There’s perhaps just one important life lesson that has stuck with me since I was a child, one that, despite my best intentions, refuses to leave my head: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today.” It comes, of course, from the monumentally weird Alice in Wonderland, a two-part miniseries that aired on CBS in December of 1985. The line is sung by the incomparable Carol Channing in one of the miniseries’ several wacky, two-minute songs. With its gaudy production design, hilariously ill-fitting wigs and costumes, and proliferation of B-list celebrities — the washed-up former Broadway performers too old to achieve name recognition among the film’s demographic — Alice in Wonderland is a camp classic.
With the astounding success of fantasy series Once Upon a Time, ABC’s drama about fairy-tale characters who live in the real world following a curse on their home in fairy-tale land, tomorrow night sees the premiere of a spin-off: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. It follows a similar conceit: grown-up Alice, living in Victorian London, is declared insane after spilling the beans to her real-life friends and family about the insanity of Wonderland. (Also, for some reason, Lost’s Naveen Andrews will be playing Jafar, the bad guy from Disney’s Aladdin. Don’t ask me why.) While it’s sure to be filled with a cast of nobodies (and then John Lithgow as the White Rabbit) and pumped to the gills with CGI effects, it most certainly will not achieve the charm of Irwin Allen’s nutty passion project, which aired nearly 30 years ago.
Allen, whose resume at the time included the TV versions of Lost in Space and The Swiss Family Robinson, as well as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno, was no stranger to assembling his famous friends for all-star (“star” is used with a heavy grain of salt here) productions. It was the height of the TV miniseries era — back when just-long-enough films didn’t turn into multi-season series to milk audiences’ attention and advertisers’ money — and he pulled together a group of recognizable performers such as the aforementioned Channing, Red Buttons, Donald O’Connor, Shelly Winters, Scott Baio, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowall, Sid Caesar, Ringo Starr, Sally Struthers, Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, Pat Morita, John Stamos, Jonathan Winters, and Lloyd Bridges, among a long cast list of others. There’s something incredibly pleasurable in seeing nearly unrecognizable celebrities, seemingly returning (still panting) from an episode of Battle of the Network Stars, slipping into costumes made of Styrofoam, feathers, fur, and spirit gum. (And there’s something glorious in wondering how much these people got paid for this mess.)
Filmed in two parts, Alice in Wonderland covers both of Louis Carroll’s Alice stories in all their wild, oddball glory, although I’d suggest that the manic, nonsensical world of Carroll’s Wonderland is definitely heightened by the sights of Sammy Davis, Jr. in an eight-foot caterpillar costume and Sally Struthers’ face poking out of a large flower crown. At the center of the film, of course, is Natalie Gregory, who beat out over 600 girls for the title role and the experience of wearing the largest blonde wig in cinematic history. Poor Gregory, who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag, somehow holds her own against TV and Broadway titans, who were probably feeling like their own tails were between their legs because they looked completely ridiculous.
In a fawning profile about the miniseries published in Canadian TV Guide when it premiered (found on this Alice in Wonderland fan site), it was clear that everyone involved in the production expected young Natalie Gregory to be a star:
Suddenly the little girl found herself the focal point of an estimated $14 million production, falling through a rabbit hole on an MGM set, not far away from the place where Judy Garland had done The Wizard of Oz, and beginning an adventure that would lead to encounters with Lewis Carroll’s otherwordly characters. She danced with Father William (Sammy Davis Jr., who also plays the Caterpillar), and she sang with the Mad Hatter (Anthony Newley). She did not spend time eyeing and gushing over the celebrities, only Wonderland awed her. So in love was she with its mock forest and the living chess game that sometimes she would be simply staring wide-eyed, a little girl biting her finger and giggling over a chess piece magically walking off the board. You could see older people gravitating to her, the King of Hearts (Robert Morley) and the White Rabbit (Red Buttons) and, finally, Irwin Allen himself; she embodied something that they had wanted to find from the beginning — some innocence, a sense of wonderment.
Alas, despite the many absurd Garland comparisons, Natalie Gregory never really made it. It’s not difficult to see why: she was certainly overshadowed by the overwhelmingly large cast of already-famous performers who left odd, indelible marks (more like chicken scratches, really) on the film. Judy Garland she’s not (maybe that’s a blessing, considering how she turned out at the hands of her fame-obsessed mother and the executives who managed her early career), but she does represent exactly what Allen and the TV Guide writer describe in that profile: she’s clearly overwhelmed by her surroundings, both the set and the larger-than-life figures roaming around it. And who wouldn’t be? Who would be able to watch whatever the hell Carol Channing is doing — dancing as seizure, bleating like a goat — without a sense of wonder?
I was two years old when Alice in Wonderland aired, but my parents had the good sense to record the show on VHS for me for future watching. And good God, did I watch it. Somehow I wore out the first two hours, so my memory of the miniseries is mostly limited to the second half (adapted primarily from Through the Looking-Glass), which is, I’ve come to learn as an adult who has purchased the entire film on DVD, much weirder and much more terrifying. There’s Carol Channing and Ann Jillian as feuding chess-board queens. Jonathan Winters as the doomed Humpty Dumpty. Telly Savalas as a somewhat sinister Cheshire Cat. And don’t forget the Jabberwocky, taken from Carroll’s beloved absurdist poem, who is perhaps one of the most frightening monsters from my childhood — wreaking havoc on Wonderland as well as my nightmares.
Alice in Wonderland‘s lasting legacy, of course, is the campiness. It’s ridiculous and laughable, an example of a time when TV studios stuffed as many semi-recognizable people as possible into a four-hour event and then tried their darnedest to pull off realistic special effects. (Sorry: the best thing we get here is Carol Channing’s transformation into a sheep, which involves simple superimposition.) Even adults today who didn’t see the original show know Channing’s jam about jam; it’s a YouTube favorite. The thing I take away from repeated viewings in my childhood is how Alice in Wonderland shaped my tastes today: a fond appreciation for trash, low standards for musical theatre songwriting, a weird obsession with mid-century vaudevillians.
And all of that is what this new iteration of Wonderland, full of meta-storytelling, overblown special effects, and (most importantly) no-name actors, won’t be able to pull off: there’s no joy or wonder to be had in something so serious and lacking in self-awareness, despite all the commercialized and calculated efforts to make it a hit for all the masses. Give me a silly, absurd, campy production with all of the stitches on display over seemingly seamless filmmaking, full of overwrought writing and special effects designed for mass appeal, any day.