Behind the Scenes of “Alice in Wonderland” (1934) 🇺🇸
Come backstage into fairyland! Get the surprise of your life when you see “big names” delighted with bits! And marvel at the sweet and friendly spirit “Alice” has brought to Hollywood!
by Jack Jamison
There is a story behind every picture, but what a sweet story — what an unbelievably sweet story, for hard-boiled Hollywood! — lies behind Alice in Wonderland!
How did a studio ever happen to decide to make a sentimental, fantastic, nursery tale picture like “Alice”? A story written by an English mathematician and scholar, Charles Dodgson, sixty-odd years ago. Written out painstakingly, in longhand, for a little girl who was a friend and neighbor of his — a little girl really named Alice.
Gangsters, musicals, comedies, sex appeal, yes. Eddie Robinson, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, yes. But — a delicate, sweet story, all whimsy and fancy and delicate nonsense.
“I was interested in the possibilities of making a picture from the book for years,” Louis Lighton, associate producer for Paramount, told me, to my surprise, when I asked him. “I had brought up the idea before, and this time I kept at it until it was finally accepted.” Nobody was sure just how the picture ought to be made — a musical, an extravaganza, or what. About making it, in one shape or another, there was no doubt. A dozen hard-boiled studio business men, sitting around a conference table, all wanted to make the picture!”
And, as soon as they decided to go ahead and make it and lose their money, it turned out that there were simply dozens of people who had dreamt of a movie of “Alice” for’ years and years. Norman McLeod almost got down on/his knees to beg them to let him direct it. Norman McLeod, who turned out Marx Brothers comedies! But fully ten years ago, when Norman was a struggling artist drawing the little cartoons that used to appear on the old Christie Comedy subtitles, he pleaded with the Christies to make “Alice in Wonderland.” The Christies came within an inch of doing it, too. And no sooner was Norman given the chance he begged for, his lifelong ambition, than the studio got another surprise.
The casting office announced that there would be no starring part in the film — only bits. What big-name actor or actress would play a bit? And then they got their surprise! They were simply flooded with requests. There were sixty-eight hundred applications for the part of Alice. Every famous actor in the country, who could get free, volunteered for smaller parts. They stormed the studio. They volunteered to take any salary to do anything. Dick Arlen, for instance, drove in four times from Palm Springs, a hundred miles each way, to land the part of — a cat!
And when they got their parts, you’d have thought they were a lot of kids on the last day of school! You should have seen them, as I did, getting their costumes — Roscoe Ates a fish, W. C. Fields Humpty Dumpty, Skeets Gallagher a white rabbit, Mae Marsh a sheep, Polly Moran a dodo bird, Ned Sparks a caterpillar! Kids! Whooping and yelling at each other! Even the wardrobe department and the make-up men caught the spirit of the thing. The costumes follow the original illustrations of the book down to the tiniest detail. The, make-up is the most miraculous you’ve ever seen.
Alison Skipworth swept out of the wardrobe in the cumbersome robes she wears as the Duchess, her face hidden under a grotesque, heavy, airless mask. Charlie Ruggles — looking equally silly as the March Hare — laughed and gave her a poke in the ribs.
“What d’you think of it, Skippy?” he asked her. “Young man, it’s Hell. H, E, double L! But” — she glared at him — “just you let me see somebody try to take this part away from me, now that I’ve got it!”
I don’t think I will ever forget the first day on the set. The scene was the interior of Alice’s room, where she falls asleep and, in her dream, steps into the magical world of wrong-end-to, behind the looking-glass. The huge lights blinked on, and the director called for places. The scurrying grips and propmen hushed their clatter. Behind the cameras, out of the way, stood dear old Alec B. Francis, Edna May Oliver, and Ford Sterling, watching. They were all in costume. Alec, as the King of Hearts, wore the robes you can see on any playing card. Ford and Edna, as the White King and the Red Queen, were togged out as chess pieces. The cameras rolled. Alice stepped through the looking-glass, into a room in which — because it was on the other side of a mirror, supposedly — everything was backwards. The titles on the books ran backwards. The clock ran backwards. Everything — just as the gentle Charles Dodgson, who called himself Lewis Carroll so his fellow scientists wouldn’t laugh at him for writing fairy-tales, thought it up for his little friend Alice, in England so long ago. And Alec, and Edna May Oliver of slapstick humor, and Ford Sterling, who started as a Keystone Cop, hardly breathed! So delicate was the creation being wrought before them, they were afraid to move for fear of shattering it. Their eyes were far away, looking back into the years of their own childhood. Only when the scene was done did they stir. And then white-haired Alec Francis sighed, and whispered :
Just that one word.
