Film Review: Cinderella (1950)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Eleanor Audley – Lady Tremaine

Don Barclay – Doorman

Claire Du Brey – Fairy Godmother (live-action reference)

Lucille Bliss – Anastasia

Mike Douglas – Prince Charming (singing voice)

Verna Felton – Fairy Godmother

June Foray – Lucifer (Ms. Foray sadly passed away shortly after I posted this, just shy of her 100th birthday – RIP, we will always remember your many colourful performances)

Betty Lou Gerson – Narrator

Earl Keen – Bruno

James MacDonald – Jaq and Gus

Marni Nixon – Narrator’s singing voice

William Phipps – Prince Charming (speaking voice)

Luis Van Rooten – The King and the Grand Duke

Helene Stanley – Cinderella (live-action reference)

Jeffrey Stone – Prince Charming (live-action reference)

Lucille Williams – Perla (a mouse; how odd that there were two Lucilles appearing in this)

Rhoda Williams – Drizella Tremaine

Ilene Woods – Cinderella

Additional Voices: Marion Darlington, Clint McCauley, Thurl Ravenscroft, Helen Seibert, June Sullivan, John Woodbury

Sources of Inspiration – Version of the fairy tale from Histoires ou contes du temps passé, a French collection of fairy tales by Charles Perrault, 1697

Release Dates

February 15th, 1950 in Boston, USA (premiere)

March 4th, 1950 in USA (general release)

Run-time – 75 minutes

Directors – Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

Composers – Paul J. Smith and Oliver Wallace

Worldwide Gross – $263 million

Accolades – 4 wins and 7 nominations, including 3 Oscar nominations


1950 in History

The total world population this year is estimated at around 2.5 billion (it’s 7.5 now, just 67 years later)

The East German secret police – the Stasi – is founded, remaining in force until 1990

New York’s Diners Club begin using an early form of charge/credit card

The term “McCarthyism” is coined to described US senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist practices

The first Volkswagen Microbus is created in Wolfsburg, Germany

Belgium’s “Royal Question” comes to a head when King Leopold III announces his abdication

Jordan formally annexes the West Bank

The Group Areas Act is passed in apartheid South Africa, legalising racial segregation

Robert Schuman’s famous declaration precedes the creation of the EU several years later

Annapurna I Main, the tenth highest mountain in the world, is first summited

The Korean War begins with the North Korean invasion of South Korea

The popular comic strip Peanuts makes its debut in seven US newspapers

The Mattachine Society, founded in California, becomes one of the first gay rights organisations in the US

Shirley Temple retires from acting at the age of 22 (but would later return on TV, rather than in films)

Myxomatosis is introduced in Australia in a (somewhat successful) attempt to quell an infestation of rabbits

Births of Julie Walters, Peter Gabriel, Karen Carpenter, William Hurt, Ron Perlman, Stevie Wonder, Princess Anne and John Candy


 

Welcome to the fifties, everyone! Disney really kicked off the new decade in style with their twelfth feature film, Cinderella, which marked their return to the classic fairy tale narrative that brought them so much success with Snow White. It also marked the beginning of a new era, known to most animation fans as the Silver Era, because it was a return to the kind of quality filmmaking not seen at Disney since before the war. The story of Cinderella is one just about everybody knows and it’s been adapted dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the years, in a huge variety of different mediums.

On the stage, it has been done as a ballet, with the most famous including the Boris Fitinhof-Schell production of 1893, the Strauss II/Josef Bayer production of 1901 and the best-known one, the Prokofiev ballet of 1945. It has also been turned into operas, created by the likes of Nicolas Isouard (1810), Jules Massenet (1899), Pauline Viardot (1904), Jorge Peña Hen (1966, a rare opera with a cast made up of children) and Rossini’s famous one from 1817, said to be written in just three weeks! Then there are the plays and pantomimes – the story was a staple of London’s Drury Lane for years in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 version proved popular enough to garner remakes in 1966, 1997 and 2013. Louis Gottschalk created an early musical from the story called Cinderella and the Prince, or The Castle of Heart’s Desire (1904), and Sondheim and Lapine featured the heroine in their fairy-tale mashup Into the Woods in 1987.

Naturally, such a popular tale also made great material for filmmakers once the new art of cinema arrived. Some of the earliest filmed versions of Cinderella were done by pioneers like George Albert Smith (1898) and Georges Méliès (three versions from 1899, 1909 {presumed lost} and 1912), with a popular 1914 version by James Kirkwood, Sr., featuring “America’s Sweetheart,” the silent star Mary Pickford. The story was often used as a vehicle to promote aspiring young actresses, with the plot being tailored to their talents – Deanna Durbin sang her way through First Love in 1939, while Leslie Caron danced up a storm in The Glass Slipper (1955). Even the Sherman brothers, by then Disney stalwarts, had a crack at it with their 1976 film The Slipper and the Rose.

And of course, amongst these filmed versions there were a plethora of animated Cinderellas. The Fleischer Studio debuted the rather confusing Poor Cinderella in 1934 with Betty Boop in the title role, and Warner Bros. star Tex Avery created two versions of his own in 1938 and 1945. Rankin/Bass included the story in their 1972 Festival of Family Classics, and Janet Perlman added a polar twist with her 1981 short The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin. There have even been anime versions, such as Hiroshi Sasagawa’s 1996 production Cinderella Monogatari.

