As Cinderella appears in UK cinemas, MostlyFilm contributors recommend their favourite slippers ‘n’ stepmothers.
Ella Enchanted – Emma Street
Cinderella is, without a doubt, the most annoying of all fairytale princesses. She’s just so bloody passive. You can’t just sit around waiting for Fairy Godmothers to show up at the last minute or for abandoned princes to mount comprehensive shoe-based search missions, you know. Sometimes you need to take responsibility for your own life. I mean, sure, it did actually work out OK in Cinderella’s case. (The fact that there was no-one else in the kingdom with the same size feet was a huge stroke of luck). Acting like a doormat while other people sort your life out for you isn’t terribly inspirational behaviour, though.
Tommy O’Haver’s Ella Enchanted neatly incorporates the ‘Cinderella as doormat’ element while still managing to portray Cinderella (or just ‘Ella’ as she is here) as an intelligent, headstrong and opinionated young woman. Borrowing slightly from Sleeping Beauty, at the start of the film newborn Ella, her mother and ‘house fairy’ Mandy receive a visit from the not so much ‘bad’, as ‘extremely irritating’ fairy, Lucinda. Annoyed by the infant’s incessant crying, Lucinda gives Ella the gift of obedience before promptly telling her to STFU. The upshot is whenever Ella is given a direct command she has no choice but to obey.
Spin forward enough years for baby Ella to grow up into Anne Hathaway and, as you might expect, the ‘having to obey every direct order’ is a bit of a disability. Ella keeps this particular quirk of hers quiet. Her mother on her deathbed told her not to tell anyone lest they take advantage of it. But it’s a tricky thing to keep under wraps – given that she has no control over it – and when her stepsisters cotton on they do indeed exploit the hell out of it. So feisty, independent Ella effectively ends up a servant to her stepsisters and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Ella Enchanted contains many of the expected Cinderella tropes – wicked stepfamily, handsome prince, benevolent fairy godmother but it jettisons most of the original story in favour of a racial segregation plotline where the handsome prince’s uncle has forced elves and giants to live apart from humans and placed heavy restrictions on the jobs that they are permitted to do. In the elves’ case, their only career options are ‘singing, juggling or tomfoolery’.
The prince (Hugh Dancy) falls in love with Ella not because she looks pretty twirling about the dancefloor but because she takes him to task over the current political situation which prevents her friend Slannen the elf (Aidan McArdle) becoming a lawyer. It may not be subtle but it makes for a far better 21st century role model. Ella doesn’t sit around passively waiting for somebody else to save the day. If there’s any day-saving to be done, she gets on with it herself.
The Slipper and the Rose – Kate le Vann
It doesn’t get much love, this Cinderella. I remember watching one of those terrible 100 Greatest Musicals shows a few years ago, waiting for it to show up, thinking, ‘Gosh, it must be quite high’. It wasn’t there. Disney’s 1950s Cinderella was. “People must have got the two films confused,” I told my mother, trying to stay calm.
The fans it has are quiet and intense. I google the title from time to time and find people like me dreamily talking about the costumes, which, like the film, are kitsch but not camp: 18th Century French tailoring in Ladurée pastels. One scene, a favourite with Slipper lovers, wittily recreates Jean Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing. Cinderella’s ball gown follows the rules but her tiered-sleeve wedding dress breaks them; it looks modern whenever you watch it. The dresses were bought by collectors, but people swear some went to London’s famous costumiers Angels, and I found someone on the imdb who says she found Cinderella’s pink gossamer cloak in their fancy dress section. “I swished it about saying, ‘Its beautiful, beautiful!’” she sighs, and I’m as happy for her as I am for Gemma Craven when she’s transformed into the Princess Incognita.
Gemma Craven was unknown when she was picked for the part. She’s very young and very tiny. She is pretty and yummy but not beautiful, and what I like best about her is how horrified she is by her predicament. There’s no humility or patience: she doesn’t even start to get on with the housework — she mopes about waiting to be saved. Luckily this happens before she has peeled her first carrot. The film is trying hard to tell Prince Charming’s story instead. Probably too much time is spent in the palace following Richard Chamberlain and a tight-britched pal around while they bitch about class. It was written by director Bryan Forbes and the Sherman brothers, Richard M and Robert B, and they brought in British movie aristocracy (Michael Hordern, Edith Evans, the magnificent Margaret Lockwood) and were determined to use them properly. The cast has impeccable comedy manners and great presence, but still, you want more Cinderella.
The Shermans were brilliant song writers but they worked around a template. All their films check off an eerie lullaby or two (Feed the Birds, Hushabye Mountain); a Kwik Fit lookalike (The Old Bamboo, Step in Time – the Slipper version forcefeeds us terrible rhymes for Oh Ho Ho and Oh Ho Hee); a polysyllabic tongue-twister (Slipper has Protocoligorically Correct, Chitty Chitty has P.O.S.H – I feel like there’s one in Poppins but just can’t think of the name). The template is light on romantic numbers, but suddenly – suddenly it happens! – in this tiny, humble British curiosity whose existence was not even recognised in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Musicals, Sherman & Sherman hide their very best song. It’s called Tell Him. The music wraps itself around Craven’s lovely voice as if it’s hardly a song at all, then the brass swells, the piano blubs, and that lyric – valour, sacrifice, true love, oh my god – bursts out of the pantomime and stabs you through the heart. That’s it. The Slipper and The Rose wins Cinderella.
