Alice fully animated. In 1937, Walt had his story team get to work on treatments for such a feature. Al Perkins did in-depth research on both the books and Lewis Carroll and wrote an elaborate 161-page treatment that broke down in detail how the various chapters of the book could be visualized.

By 1939, artists David Hall and Ray Jacobs had come up with an ornate Leica reel based on Perkins' treatment. Leica reels featured storyboards presenting the on-screen action with temporary voice actors in what was essentially a pre-visualization of the feature. While most storyboards are done in a sketchy sort of comic book panel style, the watercolor artwork presented by Hall and Jacobs was far more lush and detailed, resembling concept art or book illustrations (indeed, Disney would later use this artwork to illustrate an edition of the first book in 1987).

Hall artwork for Alice

This version of the film was quite faithful to Carroll's text ' perhaps even too faithful. Focusing solely on the first book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the presentation included sequences that would not appear in the finished film such as 'Pig and Pepper' (featuring the Duchess and the Cook) and 'The Mock Turtle's Story' (featuring the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon). It was decided that Alice spends too much time monologuing during the first chapter of the book, something that could be considered lethal for a film. To rectify this, the 'Drink Me' bottle Alice finds in the hallway was made into a character that resembled a ship's captain. For the Leica reel, actor Cliff Edwards, best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, would voice this persona. The character would later pop up again during the White Rabbit's house sequence. Some of the alterations made to the story would carry over to the final film such as bringing the White Rabbit to the Mad Tea Party and making Alice the one on trial during the climax.

Despite all the work that went into it, Walt wasn't impressed. He found Hall's take on the material too eerie and even gruesome at times (the Hatter and Hare try to attack Alice with a giant pair of scissors at one point, and she finds herself at the guillotine during the finale). Feeling that fidelity to the text was a hindrance that wouldn't translate well to film, especially for American audiences, Walt encouraged his story team and artists to go broader and not be afraid to make more liberal changes for the sake of both story and comedy.

By 1941, Walt started ruminating again over his original idea of using a live actress in an animated environment. Gloria Jean and Ginger Rogers were names that were thrown about, and interestingly, Rogers had narrated and sung on a record adaptation of the story in 1944 which Disney created the album cover art for. Again, always the forward thinker, Walt wondered if perhaps making the film mostly live-action would do the trick as that medium was something he was keen on pursuing. In 1945, he had Brave New World author Aldous Huxley pen a screenplay for a live-action feature, but it wasn't what one would expect.

Alice in Wonderland

Titled Alice and the Mysterious Mr. Carroll, this wouldn't be a straightforward adaptation of Carroll's two books but instead be a fictionalized story in the real world with several animated Wonderland segments. In this version, Alice is a girl whose parents are away in India. She's looked after by a strict governess named Mrs. Beale and a meek guardian named Grove. Alice is friends with Charles Dodgson, who in this film is keeping his pseudonym of Lewis Carroll a secret for fear it'll interfere with his chances of becoming a librarian. The story follows Alice and Charles as he inspires her to believe in nonsense, and a stage performance of Alice in Wonderland at Oxford helps transitions into the animated segments. By the end, Dodgson's secret identity is accidentally revealed by Alice, and a climactic meeting is arranged with the Queen. The film would've essentially been for Alice what Song of the South ended up being for Uncle Remus. Luana Patten, who would become a child star staple of the Disney family, was a serious contender for Alice in this version.

Simultaneously, Walt had sought advice from author Robert Fontaine over how to approach a more direct adaptation. Fontaine submitted a brief story treatment in which the Knave of Hearts is actually a prince who's been transformed into a playing card. Alice and the Knave develop a romance, but when he's falsely accused of stealing the Queen's tarts, he's arrested and put on trial. Alice goes on a journey through Wonderland to rescue him, and while the events more or less play out as they do in the book, Fontaine's treatment has the Queen be the cause of all the madness behind-the-scenes in an effort to confuse Alice and scare her off. Fontaine felt such additions would give the episodic story a greater sense of purpose and suspense.

Walt still felt none of these approaches were quite right. At this point, he gave up and decided that perhaps Carroll's books weren't well suited to the film medium, after all (it's worth noting that he and his staff had seen Paramount's 1933 take and thought it was a disaster; the general public didn't think much of it, either, despite all the money Paramount put into it in hopes of saving the studio during financial crisis. The far less costly Mae West picture She Done Him Wrong would be the studio's savior that year). Ironically, although colleagues initially told Walt that Alice was not a wise choice of a book to adapt, his staff was now trying to convince him that he needed to do it. With the war now over, the studio was in a place where it was able to produce full-length animated features again after years of barely making by via films compiled of short subjects. In 1947, alongside Cinderella and Peter Pan (the latter being another on-again-off-again project), pre-production would officially start on Alice in Wonderland.

To be continued...

 

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