Alice 1931: The First Alice ‘Talkie’

The first Alice “talkie,” a 50-minute 1931 version, produced by Commonwealth Films, directed by BUD POLLARD and starring RUTH GILBERT as Alice, was, thus, the first to use actual dialogue from Lewis Carroll’s books. The film was shot at Metropolitan Studios in Fort Lee, NJ (then a movie-making capital, with some 30 studios in town) and was long presumed to have been produced to capitalize on the centenary of Carroll’s birth the following year. However, film historian Richard Koszarski thinks otherwise, speculating that this could have been a local dramatic society production that managed to make it to the big screen. Given how the actors struggle trying to sound British (“Once,” the Mock Turtle tells Alice, “I was a real toitle.”), he may have a point. “It seems to me too elaborate a film to have been created from the ground up, just to be a movie,” Koszarski told www.NorthJersey.com last year. “It may have been intended as a stage production. Some folks just said, ‘Hey, ‘Alice in Wonderland’—we already have script, costumes, a cast.” According to Koszarksi, director Pollard was known for his parsimony. “He was a guy who was cutting every corner. Hollywood was happy to spend $12 million on something. He tried to save ten cents.” Which may explain why you can actually hear the camera grinding in some scenes.

Ruth Gilbert moved on from this role to appear two years later in the original Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wildnerness!, and later had some success on TV, playing Milton Berle’s secretary.

wonderland-1931After opening at New York City’s Warner Theater (where Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer had premiered four years earlier) and earning respectful reviews (“There is an earnestness about the direction and the acting that elicits sympathy,” wrote a New York Times critic), this Alice quickly disappeared, to the point where all prints were once thought lost. But it turned out to have a second life, as a 16mm “audio-visual” aid in schools.

It’s a fascinating film,” Koszarki says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad film. It’s a very early attempt by an independent production company to do a high-end literary property. But it’s not Hollywood. As far as being good, I don’t think anybody ever said it was.”




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