You have probably heard about how little Charlotte Henry got the coveted role of Alice. A small part in a picture called “Courage,” and another in “Huckleberry Finn” made the sum of her Hollywood experience. She is seventeen. (She looks fourteen.) There were not only the sixty-eight hundred applications, but six hundred interviews and fifty-two screen tests already made. Other tests were coming in from England and Canada. She came into the studio, and the production staff took one look at her and gasped. They thought the Alice of the book was coming to life right before their eyes. After they saw Charlotte, there was never any question as to who would get the part — and that’s a fairy-tale story, too.
The picture took two months to finish — two months of work that went on day and night. So unusual were the trick shots called for by the script that even Paramount employees were barred from the vast, cloth-roofed arena where most of the scenes were taken. Two policemen stood at the door, always. I spent several days with the company, and I should like, here, to thank the studio for its courtesy to Modern Screen’s readers. I consider it a privilege to have come in contact with one of the finest things Hollywood has ever done — for “Alice in Wonderland” is all of that!
Everybody in the company felt — just as I did — that they were being granted one of the rarest experiences they had ever had, or ever would have. I visited the set again in the fourth week, after a month of gruelling work had been done, and made the rounds. I chatted with person after person, asking them what they thought of it. They were tired — terribly tired — and there was still a full month to go. But May Robson told me — she was celebrating her fiftieth year on the stage at the time — “This is the nicest anniversary present I’ve ever received.” Gary Cooper said, “Playing the White Knight is the biggest thrill I’ve had since I’ve played in ‘Wings.’ No matter what I ever do, from now on this is it!” Louise Fazenda was positively glowing. “I would have turned down ten pictures for this. Everybody has caught the spirit of the thing. It’s marvelous, the way we’re working together.” The wife of Hal Wallis, production chief at Warners, Louise doesn’t need to act for a living. She was playing the White Queen because she loved it ; had loved the book ever since she was a little girl. Everybody was like that.
Including the set-designing staff! The sets will take your breath away, as they took mine! Four whole fairy-tale forests were set up in the arena. Trees that grow into hands, with diamond rings on the third fingers. Trees with little staircases, windows with tiny curtains, chimneys and doors.
But — I’m sorry if I seem to harp on this, but I can’t help it! — the wonderful thing about it, to me, was the way the picture seemed to open up people and let you see things in them you’d never known were there. When Gary Cooper talked to me about being the White Knight, I give you my word, he looked as if he were on his way to church. I remember, one day, strolling on to the garden set — rose trees, covered with huge red and white blossoms, fifteen feet tall. (To make Alice look tiny), Ray Hatton, Jack Oakie, and Polly Moran were sitting under one of the trees — Ray a mouse, Oakie in his Tweedle-Dum costume, about which more later, and Polly Moran covered with feathers and sporting a pair of wings. Oakie was holding Baby Le Roy — who plays the Joker in a deck of cards — on his lap. Holding Baby Le Roy, and discussing babies’ diets with Polly! Oakie, the wise-guy!
Four weeks, five, six, seven — in the eighth week, finally, the picture was nearly done. The strain was beginning to tell. Everybody was ready to drop. But, from his canvas chair besides the cameras, Norman McLeod’s voice was still coming quietly, gently — with what infinite patience. And infinite care! I saw him hold up one scene until the research department checked on all possible pronunciations of the word “brooch.”’ I saw six three-minute scenes take three hours apiece to photograph. The dialogue was so tongue-twisty that the actors missed words; and, each time, there was a retake, so that it would be nothing less than perfection. The lines in the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene, for instance, were enough to tangle anybody.
In the last week, Cary Grant showed up on the set and stood wistfully looking on from the side-lines. He had been working at another studio, and had missed out on a part. The director called him over. “Cary,” he began, “I think maybe we need a man to play the Mock Turtle —”
That was as far as he got. “What?” yelled Cary. “I’ll put on a blonde wig and play Alice, if you’ll let me!” He was out like a shot, on his way to the wardrobe for a costume.
Meanwhile, Louise Fazenda worked for a week straight in a costume made of rubber inner-tubes, so bulky that she couldn’t sit down in it. Many of the costumes were like that, permitting no rest. Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie, as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, wore pads and masks which let only their eves show. Four days, they went, without taking a bite of solid food, sipping milk and soup through glass straws stuck through their masks. “I wouldn’t ask my worst enemy to climb into this diving-suit,” Oakie puffed at me. “But it’s worth it.”
And a script girl came up to Roscoe and asked, “May I have your autograph, please, Mr. Oakie?”
“How can you tell I’m Oakie?” asked Roscoe.
“By your eyes.”
“O. K.,” said Roscoe. “I’m not sure, myself.” And he signed her book, “Sincerely, Jack Oakie.”
Alison Skipworth, after wearing her breathless mask for five hours at a stretch, fainted just as she was starting a scene. They led her to a chair, and after a moment she said, “I’m all right.” She stood up, and her legs gave way and fainted again. She had to go home for the day. Norman McLeod walked to the stage door with her.
