For his new, effects-heavy “Alice in Wonderland”, Tim Burton spent a relatively short time filming real-world locations, sticking to the beautiful Antony House in Torpoint, Cornwall and the nearby Charlestown Harbour for the movie’s early scenes. Once Alice falls down the rabbit hole again it is, as you can imagine, mostly CGI-created environments and Hollywood stage sets from there on out. But a new print of the first “Alice” movie, shot 103 years ago and recently restored by the British Film Institute (watch the surviving footage below), relied more on real-world locations and good, old-fashioned stagecraft to bring Wonderland to life. Thanks to archivists, we’ve managed to track down the green, bucolic site used for what was, at the time, the largest, longest English-made film and the first of hundreds of adaptations Lewis Carroll’s 1865 tale.
With interiors and more elaborate scenes shot at the small but influential Hepworth studio in Walton-on-Thames in Surry, Percy Stow and Cecil Hepworth teamed up to co-direct what was probably England’s first big-budget special-effects film. For sequences in either a pageant or woodland setting, the two ventured only a few miles away to the lush, elaborate gardens of Mount Felix, a Victorian-Era estate with grounds and a manor house designed by none other than Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament and other notable structures of the time. Notice the grazing cattle and charming gardens in the background of the nine minutes of restored footage. During the filming of “Alice”, Mount Felix was the property of John Mason Cook, owner of the long-running Thomas Cook travel company (founded in 1847 and still going).
From there, the site became convalescence hospital for New Zealand soldiers during and after the first World War, suffered through 20 years of abject neglect, and eventually suffered all but total demolition from a fire in the mid 1960s. Though now the location is lost beneath modern housing, it was, for a brief moment, the home of England’s biggest film production and played the part of cinema’s very first Wonderland.
For more obsessive accounts of great movie locations throughout film history, snap up a copy of our “Film + Travel” series.
“Watch This: Alice in Wonderland (The 1903 Version)” (Cinematical)
Top: Mount Felix in an undated photograph, courtesy of Lost Heritage.
Bottom (clockwise from upper left): Alice (May Clark) confronts the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” (1903), courtesy of BFI, Mount Felix in an undated photograph, courtesy of Lost Heritage, Charlestown Harbour a location in Tim Burton’s “Alice”, Antony House a location in Tim Burton’s “Alice”, courtesy of the National Trust.