Welcome to 2017! 2017? Yes, 2017! The four-year anniversary of this
stupid blog is right around the corner! Four years! I can’t believe it!
What say we start 2017 off with something, well, something a little out there, eh? Found just a week or two before Christmas, today’s subject cost a whopping 60 cents at a thrift shop, and for sheer “say what?” value, it was worth every penny.
Behold! The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, on VHS! (It’s below and to your right, obviously; eagle eyes will notice I’m experimenting a bit, but just a bit, with formats this time around. This is a little out-of-the-norm for this blog, and while I can’t promise it’ll continue in the future, right now I feel like a big-time legit newspaper guy or something.)
When I sauntered into this particular thrift shop, it quickly became evident that someone had dropped off their entire inventory of budget cartoon tapes. Now, I’ve got quite a few of these in my collection already, though I’m by no means on a regular hunt for more specimens. I’m interested in releases of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and Popeye, but beyond those two, I come across cheapo cartoon releases far, far too often to go all nanners over ’em every single time. Thus, most of the tapes out for sale that night were passed over by yours truly.
And, Alice in Wonderland is even less likely to trip my trigger, because, uh, it’s Alice in Wonderland. We never owned a copy, but growing up I was vaguely familiar with the Disney film, and I of course know the basics of the famous Lewis Carroll story. But I mean, this sort of thing just isn’t really my scene, man.
And in the case of this particular VHS, even the cover art is too competent to raise my eyebrows. Lemme explain: part of the fun with cheap cartoon videos from the 1980s is the oftentimes wildly-amateurish cover art. There are quite a few renditions of Popeye and Superman out there that are too pitiful to not love. Heck, overtly terrible artwork can and sometimes is reason enough for me to drop some coin. But here, the artwork is entirely serviceable. Just look at it up there! It’s competently drawn and colored, and it projects a nice, Easter-ish vibe. No one will ever mistake it for a release of Disney’s version of the story, but for what it is, the artist did a good job.
So, just why did this tape end up coming home with me that fateful night? The answer is found on the back cover…
No, it wasn’t the featured line-up listing. Sure, you’ve got the “marquee” feature, along with what (I guess) I initially presumed was just another old, subsequently-public-domain-lapsed iteration of Carroll’s heroine, plus a couple of other seemingly-appropriate “wonder-ish” cartoons. It all “fits,” but none of those were why I grabbed this VHS, either.
Nope, the real reason I avidly purchased this tape has to do with the logo you’re seeing to the left: it was a Kid Pics release! What makes Kid Pics so special, you ask? Why, Kid Pics was part of the Amvest Video empire, that’s what! Though the back cover makes no mention of it, Kid Pics was indeed a division or subsidiary or connected-in-some-way-somehow to Amvest, and that’s what made this a must-buy for me. You don’t (or at least I don’t) come across these things in-person very often, and at only 60 cents, hey, I pretty much had to have at it!
Amvest has had no small presence on this blog, especially in regards to this their Al Lewis-hosted Grampa Present video series, which culminated in the ultimate recap this past Halloween. Indeed, I’ve become more and more enamored with the company, to the point where anything I come across by them whilst out and about is more than likely entering my collection. While still decidedly a budget outfit, many of their tapes had a quirky charm to them, and there are more than a few interesting stories regarding the company out there in internet-land, for those inclined to look. While I don’t go after every single Amvest release with the same fervor that I do their Grampa series, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give the nod to Amvest whenever possible.
So anyway, there I was, an ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male, carrying a cheap Alice in Wonderland VHS tape around a thrift store, and far more excited about it than any ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male should have been. Was I a cause for concern to fellow patrons of the establishment? Maybe, maybe not. If I was though, what they didn’t realize was that I had found a rare, or at least wildly-obscure item, and more-importantly, fodder for my silly blog. Though truth be told, it wasn’t until after I checked out the tape and ruminated on it for a bit that I myself realized I could get a post out of this, either.