Opening titles

Perhaps the most significant to this review, though, is a 1922 version by none other than Walt himself.  Cinderella was the story of choice for young Walt’s final “Laugh-O-gram” story, just before his early studio came to a close, but the idea of using it in a longer film clearly never left him. Skipping ahead to the 1940s, Walt was trying to choose between Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp for his return to feature films after the war. After some arguments with his brother Roy (who didn’t think the two literary tales in the group would work at all), he finally settled on the classic fairy tale of Cinderella as the more likely chance of success. It was a safe, reliable choice based on experience… and it really paid off.

The earliest story treatment (from Dana Coty and Bianca Majolie) appeared in January 1940, with further development continuing throughout the decade, but it wasn’t until the final years of the forties that they were able to kick production into high gear. Ultimately, it would cost about three million dollars to make, making this their most expensive production since Bambi, so they needed it to turn a profit – if it didn’t, the studio would probably be closed.

Of course, we all know how things turned out. The film was the biggest hit they’d had in years, finally making the studio enough money to allow them to crawl out of the creative slump they’d been stuck in and start exploring new possibilities. Cinderella has rightfully become known as a classic – and now it’s time to explore how it garnered this reputation.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

Cinderella was the first female lead in a Disney film since Snow White and is also the second Disney Princess. Much like Snow, she is an orphan, having lost her father in the prologue and her mother, presumably, in childbirth. It’s interesting that stories about orphans triumphing against the odds are so common – think Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Batman, not to mention loads of other Disney characters. Some critics have noted that this lack of parents forces the characters to define themselves earlier; nobody ever sets out on a dangerous quest from a safe, loving home!  It is at least an improvement here that Cinderella’s parents are mentioned – we even get to see her father briefly (by the time we get to Aurora, the parents actually have lines!).

Cinderella's dad
The horse and dog might be a young Major and Bruno!

The thing that really sets Cinderella apart from Snow White or Aurora, though, is that she has so much more personality. We’ve all heard the criticism aimed at the original trio of princesses for being too “passive,” but when you watch this film, you realise that it just doesn’t apply to Cinderella. As kind and friendly as she is, she’s also got a great sass and sarcasm to her at times, making some rather snarky comments about her stepfamily when she’s with her animals friends. Yet she’s also remarkably chipper for someone so oppressed; it makes you root for her, to see her demonstrating such inner strength. She’s portrayed in a realistic, relatable manner – at the start of the film, we see that she doesn’t like getting out of bed in the morning (a little trait she shares with Anna and Tiana), and she can be sharp at times, usually with Lucifer – I love the moment when she snaps “Lucifer! Come here!” at the insolent feline when he won’t come to breakfast. In an important scene, after delivering the news of the Royal Ball, she also sticks up for herself, making a simple and logical case for why she should be allowed to go: “After all, I’m still a member of the family!” Can you imagine Snow White talking back to the evil Queen?

Cinderella in the morning

She’s not perfect, though; at the ball, after having had a lovely time with the only guy at the party, she tells him “I haven’t met the Prince!” Really, Cinders? She’s a little slow on the uptake there, I mean who on earth did she think this bloke in the epaulettes was? There’s also a scene near the film’s climax where she really lets the cat out of the bag after hearing that the prince intends to marry the girl who lost her shoe (which also tells her who the guy she danced with was). Her face at that moment is a picture; you want to give her a shake before her stepmother catches on! Striking the right balance between sweet and salty wasn’t easy and the filmmakers cut a few of Cindy’s scenes, including one where she would eavesdrop on her family and chuckle rather spitefully as they gossip about the “mystery girl” who danced with the prince, because such scenes made her seem too mean-spirited. Cinderella, at heart, is a classic Disney role model, always striving to be good and kind to those around her even in the most challenging circumstances. Critic Robin Allan stated that her saw her as an example of “post-war femininity” and marked a return to the “pre-war domestic subservience” role of women, but I disagree with ideas like this: Cinderella is simply not passive! Unlike Snow White or Aurora, she actually takes steps to fix her situation (with a little help from the Fairy Godmother, admittedly) and makes full use of the opportunities that present themselves. Snow White is sweet and all, but I think Cinderella is my favourite of these early heroines.

Ilene Woods was selected for the role out of over three hundred other girls, as Walt felt that she had the right “fairy tale” quality to her voice. We got lucky; Cinderella nearly ended up being played by contemporary pop stars like Dinah Shore or Deanna Durbin! Not that there’s anything wrong with those ladies, but I doubt either of them could have brought the same charm to the role as Woods.

Jaq and Gus together
Gus on the bottom, and Jaq up top

One thing Cinders does have in common with Snow White and Aurora is that she has a collection of animal friends living with her in the family château (like many rich country estates in those days, it seems that Cinderella’s place once housed a small farm). The mice are the main characters amongst these animal sidekicks, particularly Jaq and Gus, who are the leader and newbie, respectively. I think the idea behind these gangs of animals being associated with the heroines was to emphasise their inner goodness; they do say that a dog knows before the humans if a new person is not to be trusted, so for such skittish animals as songbirds and horses to warm up to Cinderella, she must be a nice lass. Much like the dwarfs in Snow White, I feel like the mice are either going to delight you or annoy you – personally, I find them rather grating after a while, which I think is mostly due to their squeaky sped-up voices. Perhaps they’d have worked better as silent characters, since much of their activity involves gags.

