Off With Her Head: Sammy Davis Jr. is a caterpillar

As I mentioned yesterday, the Very Important Date of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (EW gives it a C) has me revisiting the 1985 TV version of the film. Here’s one of my favorite clips, featuring Sammy Davis Jr. as the hookah-smoking caterpillar. He’ll kick you downstairs…into the deep, dark recesses of your memories from 1985. Don’t worry — I’ll give equal treatment to Ringo Starr as the mock turtle, Carol Channing as the White Queen, and even John Stamos as the messenger during the next week!

Watching this as an adult is so weird. So many questions. Was every scene of this thing shot in the same big room? Why was the caterpillar dressed as a Revolutionary War general while Alice got to crossover into a local stage production of Peter and the Wolf?

The thing that most perplexed my sister and I (we used to watch this on VHS endlessly), though, was somehow not the sudden wardrobe change — we were oddly at peace with that, as well as the preposterous notion that this bewigged 9-year-old would obviously be aware of the Lewis Carroll poem called “You Are Old Father William.” No, what rattled us the most was that we could not understand how Alice would have known, even vaguely, all the choreography for her little dance with the caterpillar/war general. At first she pretends she’s still getting the hang of some of those moves, but by the middle of the song, they are both just GOING FOR IT.

In this way, the Sammy Davis scene from Alice is very much like the final scene of our other favorite VHS, Annie, when Daddy Warbucks and Annie launch into a “I Don’t Need Anything But You” song-and-dance extravaganza complete with dueling tap solos. These little girls in our favorite movies were so talented! And prescient! We dreamed of the day our dad would pull over his minivan during a routine jaunt into Chicago so that, boosted by a gust of windy confidence that blew out of nowhere, we could bop single file (maybe walking like Egyptians?) along the Stevenson Expressway. Never happened. We could not tap.

So, I guess the entire internet already hates Tim Burton’s Alice. I’m still going to see it. The bad buzz has yet to diminish my desire to see my favorite story in 3D/IMAX if it’s available…I mean, what the hell? I’ll spend three hours of my weekend on a Tim Burton trip. The question is, do I see Alice in Wonderland on opening weekend, or watch my 1985 Alice in Wonderland DVD with an assortment of small cakes I can snack on every time little Natalie Gregory gets to eat? DECISIONS.


More Alice:
Watch a 107-year-old ‘Alice in Wonderland’
EW’s review: Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Annie on Twitter: @EWAnnieBarrett


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  • Rebekah

    My family taped the 1985 version when it originally aired. I must have watched it a million times. I still sing the song about the lion and the unicorn. I absolutely loved that movie. I must buy it on DVD now. I will see the movie this weekend, but now I wonder how well it will compare to the 1985 version.

    • Greg

      I’ve got this on DVD, and Carol Channing steals the show.

      • RememberMe

        This is on DVD? I must have it!! I think we wore out the VHS.

      • Bob Frapples

        Now I’ve got “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never ever jam today” stuck in my head.

  • Meg

    I was going through the same dilemma! I’m going with Tim Burton tonight and Natalie Gregory/Irwin Allen tomorrow. BTW to set your mind at rest, You Are Old Father William is actually based on a real poem. So it’s not totally incomprehensible that Alice wouldn’t have known a version of the poem.

  • marilinda

    i loved this. i remember watching it during the latchkey program before and after school. i thought it was so cool because alice’s dress was pink and white rather than blue and white like the cartoon.

  • Cat

    I guess I’m in the minority, as a huge Alice fan I detested this version, too many stars, for one. And who puts Alice in an apricot colored dress!

  • Melinda65

    Alice knew the choreography the same way that all other participants in movie musical numbers know the choreography. She went to rehearsal. :-)

    I had completely forgotten about this production until seeing this clip. Now I feel that I must buy the DVD.

  • Cool

    I just watched this with the video on mute and Passion Pit’s “Folds In Your Hands” playing instead.

  • Bruce L

    This thing was all my fourth grade class wanted to talk about for like a month. And a half. Is it wrong that the finale, with all of Wonderland/Looking-Glass Land rallying to protect Alice from the Jabberwocky in the banquet hall one of my favorite action climaxes to anything, ever? (Sucker that I am for villain vs. uber-villain showdowns, the Queen of Hearts throwing her playing cards at it, shrieking “Off with its head!”, still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.)

  • Lorrie

    I don’t think any version of Alice in Wonderland can beat the 1985 TV version, at least for me. Great cast, fun songs, and a few scary parts, too. I loved it so much. I never had a problem with Alice knowing the choreography. I just figured it was due to the caterpillar’s magic, same reason Alice suddenly was wearing different outfit.

    It’s on DVD? I so need to get it. I had it on tape (it’s probably in a box somewhere), but we watched it so many times as a kid that I’m sure it’s worn out.

  • Kelmar

    I saw this on DVD at Second Spin a few weeks ago, and did not buy it for some reason. Now I have to back and see if they still have it. I distinctly remember re-enacting parts of this movie at school with my friends!

  • Meg

    I watch this when I was younger!!! We taped it off the tv and watched it over and over again. It is awesome! I do remember the Jaberwoky being quite terrifying though.

    I too will be seing Alice! I will be going tomorrow!

  • Abbey

    My parents also taped the original airing of this for me. I loved it! Watched it over and over again! I am intruiged by the new movie, but this will always hold a top spot in my heart. I recently bought it on DVD and enjoy it just as much today. Sammie Davis Jr. and Carol Channing were my farite characters!

  • Ragna

    That is an unfair poll question. Can’t I watch both? I will admit that I own the 1985 movie on DVD, and I’m exited for the Burton movie, and the idea to watch both (and toss in the Disney version for good measure) sounds oddly appealing.

  • Birv

    Carol Channing as the White Queen/Goat lady scared the crap out of me. She was a recurring nightmare for me from age six until… well… now. Let’s not forget to pay homage to John Stamos in Through the Looking Glass… The Lion and the Unicorn was one of my favorites (I longed to have a piece of that spongy delight of a cake!)

    • Chris

      Baeeeettttteeeerrrrrrr.

      Muuuuuuuch Bayeeeeeeeetterr.

    • kb

      After Annie’s article yesterday, I spent the rest of the day singing the Lion and the Unicorn Song. I was truely a sucker for the scene’s with the white king he was so funny to me as a kid.

    • Vilya

      The Lion and the Unicorn was my favorite part too, and the cake! LOL I was 12 when this came out, and I know I watched it a million times on VHS. I didn’t know it was on DVD; must buy immediately!! I remember my sister and I watching this obsessively, until the tape degraded. Thanks for posting this, Annie!

  • Jean Genie

    I remember this doozy, too. If memory also serves, Scott Baio was there as “Pat the Guinea Pig”.

  • robert

    I remember having a big crush on that girl back then. I was 10 at the time.

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