“I’m terribly sorry it was so tough for you, Skippy,” he told her, sincerely.
“How much more of this is there?” she asked.
“A whole day, I’m afraid.”
A little pale, and more than a little shaky, Skippy gave him a grim smile. “I’ll be here tomorrow!” she promised.
She was there. They were all there — and I mean that two ways!
Toward the very last, I talked to little Charlotte Henry — Alice. I got her off in a corner, sat her down, and said : “Now, tell me all about it.”
“All about it?” She looked back toward the garden set, where a lone work-lamp gleamed, and sighed. “What can I tell you? I’ve been in a daze for eight weeks. Talk about Alice being in wonderland — I can’t even believe it’s happened to me, yet! They tell me I’m to have a trip to New York now. Tomorrow will be my first day off in two months. I’m going home and sleep, now, and tomorrow Mother and I are going to the beach and visit some friends.” She smiled and looked thoughtful — if a baby in a puffed-sleeved blue organdie frock, with her hair down her back, wearing white cotton stockings and Mary Jane pumps, can look thoughtful. (She says the cotton stockings are cooler than silk and don’t stick to your legs.) “I think what I’ll remember longest is how sweet all the boys were to me. They played little jokes on me. Oh, funny things happened to other people, too.” She giggled. “Louise Fazenda fell off her stool — they just had to prop her against it, in that costume — and she bounced all over, in those inner-tubes. She rolled around like a lost spare tire, and couldn’t get up! But one of the things they did to me — I got a pebble in one of my Mary Janes, and I took it off when I went to lunch. When I came back I thought I was having a hard time getting my foot into it. They nailed it down to the floor, that’s what they did!”
“I don’ think that’s very sweet!” I protested.
“Oh, but it was the sweet way they did it. Jack Oakie is the funniest man! I laughed and laughed at him. Once we were just getting ready to take a scene, and a light-bulb fell on the floor and blew up. It made a big bang. Just like that, Jack yelled : ‘He went that way! Last I saw he was just going over that hill!’ He’s so quick.”
Charlotte is a brave little trouper like all the rest. When they did the scene of her falling down the rabbit-hole she hurt herself, falling. Clear across the set, they heard the bone crack. “They thought they were going to have to get another Alice for sure,” Charlotte relates it. They picked her up, and a prop boy went dashing away for the studio chiropractor.
“Doc!” he shouted. “That little girl in Stake 13’s busted her neck.”
“Then don’t call me,” growled the dour chiropractor. “Call the ambulance!”
It wasn’t a broken neck, but she tore a ligament in her shoulder and wrenched a bone in her neck out of place. And — just like Skippy Skipworth! — Charlotte went right back to work, the moment they finished putting the adhesive tape on her.
But everybody really was sweet to her, she’s right about that. Dick Arlen moved out of his dressing-room and put a pair of twin beds in it for Charlotte and her mother, so they wouldn’t have to drive home every night. As Charlotte said — and it’s all she needed to say, “He didn’t have to do it.”
Dick owns a warm spot in her heart.
“He’s so sweet,” she says. “You know, as the Cheshire Cat he looks just like my Pekingese puppy. His name is Puddles. My dog. I didn’t want to call him Yum Yum or Fan Tan, so I named him Puddles because — well, I named him that. People say he’s a very good dog, but I don’t. I think he’s just a mongrel. You know, when he wants to attract your attention he sits beside you and sneezes and sneezes —”
Oh, Sophisticated Hollywood!
Hollywood has shown a sweetness, a sincerity, a fineness we never knew it was there. Nobody can ask for more.
On the opposite page, Charlotte Henry as Alice.
(Below) Mr. E. E. Horton gets a kick out of his role of the Mad Hatter.
Across the top of the two pages: Charles Ruggles as the March Hare. Ford Sterling as the White King. Roscoe Ates as the Fish. Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. Louise Fazenda, swathed in inner tubes, as the White Queen. Baby Le Roy — the lamb! — as the joker, with May Robson, the Queen of Hearts. Two pictures of Gary Cooper — you’ll have to take our word for it — as the White Knight. And Roscoe Karns and Jack Oakie — we don’t know which is which, either — as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.
(Top, left) On the set. Jackie Searle as the Dormouse. Alice. Make-up expert Wally Westmore touching up Mad Hatter Horton. And Charles Ruggles without his March Hare head-piece.
(Top, right) Alice walks through the enchanted forest, with Baby Billy Barty in her arms.
(Circle) Alison Skipworth offers her Duchess mask some refreshment.
WANT TO KNOW ALL ABOUT MICKEY MOUSE?
Well, you will, brethern and sistern, you will. In our next issue, we reveal the inside lowdown on the popular rodent. And, incidentally, the inside lowdown on his creator, Mister Walt Disney.
IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF MODERN SCREEN — DON’T MISS IT!
Source: Modern Screen, February 1934