They do get some cute moments, though, especially Jaq – I love his “doomsday” face when he’s drawn the “short tail” and knows he has to face Lucifer alone. Gus is less likeable; his greed and idiocy nearly prove fatal to him and his friends several times, but I suppose he is kind of endearing in his own way. Interestingly enough, the handful of “sexist” lines in the film always seem to relate to the mice characters – for instance, when Cindy first finds Gus in a huge mousetrap near the start, she notes that his gender “does make a difference” when picking out clothes for him. Not a big moment, but I do wonder why she automatically assumed that the new mouse was a girl until told otherwise – perhaps female mice are more common in the house? Then of course there’s the hilarious “Leave the sewing to the women!” line during the Cinderelly number, but that’s not so terrible when you think about it. Disney had certainly progressed beyond Grumpy’s misogynistic comments about “females” and their “wicked wiles” in Snow White, at any rate! In case you ever wondered, the other named mice include Suzy, Perla, Blossom, Luke, Mert and Bert, but there’s almost nothing to distinguish them and Jaq and Gus remain the most interesting ones.

Major and Bruno together
Major trying to hurry old Bruno along

Cinderella is also friends with a dog and a horse, named Bruno and Major respectively, but they play very little role in the plot. Bruno’s major contribution is when he defeats Lucifer in the climax, the final obstacle between Cinderella and the glass slipper. He is also transformed into Cindy’s footman for the ball, while Major becomes her coachman and the mice are made into horses.

Now, let’s talk about Lucifer. He’s a terrifically fun character, with some of the best expressions and gags in the whole film. The only times I enjoy the mice are when they’re facing off against this sour-faced ball of lard, because his reactions to them are so entertaining. He was apparently based on a real cat named Feetsy, who was a calico owned by animator Ward Kimball – upon seeing him, Walt declared him the physical model for Lucifer on the spot. You do wonder where they got the name from; these days it’s associated most commonly with Satan, which I suppose is appropriate as he is quite an evil character. Lucifer parallels the stepsisters in that he’s vicious for no good reason; he’s simply spoilt and used to getting his own way. In fact, he is probably bored, chasing the mice simply for something to do. His comedic slapstick style of villainy contrasts nicely with the more subtle portrayal of his mistress, the stepmother.

Lucifer with the teacupsTremaine full shot

Oh lord, Lady Tremaine – it’s honestly no wonder that she’s considered one of Disney’s greatest villains. Cold, restrained and bitter, she’s a truly chilling character with a powerful presence and is definitely one of the film’s highlights (in a weird way). The key to her effectiveness is the understated nature of her performance, which makes her seem real in a way that the evil Queen and Maleficent never could be. She doesn’t have any magical powers, but she doesn’t need any; her power derives entirely from her position as Cinderella’s stepmother, and her ability to withhold the things the girl wants. You could actually meet a person like this in your life, which is really what makes her so scary – Disney would attempt to do something similar decades later with Mother Gothel in Tangled, who is like an overdramatic, vaudevillian version of Tremaine. Lady Tremaine is also well-written, cunningly worming her way out of her bargain with Cinderella after the girl unexpectedly fulfils the terms they agreed upon. By setting her daughters up as the actual instigators of the violence in that scene, she’s able to prevent Cinderella attending the ball without even lifting a finger – she can’t even be directly blamed for what happens! Her voice actress, Eleanor Audley, considered this film to be her best work outside of the theatre and I would have to agree: her performance is honed, subtle and masterful.

Drizella and Anastasia at the ball

As you might expect, her daughters are not much better. Although they’re not the most complex of characters, they’re used effectively in most of their scenes to underscore all of the lovely qualities which Cinderella possesses and they can only dream of. Where Cinderella is polite, they’re rude, to the point of embarrassing an emissary of the king; where she is kind, they are vicious and spiteful, always ready to criticise and utterly impossible to please. The “ugly stepsisters” represent the worst type of spoilt brat, but despite their childishness, they can also be pretty scary at times: their best scene is unquestionably when they sabotage Cinderella’s dress (which belonged to her mother, remember) by literally tearing it off her, along with a barrage of shouting and insults. They may be caricatured compared to their mother, but you still wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of them! There’s not a lot to distinguish the pair, with Drizella (a variant of “Drusilla”) being the dark one and Anastasia being the redhead, but Drizella may be ever so slightly older and is, arguably, a little nastier than her sister. (Tellingly, it’s Anastasia who is given some redemption in the second sequel, rather than Drizella).

Godmother lost her wand

One of the most likeable characters is that one-scene wonder, the Fairy Godmother. Presented as something like a child’s idealised idea of a grandmother, she really feels like just what Cinderella (and the audience) needed at that point in the film, just after Cindy has hit rock bottom. She’s so much fun in her muddled, forgetful way, and she gets one of the film’s most popular songs to boot. Verna Felton, last heard as the snobby Matriarch in Dumbo, lends the Godmother gentle warmth and a loveably scatty quality with her performance, making her an iconic Disney character from just one scene. And it doesn’t hurt that said scene includes some of the film’s best animation!

