johnlink ranks ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1915)

Stumbled across this 1915 version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND which, even though I may not be a math expert, is 99 years old by my calculations. It was a feature for its time, at 52 minutes (the film is even split into Part 1 and Part 2). But this was a brief enough length to see what a century old ALICE looked like.


I watched ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1915) on 4.3.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

Any film from 1915 will be looked on today as an oddity. Little will resemble what we know of as a ‘movie’ today. The shots are mostly stagnant, the grain of the film leaves a lack of focus, the method of recording creates a pulsation of light. It can be hard to watch, especially if there is no strong attempt to remaster or revitalize the image.

The first shot in the 1915 ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a still set up showing a kitchen. Alice (15 year-old Alice Savoy) and her sister and a woman (assuming her mother) are cooking and walking about. The shot is far too long with little happening. Then, Alice and her sister go outside. Alice sees animals. Alice falls asleep. In a shot with surprising value, her spirit exits her body to follow a rabbit.


Let’s stop and talk about the rabbit and the animals. The rabbit is a human in a rabbit suit, human hands clearly emerging from the rabbit arms. The effect is odd. While this film may not have been intended to be a fetish film for furry fanatics, it certainly can be viewed as one today. Every animal is a human in an animal costume. The lizard is a guy dragging himself across the ground.

And then there is the hookah caterpillar. Oh the hookah caterpillar. The caterpillar has Alice repeat something called the ‘Father William’ poem. This, I am sure, means something to fans of the Carroll novel (something I must admit to being ignorant about). As a film audience we see a giant hookah smoking caterpillar with a giant fake human face. Then we see an incredibly fat man do a headstand. Then the caterpillar. Then the fat man doing a backflip. Then the caterpillar. Then the fat man balancing something which is supposedly an eel on his face. Then the caterpillar gets mad that Alice told the story wrong and drags himself away on the ground. It’s all so weird.


And that’s before we get to the Cheshire cat who appears and disappears from a tree as it talks to Alice, ultimately leaving its decapitated head on a branch for her to look at. And all that is before we get to a musical number (in a silent movie, so title card musical number) with giant puppets of people. This is later followed by ANOTHER musical number (of title cards) ‘sung’ by a man dressed as a giant turtle.

All of that, still, comes before the enormous lobster-people come crawling out of the ocean and the fat walrus-people come strolling along, looking like old men walruses and carrying tiny little parasols. And then, of course, the lobsters and walruses do a ritualistic dance with the turtle and a griffin as Alice looks on as confused as we are.

Somewhere, a few minutes after Alice got into Wonderland, it is possible to look past the film grain and the lack of sound (I had to play Pandora in the background to have music to go along with this fully silent version) and to just be absorbed by the audacity of what is transpiring on screen. This predates most of the German Expressionism movement in film, and to be sure it looks different than those films, but the nightmarish quality of this film can not be understated.

To watch this film today is to understand that it comes from a certain place in time and to allow yourself to slip into that time. It holds a surprising entertainment value still today, though the reason for the entertainment surely has changed. In 1915 the shock would be in seeing these giant animals, some resembling later Toho GODZILLA films, jump on screen in the first years of feature length narrative film. Today, we look at this film as a quaint and odd little project by director W.W. Young which results in a level of slack-jawed fascination that we are seeing all of this unfold. Much of this, to be sure, is a testament to the power of Lewis Carroll’s story. Yet, for me, it is almost better that I really had no idea what was about to come or what I was about to see happen. Disjointed from its source material, I could instead just be swept through this odd, odd, little movie.


The scene transitions are weak when they are there. Not much thought was put into getting from episode to episode other than to say “Let’s go here now”. The lack of camera movement doesn’t hurt the film entirely because they still found some nice places to shoot and tried to do some foreground-to-background movement. It is all less than sophisticated, but it came from a time when technology didn’t allow for much sophistication. As a film it has power for its ability to tell a story, not so much in the filming of the story.

The gesticulation in the acting is extreme, even by silent film standards. It works for the people in costumes, but often leaves Alice looking especially silly (particularly when she has to cry). The script writing is not particularly strong either. Mostly the jokes fall flat and the ending of the dream is not a strength. Again, any power the writing has is thanks to the source material.

But hey, if you have 52 minutes to kill and an urge to see something really, truly strange then this 1915 ALICE IN WONDERLAND is not a bad place to visit.



The bonus point is for the outlandish animal costuming. Fascinating from start to finish.


FINAL SCORE: 6 out of 10


~ by johnlink00 on April 3, 2014.

One Response to “johnlink ranks ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1915)”

  1. […] era films based on literary masterpieces, but between this and the previously considered 1915 ALICE IN WONDERLAND… well… here we […]

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