Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Shorts -Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Ok, Kiddies,yer ol' Professor's got a truly special film for you today: the first ever filmed version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Filmed in 1903, this version has, until recently been available in extremely worn fragments. Even now, only about 9 of the original 12 minutes are known to exist. However, the British Film Institute has painstakingly restored those fragments and released the results to the public. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about this monumental release, instead, i'm going to let the BFI speak for themselves.

First, from the BFI's Youtube posting of the film:

The first-ever film version of Lewis Carroll's tale has recently been restored by the BFI National Archive from severely damaged materials. Made just 37 years after Lewis Carroll wrote his novel and eight years after the birth of cinema, the adaptation was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, and was based on Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations. In an act that was to echo more than 100 years later, Hepworth cast his wife as the Red Queen, and he himself appears as the Frog Footman. Even the Cheshire cat is played by a family pet.

With a running time of just 12 minutes (8 of which survive), Alice in Wonderland was the longest film produced in England at that time. Film archivists have been able to restore the film's original colours for the first time in over 100 years.

Music: 'Jill in the Box', composed and performed by Wendy Hiscocks.

Next, from the BFI's Screenonline site:

At 800ft, Alice in Wonderland was the longest film yet produced in Britain, running about 12 minutes. Its unusual length meant that it was not suitable for all film showings, where a variety of short subjects was considered ideal, so all the scenes were sold individually. A showman need only buy and show a single sequence, such as the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, not the whole film, which was less a self-contained story than an illustration of key moments from the book.
In 1903, there were two directors working at the Hepworth studio in Walton-on-Thames, Cecil Hepworth himself and Percy Stow. Hepworth was responsible for the studio's non-fiction films, while Stow made all the fiction films. This was such a large production that the two men worked together.

The film required an unusual amount of planning for its day. Hepworth was insistent that the images stay faithful to the drawings of Sir John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Lewis Carroll's story, and so before filming could begin, a large number of costumes had to be made, including several dozen playing card costumes, and flats painted to Tenniel's original designs. The film was made on the small wooden stage in the garden of the villa housing Hepworth's company, with exteriors shot in the lavish gardens of Mount Felix, a local estate which until recently had been owned by the son of Thomas Cook the travel agent.

Alice was played by Mabel Clark, who as well as acting also ran errands and acted as a kind of studio secretary. There were no professional actors at the studio, so all of the staff pitched in and played parts. Hepworth played the frog footman and his wife played the White Rabbit and the Queen. The film also featured an early appearance by the family dog, Blair, who would become famous as the star of Rescued by Rover (1905).

We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the BFI not only for preserving and restoring this piece of film history, but for giving us all a chance to see it in its true glory.

And now for your viewing pleasure, the original 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland:

And now, the skinny:
Title: Alice in Wonderland
Release Date: 1903
Running Time (of this fragment): 8min, 20 sec
Tinted Colors
Starring: Mabel Clark
Directed by: Cecil M. Hepworth, Percy Stow
Production Company: Hepworth & Co.

A black and white version of this film is available for download at the Internet Archive. The best quality version, however, is definitely the one available at the Youtube link above.
This version is also available as an extra on the BFI's DVD release of Jonathan Miller's 1966 version of the story. It has not been released released in the US, but is available on a PAL format import from Amazon: Alice in Wonderland ( The Wednesday Play ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - United Kingdom ].

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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