Cinderella Prince Charming

So, how does Cindy’s love interest, Prince Charming, hold up? Our last prince character was a bit lacklustre, but I’m afraid to say that this one is hardly any better. The Disney artists still had not gotten over their distaste for this type of character and it shows in the finished film, with the Prince barely appearing in it and being talked about more than he’s actually seen. It’s easy to forget, but he actually does have a few lines of dialogue – they hired two people to voice this small role, as Mike Douglas, who ultimately only provided his singing voice, had a distractingly thick Illinois accent. The prince was originally intended to have several additional scenes of his own which would have developed his character a bit more, but these were scrapped for some reason, so the “character” we get here is really more of a symbol, a plot point which the heroine’s fate rests on.  That said, it’s important to remember that Cinderella never plans to meet him – she merely wants a fun night out, and falling for the prince is a bonus (I can’t believe some people actually think she’s a gold-digger). Although he is rather underused, he does let the occasional hint of personality shine through, with a well-placed yawn or an eye-roll telling us exactly how he feels about being paraded in front of the kingdom’s single ladies like a piece of meat. (Anyone who thinks that Disney only objectify their female characters needs to see this one). His name, if you can call it that, was apparently taken from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), but there’s no way his surname is actually “Charming” – he simply isn’t important enough to have been granted a proper name by the filmmakers.

Cinderella King frustrated at ball

This is emphasised by the fact that his own father, the King, simply refers to him as “the Prince.” Yeesh, what a loving dad he must have been! The King is fun chiefly because he’s so hammy, always chewing up the scenery as he rages and roars. He’s a deceptively deep character, though, as beneath all his surface bluster and boiling rage he’s a bit of a sweetheart with a soft spot for children. He actually seems to prefer children to adults, as he is seen lamenting the fact that his son has grown up and his main motive for marrying him off is to get some grandchildren! (Apparently, this motive was partially inspired by Walt himself, who was also feeling a bit broody for grandkids at the time). He’s presented as a determined, no-nonsense kind of guy, and I love how blunt he is about what he wants, trying to manufacture romance like he’s running an assembly line.

The duke and the lackey

He has some great (if volatile) chemistry with his right-hand man, the Duke, who also does not warrant a proper name for some reason. The long-suffering Duke spends the whole film struggling to control his master’s wild temper, and much like Cinderella he gets a few fun snarky moments when the King’s back is turned. The fact that they play so well off of each other is probably helped by the fact that they’re voiced by the same bloke; I bet he had a good time essentially arguing with himself in the recording sessions! The Duke also has a lackey of his own, who shows up in one of the last scenes at the Tremaine château to help with the slipper-fitting. He’s very pompous and completely invested in his role as a royal emissary, much more so than the knackered Duke, who has a funny background moment as he rambles through the royal proclamation at top speed while the mice are trying to sneak the key to Cindy’s room out of Tremaine’s pocket. The stepsisters soon begin abusing the poor little lackey as he tries in vain to jam their gigantic feet into the tiny slipper, but he takes it all in his stride with a dopey grin on his face and you can’t help liking him.

 

Animation

For all its successes, it has to be said that the animation in Cinderella is less ambitious and technically impressive as the work in Snow White or Pinocchio, but that aside, it’s still of a very high standard. It’s certainly a vast improvement over the package films, anyway! This film is significant for being the first to feature all nine of Disney’s famous “Old Men” as supervising animators, in addition to the talents of Mary Blair. If you’d like the specifics;

  • Marc Davis, Eric Larson, and Les Clark were the supervising animators of Cinderella
  • Frank Thomas was the supervising animator of Lady Tremaine
  • Milt Kahl was the supervising animator of the Fairy Godmother
  • Eric Larson was the supervising animator of Prince Charming
  • Ollie Johnston was the supervising animator of Drizella Tremaine, Anastasia Tremaine and the Duke’s lackey
  • Ward Kimball and John Lounsbery were the supervising animators of Jaq and Gus
  • Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, and Norman Ferguson were the supervising animators of Bruno
  • Ward Kimball, Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Norman Ferguson were the supervising animators of Lucifer
  • Milt Kahl and Norman Ferguson were the supervising animators of The King
  • Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, and Norman Ferguson were the supervising animators of The Grand Duke

The other most notable thing about the animation process for this is that, like some previous films, it was based on live-action reference footage, but unlike those films, about ninety percent of this one was filmed in this way beforehand. Cinderella is an example of rotoscoping used properly, as a guide rather than as a substitute – this explains why the human animation (at least of the more realistic characters) is so accurate. Rotoscoping was used on a sliding scale, with characters like Cinderella herself, Lady Tremaine and the Prince getting most of it, and the caricatured ones like the stepsisters and the King using it more loosely. The live-acting footage saved the studio money as it allowed them to straighten the story out and drop several scenes before animating them, which would have proved a costly waste.

Tremaine in bed

The highlight of the character animation, for me at least, has to be Lady Tremaine. She is animated in such a careful, understated way, and while I understand that this was quite a trial for Frank Thomas to do, I agree with his opinion that his assignment was successfully completed. The only time the character livens up – becomes more “animated,” you might say – is when her daughters appear to have a shot with the prince. Among the other characters, Lucifer also stands out for his crazy expressions and gestures which provide a lot of the laughs, and of course the King is a delight to watch as well, especially in his unguarded moments like when he does a little “happy dance” with one of his footmen before going to bed. The problematic prince caused a few headaches for Eric Larson, though, who thought his work on him was too stiff; it proved difficult to strike the right balance between too effete and too wooden.

Some of the gags work quite well, with one of my favourites being the moment during Cinderelly when one of the female mice threads a needle by sticking her entire tiny arm through its eye. There are some more subtle funny moments too, like when Cinderella first arrives at the ball looking incredible, and the guards are sneaking looks at her from the corners of their eyes. Even as late as 1950, it seems money-saving techniques were being implemented, to avoid the financial problems that had so plagued the studio a decade earlier – when animating the pumpkin coach, for instance, the animators drew it to appear as though it was floating on air, so they wouldn’t have to animate the moving wheels or filigrees.

