Blending absurdity and an off-putting childlike glee, in 1976 Bud Townsend adapted a Disney-esque “soft” hardcore porno musical of Alice in Wonderland. Produced by porn maverick Bill Osco of Flesh Gordon fame (Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm, 1974) and made on a decent budget of $400,000, the film follows many of the same beats of Lewis Carroll’s very famous tale. In an appeal for mainstream success, there are versions of the film released theatrically and on tape that cut out the hardcore shots, pushing the film down to an R rating. In many ways representative of the 1970s porno style, Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy is that strange breed of pornography that pushes for legitimacy as ‘real’ cinema.
As sex itself became more liberated in American culture over the course of the 1960s and ‘70s, a new generation curiously and briefly embraced cinematic pornography in droves. More than just an opportunity to get off, seeing a porno was a social marker, as Ralph Blumenthal for The New York Times noted: “It has become a premier topic of cocktail-party and dinner-table conversation in Manhattan drawing rooms, Long Island beach cottages and skicountry A-frames.” 1 To put it another way: in the 1970s, pornography was positively bourgeois.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular pornos of the day were comedies – films like Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), where titillation could be offset by laughs. While the popularity of cinematic porn was very much a zeitgeist moment that coincided with the free-sex countercultural movement, sex on screen was still a novelty to be embraced at a safe distance. As Norman Mailer explained in the documentary Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005), the appeal of pornography during this era was that “it lived in some mid-world between crime and art.” The riskiness of pornography during this era was largely confined to its previous (and in some states and cities, continued) illegality. Very few of these films challenged sexual mores or desires: they were, on a whole, silly. They were transgressive through the virtue of their existence rather than their content.
Some of the films, though, rose above the rabble, vibrating with ambition and inspiration. There is a keen sense of the absurd in a film like Deep Throat, about a woman who does not enjoy sex, only to have a doctor inform her that her clitoris is actually located in the back of her throat. The best pornos of this era were keenly self-aware and infused with a disconcerting enthusiasm. Pornography, in a new kind of nascent stage, seemed caught in a tonal ground of early adolescent sexual naivety. Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy emerges from this perverted innocence.
At the heart of this pornographic trip through Wonderland was model-actress Kristine DeBell. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time of the film’s release, DeBell “projects such a freshness and naiveté that she charms us even in scenes where some rather alarming things are going on. I think she has a future in the movies, and not just X movies, either; there’s an openness to her expression, a directness to her acting, that’s genuinely appealing.” 2 The appeal of DeBell within the film lies far beyond her beauty and her uncanny resemblance to John Tenniel’s illustrated Alice; she projects a genuine sense of wonderment that softens and endears the audience.
Unlike Lewis Carroll’s books, the framing device for this Alice is the promise of getting it on with a young mechanic. She works in a library, and after they set up a date, the inexperienced and reluctant Alice begins to sing a song (this is a musical after all) and suddenly comes face-to-face with the white rabbit. It does not seem worth arguing that any of the music or songs within the film are good or even memorable, but they are fun and never feel unwelcome, which is more than can be said for a number of Hollywood musical productions. Drawn into Wonderland, Alice is faced with a number of classic characters, including the Mad Hatter (Alan Novak), Humpty Dumpty (Bucky Searles as Bradfor Armdexter) and the Queen of Hearts (Juliet Graham). One way or another, each meeting imparts a nugget of sex advice interrupted by the occasional song-and-dance number.
The film (and whether or not it will appeal to any audience) is best encapsulated in Alice’s meeting with the Mad Hatter, in which he presents his erection and Alice asks for permission to kiss it. The scene is both sexy and unsettling. Alice has never been faced with a penis before and her impulse is to embrace it. It is rare in pornography to see the penis wielded as anything but a weapon, setting the film apart positively from mainstream pornography today.
All this culminates with Alice waking from her dream, ready for her date. The last sex scene is a Cosmo-girl tumble in the hay that could be read as clichéd but comes across as sweet. After Alice’s crazy journey and the strange costumed sex acts, some straight-to-the-point missionary in soft focus feels earned and almost poetic. While the film seems to be ostensibly about a sexual awakening, it foregoes most of the virginity or inexperience tropes common in mainstream cinema that frame a woman’s sexuality through victimhood.
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy is not necessarily a feminist interpretation of the story or a particularly progressive depiction of sex. The infantilisation of Alice is part of a greater trend that ties a woman’s sexuality to adolescent traits. The movie is still very much of the male gaze, but manages to subscribe to a view of sexuality that emboldens Alice rather than pushing her into a sexual life. More than just novelty, there is a sense of fun and pleasure at the heart of the film that is all too rare.
- Ralph Blumenthal, “‘Hard‐core’ Grows Fashionable—and Very Profitable”, The New York Times, 21 January 2917 www.nytimes.com/1973/01/21/archives/pornochic-hardcore-grows-fashionableand-very-profitable.html?_r=0. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy”, RogerEbert.com, 24 November 1976 www.rogerebert.com/reviews/alice-in-wonderland-1976 ↩