Three Gifts for Cinderella – Fiona Pleasance
During my childhood in the 1970s, in the run up to Christmas, something strange would happen. British television would show a foreign film, dubbed. Granted, it was a children’s film, which explains the dubbing (necessary when about a third of your target audience can’t actually read subtitles yet), and I do seem to recall some dubbed kids’ series like Belle and Sebastian. But there was something about this film that was absolutely captivating, that made me stop noticing that the actor’s voices didn’t match the movement of their lips. Then I grew up, and the BBC stopped showing the movie, and from time to time I wondered whether I had imagined the whole thing.
The irony, as I discovered years later, is that there is no version of Tři oříšky pro Popelku, aka Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, aka Three Gifts for Cinderella, in which at least some of the actors are not dubbed. The film was a co-production between two countries which no longer exist, Czechslovakia and The German Democratic Republic. The film not only used locations from both countries, but also a mixture of Czech and East German actors, each speaking their own language. Somehow, this makes the movie even more of a fairytale than I thought it was before.
The film is based on a Bohemian variation on the classic Cinderella folktale, and in it, Cinders has two things going for her. The first is to be played by Libuše Šafránková, one of the most beautiful and charismatic actresses nine-year-old me had ever seen. She is self-possessed, witty, full of steely determination and with a sparkle in her eyes, but still capable of conveying the melancholy and introspection the role demands. It is completely and utterly believable that the prince should fall in love with her in seconds, and that the company should fall silent the minute she enters the ballroom. At the time, I would have killed for her big, expressive brown eyes and long, wavy hair.
The second reason to love this version of the story is that, for once, we have an extremely pro-active Cinderella. No fairy godmother, just some benevolent, magical animals – an owl in particular – and three enchanted hazelnuts containing a fancy outfit each (yes, really, and not as weird as it sounds. Certainly no weirder than a fairy godmother). When Cinderella first catches the prince’s eye she’s not dressed up, but wearing her everyday rags. On their two subsequent meetings she has had a magical costume change, but the movie makes it clear that it’s her sassy nature which captivates him, not just her clothes. She’s even a better shot than he is; how tomboy is that. When the prince, at the ball, says that he’s found the woman he wants to marry, she responds by saying that he forgot to ask the bride if she is even interested – a thought which had clearly never occurred to him. (She is interested, and has been since their first meeting, but that’s not the point). In the end, this prince not only has to find his Cinders by slipping a shoe onto her foot, but to win her by answering a riddle she has set.
There’s a pleasing symmetry to the story, underscoring the idea that the two are meant for each other. Indirectly, it’s the prince himself who is responsible for the magic hazelnuts coming into Cinderella’s possession. And Pavel Trávníček’s Prince is absolutely Šafránková’s equal, charming, fresh-faced and good looking, despite being decked out in a variety of brightly coloured tights.
Over the years, other parts of the film stayed with me too. The snowy landscapes, with powder so deep that the actors often have trouble walking through it. The lovely score with its haunting songs. The costumes, faux-medieval with a strong Seventies twist. And the locations, some of them real castles from behind the Iron Curtain, looking beautiful.
Despite Three Gifts for Cinderella disappearing from British TV schedules, and its legion of small fans growing up, this story still has a happy ending. The film continues to appear regularly on television in several other European countries, and has cast its magic spell over many new fans, to the extent that authorities in Norway are sponsoring a digital restoration. It should finally be available on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of 2015. Just in time for Christmas.
The Glass Slipper – Josephine Grahl
It’s nice to see a Cinderella who’s not just grubby, but grumpy. In her autobiography, Leslie Caron claimed she was inspired in her portrayal of Ella by Marlon Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront – it’s an odd image, but her performance reflects the importance, by the 1950s, of the image of the teenager, neither child nor adult, struggling on the cusp of adulthood. Caron, delightful despite the gamine haircut which looks as though it was inflcted with a hedge-trimmer, is by turns defensive, rebellious, sullen, capricious and bursting with absurd fantasy and ambition – she alienates the townspeople by declaring that when she grows up she’s going to live in the palace – but her fantasy of doing so is interrupted as she changes the imaginary dress she’s wearing, and then grows rapidly bored of sitting on her imaginary throne, leaping from it to swing from the royal curtains.
He behaviour is explained by a generous helping of spurious 1950s cod psychology – the voiceover explains that she has suffered rejection for so long that if she doesn’t soon find love and acceptance she will become irretrievably warped. The Prince, played by Michael Wilding, also undergoes analysis of his motivations – it’s revealed that he has an incurable weakness for crying women since one day, as he was riding through the town, he saw a five-year-old child in tears, with big, beautiful expressive eyes. (Yes, the child was the baby Ella. Don’t think about this too much, it’s weird. Poor Leslie Caron, doomed to be the June in terribly dodgy June-December pairings!)
It’s Leslie Caron’s spiky performance which keeps The Glass Slipper just on the right side of the line separating charming from twee, sweet from saccharine. Not just as an actress but also as a dancer – the dream sequences choreographed by Roland Petit to a score by Bronislau Kaper, are beautiful and Caron’s dancing, supported by the Ballet de Paris, is some of her very best. The supporting cast are also appealing – Michael Wilding is charming but a little dull as the Prince, but Elsa Lanchester is fun as a stepmother who’s more witty than wicked. Estelle Winwood plays Mrs Toquet, the godmother, as a whimsical kelptomaniac seemingly scripted by Lewis Carroll.
And in the end, of course, Ella lives happily ever after – or at least with all her neuroses satisfactorily resolved.