(Found at the same time as this was a Kid Pics tape featuring public domain Looney Tunes shorts, and months ago I had picked a Superman cartoon comp by them as well. For all I know, I unknowingly have more releases buried in my collection. Any any rate, my big hope with these three tapes was that The Happy Hamster, a bizarre host for some, but not all, Kids Pics releases would show up. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was for the best though, since the sensory overload of The Happy Hamster hosting this tape would have, in all likelihood, caused my face to explode.)
And that brings us to Alice in Wonderland proper.
Before I actually played the thing, I figured this was just another release of an old cartoon that had been floating around the public domain for
centuries decades, an Ub Iwerks or something. That’s not what I got, though. Nope, what I found instead, while not really “disturbing,” was still more than a bit odd, and just a little trippy: a 9-minute, black & white short that combined live-action and stop-motion animation to form a fast, condensed version of the famous story.
Upon my initial perusal, I pretty much just zipped through the tape to see what exactly I had. After discovering that this Alice in Wonderland was what it was, I went looking for it online; I wanted to see what year it was released, who was in it, and so on and so forth. My first thought was that it was an early television production, and when my Google searches and whatnot didn’t turn up the answers I was looking for, I quickly found my interest in the whole matter deepening ever more so, as it is wont to do.
Had I been paying closer attention the first time around, I’d have found my answer easily enough: The title-card’s mention of “Lou Bunin” tells all. Turns out, this is an extremely edited version of the 1949 French film of the same name! The original is 80+ minutes long, and in color, so given the nature of the print found on this tape, not to mention the Castle Films cards that were also included at the open and closing of the feature, it seems to me that this was a VHS re-release of something that was produced for the home market in the decades prior; originally a Sound Super 8 reel or something like that. I’ll go ahead and assume this condensed version has lapsed into the public domain in the US, though apparently the 1949 original has not. Either way, interesting stuff!
At only about 9 minutes, needless to say there wasn’t much time for exposition. So here, things kind of just “happen.” Now granted, Alice in Wonderland didn’t exactly feature the most lucid story in the first place; that was sort of the point of the whole thing, right? But even so, the quick cuts and fairly choppy nature of the proceedings here, it’s a pretty disconcerting. That may sound fitting for an adaption of Alice in Wonderland, but this turned out to be more of an honest-to-goodness sensory assault than it had any right to be.
The plot, such as it is, starts out with Alice following the famous White Rabbit to Wonderland; that’s seriously how this edit of the film starts. No questioning as to why a rabbit is wearing a coat and walking upright – “Seems legit,” as the hip kids say. Following the rabbit to his lair and drinking a potion to make herself small enough to follow him through the tiny entrance to Wonderland? Sure, why not! Alice in Wonderland was kind of an acid trip of a tale in the first place, and as for the 1949 adaption, since I haven’t seen the full version, I don’t know if there was any initial reluctance on Alice’s part or not, but she seems to go with the flow without hesitation here. Anthropomorphic rabbits? Drinking random potions that have appeared out of nowhere? None of that is cause for concern to Alice, I guess!
What follows is Alice being accused to stealing the Queen’s tarts, and being put on trial. The possibility of having her head chopped off, as the Queen readily insists time and time again? Alice seems only mildly apprehensive of the wacky-jack situation and possibly bad resolution – maybe she’s cognizant of the fact she’s trippin’ perhaps? This is weird stuff, and like I said, things just sort of randomly happen; I’d imagine that kids would have needed some prior knowledge of the story to make any sense (relatively speaking) of this particular iteration. And just like it began, it sort of just concludes; just as the trial is about to rule against her keeping her noggin, Alice suddenly finds herself safely back in “real time,” unsure if it was all a dream but with a, as the narrator states, “wonderful story to tell” nevertheless. I’d hardly say nearly being decapitated over tarts is a “wonderful story,” but I suppose it’s pointless to question any of this.
The special effects and stop-motion are technically pretty impressive for the time; they’re well-done and accurately present the dreamlike world of Wonderland. The scene of Alice shrinking near the start is pretty neat for 1949, and the animation of the Wonderland inhabits is acceptable, though the jerky nature of them, coupled with the black & white picture and already-weird nature of the source material, plus the chopped up quality of this print, it all ends up being a little creepy, honestly.
