Bright Lights Film Journal

A Mad Tea Party – Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller 1966)

When it comes to Lewis Carroll adaptations, Tim Burton’s upcoming 3-D Alice has a lot of competition. The IMDB lists 24 versions of Alice in Wonderland, including Burton’s, and that’s not counting at least 4 or 5 versions of Through the Looking Glass.

I have two favorite live-action adaptations of Alice. One is Paramount’s 1933 version, surrealistically designed by avant-garde art director William Cameron Menzies, and starring practically everyone on the Paramount lot at the time – Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Edna May Oliver, Charlie Ruggles, Jack Oakie – all of them wearing elaborate costumes and makeups that make them virtually unrecognizable. (Is that really Cary Grant in the Mock Turtle costume?)

The other is Jonathan Miller’s 1966 BBC adaptation, directed in a stark black-and-white style reminiscent of early Roman Polanski and other Eastern European filmmakers of that era. In the clip above, we see Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Wilfred Lawson as the Dormouse, and Michael Gough as the March Hare – none of them wearing animal costumes. In contrast to Disney’s and other manic versions, Miller’s tea party scene is played with a sense of absurdist existential ennui – as if the participants were all Waiting for Godot. The once-in-a-lifetime cast also includes Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers, Sir John Gielgud, and Leo McKern (as the Duchess). The score is by Ravi Shankar.

Miller’s 1966 Alice in Wonderland is available on DVD. The 1933 Paramount version, alas, is not, but wouldn’t it be great if they did release it, ideally in a box set with Paramount’s almost-as-surreal W.C. Fields vehicles, Million Dollar Legs and International House.