Great Performances: Season 12, Episode 2

Alice in Wonderland (3 Oct. 1983)

TV Episode  -   -  Biography | Drama | Music
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From the elaborate Broadway revival of the 1932 Eva Le Gallienne/Florida Friebus production comes a whimsical retelling of the Lewis Carroll classic.

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Title: Alice in Wonderland (03 Oct 1983)

Alice in Wonderland (03 Oct 1983) on IMDb 7/10

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From the elaborate Broadway revival of the 1932 Eva Le Gallienne/Florida Friebus production comes a whimsical retelling of the Lewis Carroll classic.

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3 October 1983 (USA)  »

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Kate Burton's TV debut. See more »

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This is a revival of a 1930's stage production, but with a new framing device, and the author of that framing device is uncredited. See more »

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Version of Alice (2009) See more »

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Lewis Carroll would have loved it.
9 September 2005 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

There have been many adaptations of 'Alice in Wonderland'. I've enjoyed most of the versions I've seen (even an X-rated version), although I found Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's semi-animated version 'Neco z Alenky' (1988) deeply alienating. Many of the dramatisations -- including the best-known version, Paramount's 1933 film -- make the mistake of including scenes and characters from the sequel 'Through the Looking-Glass'. This seldom works, as each of the two novels has its own very linear plot line, and combining the two of them results in arbitrary lurches from one plot to the other.

This production of 'Alice in Wonderland', made for American public television, has a fascinating pedigree. It is officially a filmed version of the 1982 Broadway production, with Kate Burton repeating her performance in the title role. (Having seen that production at the Virginia Theatre with my wife, I can state that there are significant changes here.) That stage production, adapted by Florida Friebus and the legendary Eva Le Gallienne, was originally performed on Broadway in 1932, with Le Gallienne as the White Queen ... spectacularly making her second-act entrance on wires, flying in from stage left! Half a century on, Le Gallienne repeated her role (and that astonishing entrance) at age 83, for the 1982 Broadway production. When I saw her in that play, it was astonishing for me to realise that I was watching an actress who had made her Broadway debut in 1916!

This tele-version does not use any camera tricks, remaining faithful to its stage pedigree. Alice begins the play by entering Wonderland through her looking-glass, this being an easier transition to perform onstage than having her fall down a rabbit-hole. Once inside the looking-glass, the first act is a fairly faithful (abridged) adaptation of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', ending with Alice's denunciation of the pack of cards. But rather than awakening from a dream, this propels her into the second act, which is an equally faithful adaptation of 'Through the Looking-Glass'. I found this a far more effective way to combine the two Alice novels than was done in the Paramount film version. The 'Drink Me' sequence, in which Alice abruptly dwindles to miniature size, is executed effectively by having Kate Burton stand next to a telescoping table on an otherwise bare stage: the table grows larger while Burton pretends to diminish.

As many of the characters in this story are only semi-human (at best), most of the actors wear heavy makeup appliances and elaborate disguises. As the cast is well stocked with big-name actors, veteran director Kirk Browning is understandably eager to let us know who's underneath that makeup. A visual device is used repeatedly throughout this telefilm, and it works very well. Each time Alice meets a new character, the action stops for a moment, and an oval inset frame is blue-screened over the tableau. In this frame, we see a head shot of the actor who has just entered, without disguise. Then the action resumes.

Daringly -- and perhaps out of necessity -- several of the characterisations here look little or nothing like the familiar images in Sir John Tenniel's illustrations. The departure is most notable for Tweedledum and Tweedledee. As drawn by Tenniel, these twins were immense fat schoolboys in skeleton suits. Here, they're performed by Andre De Shields and Alan Weeks, two lithe tap-dancers who take every opportunity to show off their agility. Making their exit in a rapid dance routine, De Shields and Weeks perform together as if they actually *are* identical twins, dancing in brisk unison. Elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Swen Swenson as the agile Gryphon, capering to the mournful soup-song of the Mock Turtle. Swenson was formerly a handsome hoofer who played several leading dance roles on Broadway in the early 1960s, but very little of his work has been captured on film. IMDb's cast list includes two puppeteers: these are the unseen artists who guide immense bunraku-sized marionettes of the Walrus and the Carpenter.

I was disappointed that Eva Le Gallienne does not repeat her airborne triumph here as the White Queen. She is replaced by Maureen Stapleton: a performer whom I strongly dislike as both an actress and as a person. Stapleton has made no secret of her fear of flying -- she has actually boasted that she once forced an airliner to make an emergency landing so that she could get off -- and as such I found Stapleton an ironic choice to play the windswept Queen who makes her entrance flying through the air.

In the central role as Alice -- the only character who interacts with all the others -- Kate Burton is excellent, although (as is usual for most live-action 'Alice' productions) she's clearly an adult woman impersonating a little girl. In a cast filled with big names, perhaps the biggest name here -- and one of the best performances -- is that of Richard Burton, Kate Burton's father. Raised by her mother, she spent very little time with her famous father, and she had never performed with him apart from a brief role in his film 'Anne of the Thousand Days'. Here, in one of his last roles, Richard Burton is splendidly cast as the White Knight ... the only character in Alice's two journeys who is entirely sympathetic and who actually tries to help her. When Richard Burton died a few months after filming this performance, Kate Burton spoke very movingly about how thankful she was for finally having a chance to perform with him.

This version of 'Alice in Wonderland' is an absolute delight, appropriate for both adults and children ... although some of the action might be slightly difficult to follow for someone who has never read the Alice books, or had those books read to them. But is there actually anyone who has NOT read those classics? I'll rate this delightful tele-film a full 10 points out of 10.


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