Blue Sky Alice

“Blue sky casting” is a screenwriter’s trick — you imagine anyone you like, living or dead, in a role, and that hekps you find the character’s voice. If you’re writing for Jeff Goldblum or Michael Redgrave, different things happen. What you probably shouldn’t ever do is cast the person you were thinking of — there’s an exciting tension that happens if you cast, say, Joan Cusack, in a role written with, say, Myrna Loy in mind.

It’s also a fun exercise: here’s a fantasy cast list for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. I found as i was coming up with it that it was tending to a mid-1950s feel, and naturally British. But it began when Fiona proposed Peter Lorre as the Dormouse.

It turns out I’ve been carrying in my mind various casting ideas for Alice, and they cam tumbling out and were joined by others…

It just seems crazy that Kenneth Williams never played the Mad Hatter. Put it down to typecasting — the Carry On films, though hugely popular, rendered all the actors uncastable in anything other than sitcom or sex farce. The two main productions KW would have been eligible for, Jonathan Miller’s rather wonderful TV Alice in Wonderland, and the execrable musical ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, have excellent Hatters in Peter Cook and Robert Helpmann respectively, but Williams would have knocked it out the park.

It’s kind of obvious that Jimmy Edwards, extravagantly-tached comic actor, should be the Walrus, but I think Norman Wisdom is very close to Tenniel’s drawing of the Carpenter. It’s starting to look like this production belongs in the mid-fifties to sixties.

Not for any physical resemblance, but the wide-eyed dithering innocence John le Mesurier brought to his work in Dad’s Army seems to suit the King of Hearts nicely. And he practically plays the role in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY.

I feel that Irene Handl deserves a crack at the Queen of Hearts — though associated with working class roles (she argued with Billy Wilder about how to play cockney dialogue), she was actually quite posh, seemingly, and derived her characterisations from her observation of her family’s maids when she was young. And she’s the most versatile and surprising and funny of actors, seriously underused. (If you were doing it later, Prunella Scales would be immense, and she’s a lot like Dodgson’s own drawings.)

I’ve always seen Lionel Jeffries as the White Knight. He has such an air of melancholy. I can never read the Knight’s verse without tears springing unbidden to my eyes. Same with Lear’s The Jumblies: “Far and few, far and few…” an incantatory lament.

Okay, granted, Roger Livesey has to be a contender too.

Charles Gray as Humpty Dumpty, because.

When I look at Tenniel’s White Rabbit, I see Edward Everett Horton, which makes it odd that Paramount cast him as the Mad Hatter in the 30s version. They should have borrowed George Arliss for the Hatter and given Horton the rabbit. Fuck Skeets Gallagher. But if we’re going for anxious British players of the 1950s, maybe Alastair Sim? Or Alec Guinness, but there you’d be opening up a can of worms. Who could he NOT play? We know he’d make a magnificent Duchess:

And that’s a role which should really be done in drag, for compassionate reasons. Peter Bull was pretty perfect in the seventies abomination. Leo McKern would be good too.

Peter Sellers is maybe the only man to have played motion picture versions of the March Hare AND the King of Hearts, and he’s another can of worms if we let him in. But in the Miller piece he does the unimaginable, improvising Lewis dialogue in character, so he should be essential. Since this would be early, chubby Sellers, maybe we should be thinking in terms of the caterpillar, a somewhat shadowy figure in the illo.

If we’re having Sellers, then Spike Milligan would be a fine Frog Footman (see YELLOWBEARD for some exemplary footmanning from SM).

Based on Tenniel, there can be no question that the White King and Queen are Thorley Walters and Joan Sims. though Handl is another possibility for the latter. The Red Queen could be Flora Robson or Patricia Hayes, but I’m going for Yootha Joyce (energy) whereas the Red King, apparently dreaming the whole thing like in INCEPTION, doesn’t ever wake up and so it seems like wasted effort to cast a celebrated thesp. Might as well be John Wayne.

Miller cast Finlay Currie as the Dodo, an impressive feat — the only human actor to LOOK like a dodo. But he’s too old, since Dodgson based this didactic fowl on himself, incorporating his stutter — Do-do-Dodgson. Trying to find an actor not aged in the 1950s, with Dodgson’s sad eyes and an impressive beak, I stop at Richard Wattis.

Cecil Parker, arch-ovine, must be the Sheep, a rarely-filmed character but one with great material. I suppose the sheep should really be female, but drag is allowed. We’re through the looking glass, here.

The Gnat also has some really good jokes, and is never presented onscreen — perhaps because Tenniel didn’t deign to draw him. Another tutelary figure — you can really tell the author is a lecturer — he could really be played by anybody from Terry-Thomas to Robert Morley. The latter is more pompous, so he’d do, but then for heaven’s sake why not Noel Coward? Or Dennis Price, who quotes Lewis with relish in Mike Hodges’ PULP?

