It's a chilly winter's afternoon and the snow is falling, so Alice (Charlotte Henry) is not allowed to venture outside, at least not until her older sister returns to see her. In the meantime, the girl is stuck with her aunt, and she is extremely bored having run out of things to amuse herself with, so when she spies a rabbit outside she makes up a story about it being fully dressed, which fails to impress her aunt. By and by, Alice curls up in an armchair with her cat and dozes, but when she wakes up she wonders about the looking glass above the hearth - is that another world she is seeing?
A famous flop in its day, this version of the Lewis Carroll Alice stories was the closest Hollywood predecessor there was for the 1939 Wizard of Oz, only without that classic's glittering reputation. The chief problem for audiences of the time was that yes, it may have had a star-studded cast, but for some reason the filmmakers opted to have the greater majority of them covered in makeup or masks which completely obscured their features. If it was not for their voices being heard, for most of them that could be any bit part actor playing those roles.
And in some cases, you have your doubts that the actors are playing who the opening credits say they are. These days the movie would be animated, perhaps, so the stars lending their voices would not be regarded as shortchanging the viewers quite so much, but here the practice of disguising the cast is simply bizarre. Though no less bizarre than the rest of it, with Carroll's characters brought to life in a world that is undeniably colourful even if this is filmed in black and white - the creative special effects and lavish set design help quite a bit.
Charlotte Henry, a nineteen-year-old playing twelve, is a plucky heroine and helps to keep the plot moving, although the film is hampered by the fact that the storyline is unavoidably episodic and never manages to work up a head of steam. Time and again Alice will wander a little further, meet a strange person or animal, and then move on, which may be faithful to the source but doesn't do much for forward momentum as far as the narrative goes. All the expected notes are reached, but this feels more like box-ticking than true storytelling in the spirit of Carroll.
Still, the producers could have been onto something with this all-star (for 1933) cast of performers as you do grow curious about some of them. Is that really Cary Grant as the tearful Mock Turtle? Would he have climbed into that ungainly costume? It is undoubtedly his voice, as the same can be said for W.C. Fields' Humpty Dumpty, but would the great comedian have consented to encasing his head in all that makeup? It doesn't seem to be his style somehow. If anything is effective here, it's that an authentically dreamlike-verging-on-the-nightmarish atmosphere is achieved, not consistently, but on sufficient occasions to create a genuinely weird item of surrealism. That said, you can still see why this version remains a cult movie rather than an acknowledged classic, and that is more down to the originals. Music by Dmitri Tiomkin.