Down The Rabbit Hole With Meryl Streep, Kate Burton & More

January 4th, 2015 § 0 comments

Alice in Wonderland logoOne of the great pleasures of a long holiday period, with one’s office is closed for an extended time, is the freedom to go exploring, be it in life or online, guilt-free (or at least relatively so). That’s exactly what happened when I spotted a single tweet from the New York Post’s film critic, Lou Lumenick, who I’ve found to be a terrific and entertaining source of film knowledge and trivia. Lumenick’s timing, of course, is particularly apt, as the tweet led to a complete online video of Meryl Streep as Alice (of Lewis Carroll’s invention), just as Streep is onscreen right now in another updating and revision of children’s tales, Into The Woods.

Lou Lumenick ‘Alice at the Palace” tweet

This particular Alice in Wonderland adaptation, written by Elizabeth Swados and produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, was far from unknown to me (though I’d not seen it onstage), but I had long forgotten that it had been recorded for television. Now this isn’t some obscurity from Streep’s pre-stardom days, but rather part of her initial rush of fame, following (among others) Manhattan, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer. But in addition to preserving one of Streep’s early stage performances, it saved those of a number of up-and-coming actors, including Deborah Rush (sexy and hilarious the following year in Noises Off), Mark Linn-Baker (who I had first seen in his student days at Yale), Debbie Allen (already seen in the films Fame and Ragtime) and the great, lost-too-soon Michael Jeter. How wonderful that the whole program is online (legally, I hope).

kate burton sqFor once, the column of suggested videos that came up alongside the main screen on YouTube was actually a great predictor, because it tipped me that another Alice in Wonderland which had originated on stage was also online. Though it had lasted only weeks on Broadway in 1982-83, a revival of Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus’s 1932 Alice version made it to TV as well, starring its original stage Alice, the then little-known Kate Burton, in the title role. While one can look back at the stage cast and be impressed – it included Edward Hibbert, Nicholas Martin, a young Mary Stuart Masterson and Le Gallienne herself – the TV cast was even more remarkable. Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, James Coco, Andre de Shields, Colleen Dewhurst, Andre Gregory, Geoffrey Holder, Nathan Lane, Donald O’Connor, Maureen Stapleton and, most significantly and poignantly, Richard Burton, were all in the PBS version.

As it turns out, there was something in the air in the early 80s when it came to Alice in Wonderland, because yet another adaptation, this one wholly original to TV, turned up in 1985, melding stage and screen stars in a production that may have been made for TV, but still felt very theatrical. The cast included Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, Imogene Coca, Sammy Davis Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Roddy McDowell, Robert Morley, Anthony Newley, Donald O’Connor (again, albeit in a different role) and Martha Raye; Scott Baio, Telly Savalas, Ringo Starr and Ringo Starr were also along for the ride. The musical staging was by Gillian Lynne (perhaps best known for her choreography of Cats), with songs by Steve Allen; the script was by playwright Paul Zindel and, curiouser and curiouser, it was produced by the master of disaster Irwin Allen.

Once my explorations had begun, I couldn’t stop. I was quickly led to a 1972 film version of which I was unaware, from England, which had yet another heavyweight roster of stars, with that special British cachet and, yet again, significant stage credits, as well serious comedy chops. Among those appearing in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were Michael Crawford, Michael Hordern, Roy Kinnear, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, and Peter Sellers. The production looks, once again, rather stagey and the transfer to video is decidedly shaky; though the IMDB notes it as a film, I can’t help but think that it might have had TV roots in the UK, given the look of the production.

Rather more recent was the 1999 Alice in Wonderland, produced by Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., part of a series of big fantasy TV movies they were creating at that time. While I recall not being too fond of it, having found all of the Halmi projects overblown, it has another noteworthy, largely British cast, and a screenplay by the great and too-often overlooked playwright Peter Barnes. In this fantasy mix were, among others, Simon Russell Beale, Robbie Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd, Miranda Richardson, Martin Short, Peter Ustinov, and Gene Wilder.

There are, frankly, countless adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, for the stage, for film and for television, both live action and animated, and sometimes a mix of both; this foray is hardly comprehensive. But as one more demonstration of how Lewis Carroll’s tale proved to be (Cheshire) catnip for television, here’s an example from the very early days of the medium – even though in 1954 it comes from the seventh annual presentation of this particular version. With a cast including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Art Carney, and Arthur Treacher, it’s very primitive, and I can’t help but wonder who appeared in the earlier versions, since technology allowing for “repeats” had yet to come into vogue.

For all that I found in my admittedly cursory search, there’s one more TV Alice in Wonderland that YouTube didn’t serve up to me – a 1955 Hallmark Hall of Fame version of the LeGallienne and Friebus script for NBC, with Le Gallienne, Tom Bosley, Maurice Evans and Elsa Lanchester, among others. If you happen to find it, do let me know. In the meantime, I trust the various incarnations above will be more than enough for a satisfying journey, like mine, down the rabbit hole. Happy new year to all!


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