Of course, given the period, we can have perhaps Britain’s greatest child actor in the title role, Mandy Miller (MANDY, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT), and by happy coincidence it appears she’s a fan of the author:

Randy Cook suggests Benny Hill for the Cheshire Cat. What are your thoughts? I presume that, like me, you have been carrying casting ideas for Alice around in your heads for decades.

18 Responses to “Blue Sky Alice”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    Personally I’d rather see Lorre as the Cheshire Cat. Keeping to a genre or at least an era is probably best for fantasy casting this sprawling, so let’s add Elisha Cook Jr. as the White Rabbit, Mary Astor as the Catterpillar, then take a left through the looking glass for Sydney Greenstreet as Humpty Dumpty and Bogie as the White Knight. I love a lot of Miller’s work but personally can’t stand how bored his Alice is throughout: her refusal to even make eye contact with any character means the comedy didn’t stand a chance. I remember in his director’s commentary he dismissed the Disney adaptation as “completely absurd”. Well, heaven forfend. (And just to set the record straight, Steve Coogan has played the gnat on screen, and I thought was great… “It always happens.”)

  2. Ah, a gnat at last!

    A Warner Bros Alice… Bogie actually looks a bit like the Mad Hatter, you know. Edward G Robinson would make a fine Duchess, Conrad Veidt as the Gryphon, Claude Rains as anybody at all, Allen Jenkins as Bill the Lizard, and Jimmy Cagney as Tweedles Dee & Dum.

    The two extremes you can go to are the manic (Disney) and the dreamy/listless (Miller). The latter seems preferable — see Ian Holm’s White Knight, whom I know you love — but it ought to be possible to vary things.

  3. I love every one of these choices, to which I’d add John Chandos and Maurice Denham as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The idea of an early-1930s British version is tempting, because then one could cast Nova Pilbeam as Alice – and Peter Lorre would have been available, too. Charles Laughton would probably have been cast as the King of Hearts, but I can imagine how beautifully he would have played the White Knight. A 1940s Alice could have had Margaret Rutherford as the Duchess and Francis L. Sullivan as Humpty Dumpty.

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    Enormous yes to Laughton! I’m trying to think who an autumnal Chaplin might play, as his mock pomp is very Carrollian, but he never seemed keen on cameoing. He and Buster might have made a great Gryphon and Mock Turtle though (either way round would be good, for different reasons). Cagney is absolutely perfect casting! Dee and Dum’s slapstick is very hard to enjoy but Cagney would nail it. And yes, Rains as anything. I’ve only just got into Orange Is The New Black, but I might try a pass at that cast now…

  5. The 30s one would have to have Seymour Hicks somewhere, perhaps as one of the more rodental figures. And Donald Calthrop, naturally. Rene Ray as the White Rabbit and Beatrix Lehmann as the Red Queen and Elsa Lanchester as the Queen of Hearts if Chas is King. Conrad Veidt as White Knight, because it rhymes.

  6. I see Dolly Read as Alice, with John LaZar as The Mad Hatter. Cynthia Myers as the White Rabbit. Edy Williams would have to be the Red Queen. Erica Gavin as the Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat is tough. Maybe Michael Blodgett? And the great Charles Napier as Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee.

  7. Beneath the Valley of Wonderland!

  8. Alex Kirstukas Says:

    Cecil Parker and Thorley Walters would have been lovely! Odd how, when these dream actors DID get cast in versions of Alice, they were usually saddled with the wrong roles: Flora Robson as the Queen of Hearts instead of the White Queen, Spike Milligan as the Gryphon instead of the Fish Footman. More recently, I’d add Stephen Fry and Matt Lucas. They’d have fitted the Caterpillar and Humpty Dumpty so well, but no, when Disney called them up they only got the Cheshire Cat and the Tweedles. (A happy exception is Leo McKern, splendid as the Miller Duchess.)

    Hm—perhaps let’s stick with Fry and Lucas, and cast the books in late-80s early-90s British comedy? French and Saunders could be the White and Red Queens! Eddington and Scales are the King and Queen of Hearts. Victoria Wood’s the sheep, Rik Mayall’s the Cheshire Cat, Nigel Planer’s the Mock Turtle, Stanley Baxter’s the entire Mad Tea Party…

    And Ian Holm is the sleeping Red King, because he played Lewis Carroll that one time, so of COURSE he’s the one dreaming this.

  9. Who have you left? Hugh Laurie as White Rabbit, Reeves & Mortimer as Footmen, Edmundson as Bill the Lizard. Curiously, we chose to watch the ’99 TV version last night which, amongst a few felicities (Martin Short with digitally enlarged head as Hatter, Christopher Lloyd as White Night, had Christopher Ryan as one of the playing-card gardeners.

