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Say the words “Alice in Wonderland”, and as likely as not it will be a ruby-lipped, blue pinafore-wearing, blonde little girl that bounces into your mind.
The 1951 Walt Disney animation from which she sprang remains one of the most popular in the studio’s canon, and is a linchpin of the new V&A exhibition exploring Alice’s considerable influence since Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – better known as Lewis Carroll – first told her tale in 1862.
With this in mind, it is remarkable to learn that when the Disney film was released 70 years ago, it tanked. Reaction from critics and public alike was at best tepid and in some cases scorchingly cruel. One critic called it “a horrible anachronism”, another a “million pound ineptitude [that] deserves nothing but boos”.
Not only that, but the film nearly didn’t make it through development. Disney purchased the rights to John Tenniel’s original illustrations in 1931 and began his first adaptation two years later, but Alice proved a beast – even a curse.
Over the next 20 years he trialled and then shelved artwork, he hired and then fired writers, he locked horns with rival studios releasing competing versions, and had to abandon plans entirely when America entered the Second World War in 1941. By the time V-E day came around, the timbre of films had changed (reassurance and stability being key) so back to the drawing board Disney went, his Alice a puzzle that no-one – not even the king of filmmaking – could solve.
“When you consider how impactful Disney’s Alice turned out to be, both in disseminating the story across the globe and in establishing her identity, the process that he went through to make it is fascinating,” says curator Kate Bailey.
You may be wondering why Disney stuck with it. Why pour resources into a film that did not seem to want to be made? Cinderella (1950), for instance, took only two years and $2 million to make, which makes Alice’s 20 years and $4 million seem rather profligate.
The answer, says Fox Carney, researcher at the Walt Disney Animation Studio Archive in Los Angeles, which holds around 65 million objects dating back to the Twenties, is that “the story had fascinated him from a very early age. He couldn’t let go of it.” Indeed, “No story in English literature has intrigued me more,” Disney told American Weekly, in 1946.
Disney was not alone in having fallen under Carroll’s spell. As the exhibition makes clear, playwrights, artists and the like began reimagining Alice, her coterie of zany hangers-on and the nonsensical worlds they enter almost as soon as ink had dried on Carroll’s pages.
Carroll did not live to see the first cinematic adaptation in 1903 – a silent black and white in which rudimentary special effects included a vanishing Cheshire Cat and a baby that turned into a pig. Other versions followed in 1910 and 1915, followed by Disney’s first in 1924 – silent Alice Comedies in which a live-action girl visits a drawn Cartoonland.
Interest only grew. In 1932, the real Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell), then 80, travelled to the US to celebrate the centenary of Carroll’s birth. Her subsequent tour drew excited crowds wherever she went.
In response, Disney set to work on a feature-length live-action/animation, with Mary Pickford as Alice. He got as far as making colour screen tests, but Paramount beat him to the punch, releasing a live-action adaptation of their own (starring Cary Grant, no less, as the Mock Turtle) in 1933. A devastated Disney told the New York Times that “we aren’t ready for a feature yet.”
Four years later he had another run at the target, this time a Mickey Mouse short, Thru the Mirror. Behind the scenes, he also quietly began planning a feature-length all-animated Alice. Between 1938 and 1941, he held 11 meetings on the subject at his Burbank studios.
In one, he is recorded as saying: “To hell with the English audiences or the people who love Carroll…I’d like to make it more or less a 1940 or 1945 version – right up to date...something that will go in Podunk, Iowa, and they will go in and laugh at it because they have experienced it.”
“Walt was fighting expectation,” says Carney. “Those books were giants. He was always going to be accused of Americanising or Disney-fying them. What we have come to appreciate over time is that he kept the spirit of the source material, but found a way for it to be accessible in a motion picture.”
In June 1939, Disney hired the British artist David Hall to produce drawings based on Tenniel’s illustrations. A story-reel was complete by December, but Disney was disappointed. Hall’s drawings were too dark and complicated, he said, adding: “I don’t think there would be any harm in letting this thing sit for a while. Everyone is stale now.”
“His talent was being able to ask the ‘what if’ and ‘how about’ questions,” says Carney, and he was never afraid of going far down a road, and saying, this doesn’t work – we need a different take.”
In wartime, Disney was occupied making propaganda films for the government, but the moment the conflict ended in autumn 1945, he hired Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to begin an Alice script. Huxley was quite the superstar at the time, having written for Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier, and Jane Eyre (1943) with Orson Welles. The surrealist artist Salvador Dali was also on the Burbank lot in the mid-Forties, working on Destino (1946), and it is thought that Disney may have asked his advice about Alice. “Certainly parts of the film could be considered quite surreal,” Carney says.
As was the script that Huxley delivered. It included Carroll as a character, for one, and even the Victorian actress Ellen Terry, all of which Disney rejected for being “too literary”.
“No-one could figure out a cohesive through line,” says Carney, though even Carroll had struggled with that: “‘Alice’ and the ‘Looking- Glass’”, he said, in 1887, “are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came of themselves.”
In the end, what gave the film the glue it needed was the work of concept artist Mary Blair, whose drawings are included in the exhibition. Her bold, simple and bright interpretation, inspired by a trip to South America where she had marvelled at the work of Diego Rivera and Georgia O’Keefe, gave the film the efficiency and emotion it had lacked. Suddenly, everything else fell into place.
After a 20-year gestation, the criticism the film received would have been hard for Disney to bear. Was he half expecting it, though? Even the film’s chief animator, Ward Kimball, admitted later that the film had degenerated into “a loudmouth vaudeville show” that lacked warmth. “I think we blew it,” he added.
The film’s renaissance began with an edited version that appeared on TV in the Sixties. Chiming perfectly with that era’s consciousness-expanding bent it slowly accrued fans – including the band Jefferson Airplane, who in 1967 released the song White Rabbit. Come the Seventies, Alice had serious cult cachet. So much so that in 1974, when the studio re-released it in full, they promoted its “psychedelic qualities”.
Disney, who died in 1966, never lived to see Alice’s second life. Carney, though, thinks he would have appreciated his film being taken up by the hippies. “Walt once said that animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. He fully believed that animation took people to different worlds. He had faith that Alice would find its audience over time, and it did.”
Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser is at the V&A from May 22 to Dec 31. Info: vam.ac.uk