Cindy's ballgown #1

Some of the highlights from this film’s animation include the Sing Sweet Nightingale scene, where a multitude of reflected Cinderellas sing in harmony with one another as she scrubs the foyer, and the So This Is Love sequence, which looks glorious in its exaggerated romanticism. The absolute best animation occurs during the Godmother’s transformation scenes; the moment when Cinderella’s tattered dress is turned into the glimmering silver ball gown was said to be Walt’s favourite piece of animation that the studio ever created.

 

Plot

Like Snow White, the story of Cinderella and her struggle to escape poverty goes way back to ancient times. The earliest variant of the story is often said to be that of Rhodopis, an Egyptian Cinderella whose tale appeared in Greek philosopher Strabo’s Geographica around 20 BCE. A Chinese Cinderella named Ye Xian then crops up around 853 CE, in Duan Chengshi’s Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, and in the 1630s a writer named Giambattista Basile published his the story of the Italian “Cenerentola” in the Pentamerone. Naturally, the German Brothers Grimm also got their hands on the tale, bringing us the well-known (and rather dark) Aschenputtel in their 1812 collection of fairy tales, but it is probably French writer Charles Perrault’s version that is the best known and it was his that served as the basis for the Disney film. “Cendrillon” appeared in 1697 as part of his Histoires ou contes du temps passé and has remained a staple of fairy tale literature ever since.

The story here is kept quite tight – the whole thing takes place over a roughly twenty-four hour period (excluding the prologue) and is only padded out by the prolonged antics of Lucifer and the mice. Storyman Bill Peet admitted that the cat and mouse parts were needed as padding, because otherwise the story would be told in “seven minutes.” After the first story treatment in 1940, there was another in September 1944 which featured an abundance of side characters, followed by another in August 1947 by Ted Sears, Homer Brightman and Harry Reeves that was bogged down with lots of extra songs and dialogue, but was more recognisable as the story we know today. Animation luminaries like Brad Bird, Brenda Chapman and John Lasseter have all praised this film for its succinct, effective storytelling – it truly is one of the film’s strongest elements.

The godmother comforts Cindy

The story sticks closely to the original for the most part, but with a few additions to add suspense which generally work very well. As in the original, the evil stepmother character is contrasted with a “good” fairy godmother, which according to psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim is done to allow children who read/watch the story to feel both love and hatred for their mothers (depending on how they’re being treated) without feeling guilty. Interestingly, the Disney version completely dispenses with the various endings for the stepfamily – in some versions, Cinderella forgives them, in others she punishes them, but here she simply leaves them behind, which is perhaps as much attention as they deserve after all they’ve put her through.

There’s quite a lot of gaggery (not always a strong point), but the pacing is strong overall – when Cinderella hits rock bottom in the garden, you really feel for her, after having watched her slog through a long day of chores and drudgery only to have her reward snatched away from her in the cruellest manner possible. As I’ve said already, some of the gags do work quite well, too – the teacup one is probably the best in the entire film, as the dim-witted Lucifer tries to catch Gus but fails to realise he’s already seen him as he lifts the cups in a hurry. One of the best additions to the story is the smashing of the slipper in the last act, keeping the suspense high until the very last second – it’s a shock because it doesn’t happen in the original story, and you wonder for a moment if the stepmother might actually win! The horrified look on her face when Cindy produces the second slipper is all the more satisfying because of this addition. They also turn Cinderella’s habit of losing her shoe into something of a signature gesture; she does it three different times over the course of the film, making for a small piece of foreshadowing as she does it during one of her earliest scenes. I like that they kept the slipper glass in this version; there has been some debate as to whether the original Perrault story featured a fur slipper (due to the French words vair and verre being so similar), but it’s widely agreed that he intended glass ones and they really do work so much better.

The famous slipper goes on

The charm of the original fairy tale is beautifully captured in this film and you can tell that it was made with great care; Disney truly are the masters when it comes to fairy tale films. For all that, though, it is still able to make fun of itself at times. You can’t help smirking a bit when the Duke cheerfully lectures the King on his “outdated” idea of romance, saying, “A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire, but in real life, oh no!” The Duke is actually pretty self-aware for a fairy tale character, as he also later notes the plot hole about how the slipper could potentially fit dozens of girls (I always found it weird that the proclamation conveniently omits any physical description of the girl, who was clearly a young, slim blonde). And somehow, the mice getting that key up all those stairs at that pace, fighting Lucifer and setting Cindy free before the Duke left just doesn’t quite add up… Well, maybe they got a little help from the Fairy Godmother.

 

Cinematography

Tremaine hall scrub
Note the French-inspired wrought-iron stair banister

The design of the film draws inspiration from a wide variety of different sources. For the first time in eight years, we’re finally seeing a return to the European sources which so influenced the Golden Era films (yay!), including the likes of Edmund Dulac, Gustave Doré, Grandville and Arthur Rackham. The work of American artists began to feature more here, too; there are hints of Maxfield Parrish here and there and of course a whole lot of Mary Blair’s unique colour-themed work. According to Disney artist Claude Coats, Blair and John Hench visited the French countryside for inspiration, but I haven’t been able to find much evidence to back this up (I hope it’s true; those types of research trips became much more common down the line). You can see this French interest in the architecture in particular, especially in the family château. One other significant influence on the film’s design came from Beatrix Potter, whose charming illustrations of anthropomorphised animals might well have inspired the likes of Jaq and Gus. (Trivia titbit: Potter was actually approached by the studio for the rights to do an adaptation of one of her stories, but she turned them down on the basis that she didn’t believe her work was of sufficient quality to hold up an animated film – how modest!)

Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, Two Bad Mice frontispiece
Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, from the frontispiece of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904)
Mrs_Danvers
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

From the world of cinema, there are some serious film noir vibes going on at times, especially in scenes involving Lady Tremaine. Her character could have been lifted straight out of a Hitchcock film; the relationship between her and Cinderella puts you in mind of the one between Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers in his classic Rebecca (1940). The 1941 The Little Foxes and the 1939 A Little Princess might also have provided inspiration with the characters of Regina Giddens and Miss Minchin, as well as the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a favourite of Walt’s. Personally, I can feel a strong sense of Tom and Jerry at times too – cat and mouse fights were all the rage at the time, thanks to them!

Tremaine Hitchcock stairs

The towering staircases featured throughout the film are classic film noir staples, with the one leading to Cinderella’s room looking particularly twisted and torturous. A tangled staircase like this is sometimes said to symbolise internal chaos or madness in a character, so it’s significant when we see Tremaine climbing and then descending it in the climax as she carries out her most desperate, dastardly deed, possibly representing her loss of control. She also addresses Cinderella from atop another staircase just after the proclamation goes out, symbolising the status of the two women at that point in the story – Tremaine is still in power, but this will soon change.

Long shot of the castle CinderellaCastle entrance CinderellaCinderella castle hallCinderella castle garden romance

From a cinematography standpoint, the highlight of Cinderella is the layout of the various environments inhabited by the characters. The château looks like something out of a storybook, while the castle is romanticised and imposing, reflecting Cinderella’s impression of it rather than the actual building. The layout artists, particularly Ken O’Connor, opted to make the castle sets huge and over-exaggerated to reflect how Cinderella is feeling during her time there; she’s out of her element and feels uncomfortable and alien… at least until the romance with the prince begins, at which point the backgrounds soften and take on an expressionistic feeling as her emotions soar. The castle itself is pure Mary Blair, described by critic Charles Solomon as a “lacy fantasy” – much like the heavenly castle at the end of Snow White, this one feels more like a person’s idea of a castle rather than a physical structure.

Cinderella cage metaphor

As well as the layout, the lighting of the film is also a crucial component, used to great effect in many of Lady Tremaine’s scenes and especially in her first appearance. This is probably my favourite scene in the film, as it perfectly captures the personalities of our protagonist and antagonist in just a few short minutes. As Cinderella enters the room, she is covered in a grid of shadows from the window, symbolising the “cage” she’s being kept in by the bedroom’s occupant. Only as she approaches the bed do we see Tremaine, sitting up and coldly watching her, motionless except for her hand which calmly strokes Lucifer. The restrained animation and the rigid design of her hair keep the focus on her face – all her malice is contained in her expression, or more specifically in her eyes, which are a poisonous shade of green, to reflect her bitterness and jealousy. (There’s another great shot of her eyes in shadow towards the climax which is sure to strike fear into anyone’s heart!) The voice work in this scene is excellent, with Lady Tremaine maintaining a soft, deadly tone sprinkled with a sort of false sweetness – but when Cinderella tries to interrupt her, she is sharp as a snake in her reproaches. Suspecting that the girl has played a practical joke on Anastasia by hiding Gus in her teacup, she delivers a ridiculous list of chores: Cindy must clean the carpets, the windows, the tapestries, the draperies (even though she’s already done them), weed the garden, sweep the terrace, clean the halls, the stairs and the chimneys, finish the mending, the sewing and the laundry, and finally bathe Lucifer, providing her with hours and hours of work and highlighting how unfair the stepmother can be.

Several other scenes stand out for their staging, such as Cindy’s dramatic and suspenseful escape from the ball, but the other one I’d like to focus on is the scene where the stepsisters destroy Cinderella’s mother’s dress, after the animals have worked so hard to fix it up for her.  This is another one which perfectly captures the stepmother’s character, pitting her against Cinderella and having her “win” through her cunning and manipulation of her daughters. When it looks like Cindy is actually going to be able to go to the ball, Tremaine notices that she (or rather, the mice) has borrowed some of her daughter’s accessories. All she has to do is draw their attention to the beads and sash, and it’s like she’s unleashed a pair of vicious guard dogs – in a scene disturbingly reminiscent of physical assault, Anastasia and Drizella proceed to destroy Cinderella’s entire outfit, literally clawing it off her in shreds while screaming insults at her. The simple expressionist backgrounds get redder and redder as the attack peaks, and the staccato cutting echoes Cindy’s rising panic as she is shoved and scratched. Only when the dress is beyond repair does Tremaine call the girls off, leaving poor Cinderella stood there in tatters. Of course, there’s not a word to either of the stepsisters about punishment. The cruellest twist of the knife is Tremaine’s deadpan reaction, offering a simple “goodnight” as she and the girls walk out the door to go to the ball. Animators Frank Thomas and Marc Davis allegedly felt that the scene might be too much, but thank goodness they left it in! It’s one of the film’s most powerful and frightening moments.