Look, I find this short impossible to satisfactorily describe. The Internet Archive has a copy (though interestingly, it lacks the title card and first several seconds that are present on this tape), and it’s notated as public domain, so here you go.
When I first found this tape and gave the contents listed on the back a fleeting-at-best glance, I saw what was on it, but I didn’t really comprehend what the included cartoons were, if that makes any sense. Not beyond the cover art at least, I mean. Look, this was a Kids Pics release; it was coming home with me no matter what. I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t pay all that much attention to the tape I was far too excited to find. If that sounds like an oxymoron of sorts, rest assured it happens a bit more often than I’d care to admit. Buy first, think later!
(In all seriousness, whenever I’m out thrifting, I generally do pay some attention to whatever I’ll be bringing up to the sales counter. Be it an electronic, tape, or what have you, I like to have as few negative surprises as possible when I get home. But in this case, and in instances like it, the content of the tape is basically secondary to the rarity of it. Is the tape moldy? Does it look like it will play? That’s all I really needed to know before the purchase. And in the end, it was only 60 cents.)
Anyway, when the sale was done and I got home with my loot, it wasn’t until I actually saw it that I realized there was a thematic-element going on here. This wasn’t just a short, budget-priced collection of public domain cartoons; Amvest/Kids Pics/whoever put together four shorts that kinda sorta go together (for the most part; read on, you’ll see), despite not being related in any real capacity.
So, Alice’s Tin Pony. On the surface, it sounds like another vintage trip to Wonderland, not unlike how there were multiple theatrical shorts detailing the land of Oz back in the day. One would and could be forgiven for making that Wonderland connection upon first glance, given the title (especially if they weren’t familiar with the various renditions of Alice in Wonderland, as I was/am). Maybe that’s the main reason it was included in the first place, I don’t know.
But, that’s not what this is. Rather, it’s a part of an old, old series of silent Disney shorts from the 1920s that have all lapsed into the public domain. Look up above if you don’t believe me. Alice, Disney. See?!
Besides the whole “her name is Alice too!” thing, this cartoon makes a fitting pairing with the bizarre Alice in Wonderland edit that precedes it for one very good reason: it’s a combination of live and action and animation.
The gimmick for these “Alice Comedies” was that the titular character was a real human kid, superimposed (?) over the cartoon world in which she lives and takes part in. Truth be told, it’s an effect that works far better than I ever would have expected it to prior. This short is from 1925, and while this isn’t news that will surprise anyone familiar with the series, I found it technologically impressive.
Alice’s partner in these shorts was an animated cat named Julius. There they are up above, and if you think Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Felix the Cat, that’s because he, uh, does – big time. Not only does Julius appear to be a dead-ringer for Felix, but he acts pretty much the same, too. Dude can even detach his tail and do things with it. In fact, this short is pretty surreal overall, not unlike a typical Felix the Cat cartoon – which of course makes it an even better pairing with Alice in Wonderland.
In this Alice installment, she and Julius run a railroad line, and that day, it’s carrying a payroll shipment of some sort.
Felix’s Julius’ surrealistic powers and a sentient train help stop a bandit and his gang from stealing said payroll.
Listen, this thing is impossibly weird, it’s public domain, and it’s only a bit over seven minutes long, so just watch it for yourself here.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that this tape would not stay tracked. My screenshots don’t look so bad, but man, while in action I had to keep screwing around with the tracking controls. By the end, even the patience of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was being tried, and believe me, I’m no stranger to wonky trackin.’ This was a pretty cheap tape, recorded in EP, and that coupled with one of my lower-end VCRs, well, the results are never gonna be Criterion-quality when I go that route.
The second-half of the tape opens with this, 1936’s Somewhere in Dreamland. Wonderland, Dreamland, the (loose) theme continues! According to Wikipedia, the first few minutes of this cartoon are sometimes cut, though the complete (?) version is found here. Note the black bar obscuring the original copyright info above; was that even necessary? Near as I can tell, this one has been in the public domain for decades. Then again, the bar doesn’t appear then-recently implemented, and there’s a NTA title for the ending card, so maybe it was first used when this one hit television? That’s my best guess, anyway.