  10. From today’s Washington Post story about “Rage”, Woodward’s latest book on the Trump administration:

    “Kushner is quoted extensively in the book ruminating about his father-in-law and presidential power. Woodward writes that Kushner advised people that one of the most important guiding texts to understand the Trump presidency was “Alice in Wonderland,” a novel about a young girl who falls through a rabbit hole. He singled out the Cheshire cat, whose strategy was endurance and persistence, not direction.”

    Ooooooooooookay ….

  11. But seriously, folks. My frustration with most adaptations of “Alice” — either book, or hodgepodges of both — is that they’re either random episodes, or they impose a generic “plot”. The Tim Burton movie was basically a video game skinned with Carroll’s characters, with a self-conscious prologue and epilogue. The Paramount and Disney versions, to the extent they have a central idea at all, gently suggest that Alice’s visions are sort of a punishment for imagination. A 1966 TV musical of “Through the Looking Glass” made the Jabberwocky the villain (Jack Palance, who gets a song), and invented a quasi-romantic hero Lester the Jester (Roy Castle).

    Carroll constructed his wonderland with a careful internal logic. For me, a natural story approach would be Alice slowly figuring it out, finally conquering it with reason, or mastering and using it. A proper ending would have Alice suddenly able to out-rhetoric her sensible older sister.

  12. I guess my version would have to date around the same time as the Miller adaptation.

    The Walrus: James Robertson Justice
    The Carpenter: Ian Hendry
    The Hatter: Patrick Troughton
    The Dormouse: Alfie Bass
    The March Hare: Jack MacGowran
    The White Rabbit: Kenneth Griffith
    The Duchess: Hermione Gingold
    The Queen of Hearts: Hermione Baddeley
    The King of Hearts: Bernard Miles
    The Caterpillar: Cyril Cusack
    The Dodo: Felix Aylmer
    The Gryphon: Stanley Holloway
    The Mock Turtle: Miles Malleson
    Humpty Dumpty: Donald Pleasance
    The Cheshire Cat: Peter Ustinov
    The Red Queen: Martita Hunt
    The White Queen: Megs Jenkins
    The White King: Hugh Griffith
    The White Knight: Patrick Magee
    Tweedledum and Tweedledee: Richard Attenborough

  13. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” i(1972) s hardly “execrable”.
    It may not the the most visual of interpretations, but John Barry’s soaring score with Don Black ‘slyrics is more emotional and moving than that of any any other adaptation. And Fiona Fullerton as Alice….Well!
    It’s hard to see in Scope, but well worth seeking out.

  14. I guess my feelings about the 72 film are coloured by the David Hamilton style soft focus prologue with un-stuttering Dodgson and VPLs on the men. A lot of the casting is magnificent. I find its Wonderland gaudy and I’m not sure if “emotional” is the right note for an Alice score to strike (and I prefer 60s Barry by a great distance, though admittedly his softer, stringsy stuff is more appropriate for this)…

    Which brings us to the question of narrative and tension and all that. Disney and Burton converted Alice into a typical Disney Princess and made the story another battle between good and evil and a coming-of-age/empowerment story, all of which makes it very generic indeed and has little to do with Carroll. All right, “You are nothing but a pack of cards!” does suggest a child standing up for herself against meaningless authority, so there IS something there that could be built on.

    But the addition of extraneous “sense” or the jumbling of Carroll’s careful fantasies both imply a belief that he didn’t know what he was doing and his book doesn’t work, an odd premise on which to to base an expensive adaptation of a classic.

    Just watched the ’99 TV special which has a record-beating Hatter in Martin Short and several other good choices (Ken Campbell returns! with his hero Ken Dodd! Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight! never mind that he’s from Looking Glass). But the script cuts the best jokes and adds a lot of others that break the flow, and grafts on a little plot for the bookends about Alice being afraid to sing at a party. It’s a very mild addition, quite inoffensive really… we’re reminded of it a few times in Wonderland… and it renders the whole thing BORING (except when someone really good is on: Gene Wilder and Donald Sinden an undreamed-of lovely double act as Gryphon and Mock Turtle) because this story doesn’t progress, and the Wonderland encounters are all diversions from it…

    Alice is trying to get to the nice garden. She gets there, and it’s awful. Then she has to disentangle herself from the court. That’s the plot, as I see it. A child (not a sexy Fullerton) wants to play with the adults, but when she does, it’s crap. Best out of it.

  15. Kenneth Griffith = Welsh rabbit.

  16. I see what you did there…

    My mind is going to be boggling all night at the thought of a Wilder-Sinden double act.

  17. …and Alice is Mac the hacker from Veronica Mars.

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