Cinderella nineteenth century fashionsCindy's ballgown #2

There are some other great moments of staging – one favourite is when the Duke literally cuts Tremaine out of Cinderella and the Prince’s private romance by swinging a curtain in her face – but to close this section, I’d like to offer a word on the costume design. Unlike Snow White’s vaguely medieval-1930s mashup, the costumes here reflect a more definite time period. Judging from the bustles in the dresses, the sausage curls on characters like Anastasia and the high-collared puff-sleeved outfit worn by Tremaine, we can deduce that it’s probably set around the 1880s (this also ties in with the prologue, where the fashions look more like those of the two-decades-past 1860s). It has been suggested that the designs of Salvador Dalí, who worked at Disney briefly in the 1940s on the famous Destino project, inspired Cinderella’s pink dress (the one that the stepsisters destroy), while the main inspiration for the silvery ball gown was French haute couture, specifically the fashions of Christian Dior, who travelled through the US in 1947. The colour of the ball gown has actually become a talking point in recent years, as the insipid Disney Princess merchandising has recoloured it to a pale blue, even though it appears more silvery in the original. Kind of reminds you of that whole Tumblr debate over a dress colour back in 2015, doesn’t it? This colour issue even extended to the heroine’s hair, with the original strawberry blonde shade being changed to a stinging yellow in the Princess line, for some reason. The ball gown actually stands out for not being very of-the-time, but it does look fabulous – whatever colour you think it is.

 

Soundtrack

Cinderella marks the first time that Walt turned to Tin Pan Alley songwriters for his soundtrack. Although he once commented that he was trying to avoid this type of music, from this film onwards it began to become a recurring theme in the Disney films. After dismissing some impractical notions – like screenwriter Bill Walsh’s suggestion of hiring a famous composer for each individual song – Walt hired Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had found big success with their 1947 hit Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba. Walt liked the nonsense lyrics of the song, but more importantly, he had noted in his shrewd business-like way that it had been hugely popular with the public, so he knew he needed something similar in Cinderella. The result was Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, the Fairy Godmother’s famous anthem, and Walt’s intuition proved spot on, as the song was easily the biggest hit from the film’s soundtrack and led to numerous cover versions in the following years by artists such as the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters. It’s a silly but catchy little tune which functions like a sort of 1950s Hakuna Matata, a pick-me-up after one of the film’s saddest scenes. It’s not exactly one of the film’s strongest songs, but it holds up pretty well thanks to the bouncy performance of Verna Felton.

The most popular piece nowadays is probably A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, a soothing song with a lullaby lilt to it, which has become the film’s (and Cinderella’s) signature theme. This is my favourite song, but then I always enjoy the “I Want” songs sung by the heroines; it does sometimes receive criticism for being dull or slow, but it’s such a warm, nostalgic tune that it’s hard to hate it, even if you don’t love it. In her later years, Ilene Woods sadly developed dementia and could no longer remember playing this role, but she was said to be comforted when she heard this song, which the nurses played for her as often as they could. I love that – it’s so good to hear a little of the old Disney magic stayed with her, despite her illness.

The stepsisters butchering song

Cinderella’s other showpiece is Oh Sing Sweet Nightingale, which she sings in beautiful contrast to the butchered version done by Drizella during the “music lesson.” The song adds a little characterisation, as we see that Cinderella is content in her own company – her inner goodness shines through in song, at a point where most people would be grumbling about having to scrub the enormous foyer. Drizella, of course, has never been corrected or criticised and is completely oblivious of how awful she sounds, even when Lucifer slinks out, cringing! Incidentally, the voice actresses of the stepsisters could sing, so their hilariously flat rendition of the song is a deceptively accurate portrayal of bad singing. The scene also stands out from a technical standpoint, as the harmonising of Cinderella with herself had rarely been done before – as you might expect, the idea to try it was Walt’s, ever eager to push the envelope on what could be done (although he didn’t actually invent the technique in this case).

Sing Sweet Nightingale

The two remaining songs are The Work Song (Cinderelly) and So This Is Love. The Work Song is, I think, the weakest of the lot – it’s very twee and irritating and the sound effects of the mice’s voices haven’t aged too well. I much prefer So This Is Love, the ballad sung over Cinderella and Prince Charming’s romantic tête-à-tête. The song is dripping with old-fashioned sentimentality and makes the perfect accompaniment for the scene it’s in, as well as offering a bit of insight into Cinderella’s character: having lost her father so young, she’s never really known love of any sort, so the fact that the prince is treating her with kindness (let alone love) is a revelation to her and makes the moment all the more special. It may be a bit much by today’s more jaded standards, but if you like this type of song, you’re sure to find a favourite in this.

It is thanks to the songwriters of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo that Ilene Woods ever got involved with the project in the first place, as they were friends with her and had her record some demos of the songs, which they then sent to Walt without telling her – she effectively auditioned without even knowing she had! Cinderella became the first Disney film to have its soundtrack published and copyrighted by the Walt Disney Music Company, founded by Fred Raphael in late 1949 and now a subsidiary of the Disney Music Group. By the early 1950s, film soundtracks were starting to become marketable, whereas earlier films had just had their soundtracks sold off to more established music companies, usually for sheet music publication (Snow White’s, the first commercially released film soundtrack, was a special collector’s edition).

Outside of the songs, the rest of the score is serviceable, though it rarely shines in the way that Pinocchio or Bambi’s did. Lucifer gets some of the best accompaniment, with low thrumming strings in his more menacing moments and crazy percussion when he’s getting wilder. The score is probably at its best during Cinderella’s rush home at midnight; the orchestra builds and builds in panicky crescendos as she desperately flees the King’s guards (who look awfully menacing for such a benevolent kingdom), trying to escape before her gown becomes rags again.