Somewhere in Dreamland is very much a depression-era cartoon. In it, two poor kids haul a wagon around collecting firewood for their home. They can’t afford sweets or any of the other things kids ostensibly desire. A sad moment early on has their mother feeding them stale bread, and crying when one of them says they’re still hungry. Given the then-current situation in pre-WWII US, it’s pretty powerful imagery, especially for a kids cartoon. One can’t help but feel that the early scenes of the short really hit home for more than a few viewers at the time.
No, chief, none of that’s the Dreamland of the title; it’s not an ironically-named cartoon! Rather, Dreamland is where the two kids visit when they go to sleep that night. (I guess they dream in tandem?) Dreamland is filled with all the things they don’t have access to in real life: Nice clothes, sweets, toys, general pleasantness. And it’s all accompanied by a dreamy (“you don’t say?!”) song playing throughout, which is probably exactly how you’re envisioning it to be, if you have any familiarity with cartoons from this era.
There’s a suitably happy resolution to the cartoon that, despite being obligatory, I can’t help but feel was a little disheartening to the real children of the depression that were originally watching this. But then, I’m probably reading too much into this.
Being a Max Fleischer work, there’s also some incredible 3D-rotating backgrounds on display, too. Being a Popeye veteran, I’m well-accustomed to these, but nevertheless, I’m always wowed by them. Go ahead and watch this cartoon for yourself here.
The tape finishes with Toonerville Picnic, the only cartoon that doesn’t really fit in with the loose dreamy, surrealistic theme of the tape. I mean, there’s wacky, unrealistic situations here, but really no more so than any other cartoon of the time – or now, for that matter. Indeed, Brentwood Video (who had some kind of partnership with Amvest, late in the life of the latter) released a VHS in the 1990s that was pretty much the exact thing content-wise as what we’re looking at today – except Toonerville Picnic, which was dropped from the line-up. At least that’s how I understand it, not personally owning that Brentwood release myself.
From 1936 and based on a long-running comic strip, this was one of Van Beuren Studios’ all-color Rainbow Parade series entries. Actually, it was not only the final Rainbow Parade entry, but from how I understand it, also the final cartoon Van Beuren put out, period. Maybe their final thing ever, for all I know.
This is my least-favorite short of the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really ga ga over any of these, but as I said, I like the weird, out-there vibes coming from the cassette. Toonerville Picnic kinda stops all that dead. What, Amvest/Kids Pics couldn’t find one more trippy public domain cartoon to finish off their blockbuster VHS release? Bah! Maybe I’d like it more if I had some actual experience with the comic strip it’s based on, but I don’t so I don’t.
Not that it’s really a bad cartoon, mind you. Just not my favorite. In it, Mr. Bang, who has a temper to match his last name (i.e., he’s in a constant bad mood) is ordered to get some rest, so he heads to the beach. What he gets is an annoying dog, an uncooperative chair, and a homicidal octopus. You’ll have that, after all.
Look, I’m tired of talking about this tape. Just watch this one for yourself here. (Link has a different opening card from what my copy features, but whatever.)
This is a neat tape. It’s a little out there, but it’s neat. On the surface, it looks like just another run-of-the-mill budget cartoon tape. Playing it though, that’s where things get interesting. Instead of being yet another presentation of the “usual suspects” of PD animation, this is instead an interesting collection, featuring four fairly obscure shorts. In fact, all four were new to me.
‘Course, Alice in Wonderland is the centerpiece, and boy, is it a trip. The extreme editing it suffered gives the short a real, I don’t know, stream-of-consciousness feeling, I guess you could say. Whether the complete 1949 original is like that, I do not know. But as to what’s seen here, it’s truly a wild, wacky trip back to budget VHS past, and it totally sets the tone for the rest of the video. Sure, the shorts get progressively less strange as they go along, but all in all, this isn’t a bad 30 minutes or so for lovers of “huh?!” cinema. I didn’t realize how fortuitous the tape would be when I discovered it at that thrift store several weeks back, but boy, good find.
And it was only 60 cents!