I have vague memories (I think) of seeing this on TV as a kid. It's something of a holy grail to nostalgia buffs of course given that nearly every Paramount star who was anybody in 1933 - including most famously Cary Grant, W.C. Fields and Gary Cooper - appears in it, and it's never been on video before. Its reputation isn't all that great though, and the film was shorn of about 15 minutes on reissues which apparently (see below) have been lost for good. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I, inveterate Alice-lover, took a gander.
I needn't have worried. Sure, this suffers from all of the defects one would expect of such a lavish star-vehicle from the day - too much rushing through scenes (even at its original 90 minutes, trying to shunt together big hunks of both "Alice" and "Through the Looking Glass" is going to feel thin), an Alice (Charlotte Henry) who is both too old and just not expressive enough for the part, a director (Norman Z. McLeod) sometimes content to point-and-shoot, and some celeb bits (Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle in particular) that just aren't that great or are too short. And this is one of those rare black and white films where I actually thought more than once while watching "gee, I wish this had been in color". Somehow "Alice" more than almost any classic story, seems to demand a riotous palette of hues.
BUT the sets and art direction - supervised by an uncredited William Cameron Menzies, one of the greatest art directors/production designers of all time but listed here only as co-screenwriter - is truly wonderful, capturing at times the surrealism and madness of the tale with an expressionist's palate of odd shapes and complex backgrounds. Some of the special effects are really excellent as well and seem pretty advanced for the year - the raven flying over Tweedledee and Tweedledum for example, and the flying effects for Alice. And though as I said, the conflation of the two books makes for a dash-through-it-quick-as-you-can feeling to things, the way in which McLeod, Menzies and the rest of the team actually constructed the film is pretty ingenious: it starts with Alice going into Looking-Glass world, rescuing the chess pieces from the fire, then running out of the house and following the rabbit at which point it follows mostly the events of "Wonderland" for 45 minutes or so, only to go back into "Looking Glass" territory smoothly towards the finish.
But the primary joy is in the cast; as mentioned I have some issues, but on the whole I really enjoyed most of the stars, and it seems like many of the more important ones did get into the swing of things. Edna Mae Oliver is delightfully goofy and sly as the Red Queen, Fields is perfect as Humpty-Dumpty, Edward Everett Horton silly but tending towards dangerous as the Mad Hatter, and most of the rest of the names including Sterling Holloway and Jack Oakie seem to be enjoying themselves. Top honors in the end have to go to Gary Cooper as the White Knight - frail, naive, joking, crazy, bumbling, and entirely sympathetic. He dominates the screen and comes the closest I think to being a "real" person - though in the end he's not around long enough to be any more than another crazy dream.
SUMMARY: though this is easily the best "faithful" Alice adaptation I've seen - not that most are that good, mind you - I can't quite give it the top rating, despite the excitement that I felt for it and my general pleasure at the film itself, and that is due almost entirely to the way Universal has handled this release. Though the film doesn't look and sound bad, it isn't in terrific shape either - there are occasional tear lines in the frame and more dirt and speckling than there ought to be, if the film were given much restoration effort. The DVD is completely bare-bones, no extras whatsoever - not even a trailer - and given that it is in fact the shorter reissue, it would be nice to at least be given some information as to why we're getting the shorter version, and what may have happened to the missing footage. I can well understand the anger of some of the reviewers at the cheap way this was put out, timed for the release of the new Tim Burton film and seemingly marketed to capitalize on that - but not to really cater to the collectors who have long waited for it.
Still, a mediocre release of a formerly missing classic is better than nothing, and I think there are enough positives to be accentuated for me to recommend this. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to email Universal with any dissatisfaction you might feel as to the quality of the product. While this "Alice" may not be a masterpiece, it certainly deserved better treatment than this, after 77 years.