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J. Searle Dawley
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Alice dozes in a garden, awakened by a dithering white rabbit in waistcoat with pocket watch. She follows him down a hole and finds herself in a hall of many doors. A key opens a small door: eventually, she's through into a garden where a dog awaits. Later, in the rabbit's home, her size is again a problem. She tries to help a nanny with a howling baby, then a Cheshire cat directs her to a tea party where the Mad Hatter and March Hare dunk a dormouse. Expelled from the party, Alice happens on a royal processional: all the cards in the deck precede the Queen of Hearts, who welcomes then turns on Alice and calls on the royal executioner. Alice must run for her life. Written by
Cecil Hepworth is a vitally important figure in Britain's early cinema, but his achievements were compromised by the fact that he was a poor businessman and poor planner. Prints of his most popular films -- such as "Comin' Thro the Rye" and "The Joke that Failed" -- were sold outright to exhibitors, causing Hepworth to wear out the original negatives. In order to meet continuing demand for new prints, he was forced to re-shoot these movies in their entirety! Hepworth probably deserves credit for filming the first remake.
Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, author of 'Alice in Wonderland') died in 1898, in the very earliest years of Britain's cinema, and there is no surviving record of him ever having seen a movie. (Dodgson's vast archive of correspondence was burnt by his family after his death, and his diary was censored: there may well have been a movie review in there someplace.) Yet I'm 100% certain that Dodgson would have been a cinephile. He was an expert and enthusiastic amateur photographer, he had a deep love of the theatre, and the 'Alice' books contain several devices which seem more cinematic than literary: Alice is subjected to the shot change, the jump cut, the dissolve, and so forth.
Cecil Hepworth's 1903 film version of 'Alice in Wonderland' -- apparently the first movie version of that oft-filmed book -- was made barely five years after Dodgson's death. Scantly nine minutes long, this crude 'trick' movie necessarily shows only a few fragments of the novel. The uncredited production designer (Hepworth himself?) has clearly made considerable effort to base the sets and costumes on Sir John Tenniel's beloved illustrations, so it's strange that the central character looks nothing at all like Tenniel's Alice: the actress cast here has long black hair, and her pinafore is nearly ankle-length.
Quite impressively, Alice actually falls into a genuine hole in the ground. To show her plunging vertically (as in the novel) would have been technically difficult to stage, so we see her creeping through a slanting shaft, in an impressive cutaway shot (the cinema's first)? Some of the special effects are achieved through simple jump cuts, much less flamboyant than what Georges Melies was doing in France at this time. Alice's growth spurt in the White Rabbit's house is amusingly staged by placing the actress intentionally too close to the camera, in an undersized set.
I was impressed by one elaborate bit of pageantry in an exterior shot. Alice stands on a broad greensward (apparently a partial matte shot) while the 52 members of the pack of cards parade past her, one suit at a time.
The print which I viewed had neatly typeset intertitles, but was an acetate print several generations removed from the original ... so I can't tell if these titles date back to Hepworth's original 1903 production, or were added later. Oddly, the opening title makes a point of telling us that Alice's adventure is a dream: this was only implied in the first chapter of the original novel. More significantly, the dominant figure at the Mad Tea Party is identified in a title here as 'the Mad Hatter'. This usage is now quite common, but it never appears in Carroll's original novel: nowhere in the text of 'Alice in Wonderland' is the word 'Hatter' immediately preceded by the word 'mad'. The expression 'mad as a hatter' refers to the fact that 19th-century hatters often developed nervous tics from exposure to the highly toxic vapours of mercuric nitrate. Men's hats in Victorian times were made of felt; 19th-century hatters cured the felt by a process called 'carroting' which left a carrot-coloured residue. Since the Hatter in Carroll's novel is never explicitly cried 'the Mad Hatter', I'm surprised to find evidence that this popular mis-usage may have been in place as early as 1903. I wish I could establish the origin of these title cards.
Hepworth's production of 'Alice in Wonderland' is extremely crude by modern standards, and leaves out most of the plot of Carroll's book, as well as the wonderful wordplay. But this film was an extremely ambitious undertaking for its time, and it achieves nearly all of what it set out to accomplish. I'll rate it 9 out of 10.
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