Escape from the castle Cinderella

Some of the sound effects are a bit dated – as I mentioned above, the mice’s voices really get under your skin after a while, and there are other moments where they obviously got a bit carried away playing with the sound equipment, like Cinderella’s “shower voice” during her opening number, and Drizella yawning as she says “Who will?” on the morning of the Duke’s arrival.

Still, the voice acting is generally superb; I especially like the King, as the hammy characters like him are always so much fun to watch (and listen to). The scene where the poor Duke has to tell him that Cinderella has escaped provokes a typically fiery reaction, with him screaming “SHE WHAT? TREASON! SABOTAGE!” as he runs about trying to behead the petrified Duke. My favourite line of the whole film, though, is one of the gentler ones – it’s when the Duke is on the point of leaving the Tremaine château, and Cinderella comes running down just in time, calling out, “Your Grace! Your Grace! Please, wait! May I try it on?” Something about Woods’s delivery at that moment just gets me right in the heart – it’s so sweet and with just an edge of desperation, almost as though she’s near tears, as she just barely makes it in time.

 

Final Verdict

Finally, finally, after thirteen years of war, financial failures, strikes and other issues, Disney rediscovered the success he’d been hoping for. Cinderella was wildly popular upon its original release, garnering support from many big-name promoters like J.C. Penney, the New York Heart Ball, Life and Newsweek, among others. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of the year and led to theatrical rereleases in 1957, 1965, 1973, 1981 and 1987.

The success – both critical and financial – allowed the company to begin to diversify for the first time. Walt had had enough of keeping all his eggs in one basket, with the fate of the studio always resting on the next film, so the same year that Cinderella came out, he began to get into live-action filmmaking for the first time (not counting partially animated projects like Song of the South).  It was also around this time that the plans for the original Disneyland theme park began to form in his mind. Still, all this diversifying came at a cost; from about 1952, the animation staff noted that it became difficult to get him on hand for the meetings, and by the time One Hundred and One Dalmatians came along he was only distantly involved, although he did continue to give final approval to each film until his death. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; after many years of experience, Walt now felt confident in leaving the animated films largely in the hands of his best animators, freeing his attention up to focus on other aspects of the ever-growing company.

Cinderella’s legacy has been largely positive, although unfortunately, I have to make brief mention of the two direct-to-video sequels it got in the 2000s. Yes, this film was the second after Bambi to suffer this indignity, with Cinderella II: Dreams Come True coming out in 2002 and then Cinderella III: A Twist in Time following in 2007. I’ve seen neither, but I’ve heard that the latter film, at least, isn’t all bad, as it gives some character development to Anastasia and adds magic to the already dangerous stepmother. Of course, in 2015, we also got a full live-action remake, one of the many that we’ve been seeing in recent years – and I have to admit, it’s not quite as terrible as some of them have been. It certainly beats the horrendous Maleficent (2014), anyway! The remake was directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Lily James in the title role. For the most part, it’s quite faithful to the original, providing us with a deliciously evil new take on the stepmother courtesy of Cate Blanchett. The only real piece of miscasting is with the Fairy Godmother, who’s played by… Helena Bonham Carter. I just… I don’t get that at all.

The character of Cinderella also formed a significant part of the Disney Princess line, upon its introduction in 2000. Now, I don’t really agree with anything about this merchandise-driven initiative; it’s so greedy and represents the worst side of the multinational Disney corporation, not to mention it doesn’t make a lot of sense, with several literal princesses being left out simply because their films weren’t as popular. That said, I’m hardly the target demographic for these products, and the fact that Cinderella has managed to remain relevant and popular for the sixty-plus years between her film’s release and today tells you plenty about the stellar quality of the storytelling. She is truly the most relatable of the early Disney heroines, a trait which has undoubtedly helped her longevity as modern girls can recognise aspects of themselves in her just as easily as those of 1950.

After multiple home media releases, the film was restored and remastered for a special edition DVD in 2005, and there was apparently even a “Royal Edition” release in the UK in 2011 to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (wish I’d known that before). Like Snow White, it’s still widely regarded as one of the greatest animated films ever made, inspiring a whole new generation with its artistry. John Lasseter considers it to be Walt’s masterpiece, the best film he ever made when looked at from every angle. Critic Christopher Finch said that the film “harks back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though with an added frosting of surface glamour and a greater reliance on gag routines,” but then adds that it “remains faithful to the spirit of the original fairy tale.” The film was made on the cusp between the artistic, experimental days of the Golden Era (glossing over the following Package Era) and the more commercially successful times of the Silver Era, so Cinderella really was a major milestone for the Disney Company in many ways.

Although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, I do still enjoy a lot of things about it, particularly the stepmother and Cinderella herself, and I only wish I could’ve seen it when I was younger – like many of the early Disney films, I didn’t get to grow up with it and only saw it for the first time around 2011. However, at university, I ended up working the story into my dissertation on the roles of women in fantasy literature, so it still has a special place for me even with the lack of nostalgia factor. I highly recommend this one if you’ve also not seen it yet, as it’s nothing less than a classic of the genre and truly one of the best fairy tale adaptations ever made.

 

My Rating – 5/5

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

A Wish Your Heart Makes (2015) by Charles Solomon (This one is really excellent)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14994047 – credit for poster

By Beatrix Potter (1866—1943) – Internet Archive scan of The Tale of Two Bad Mice, image taken from this PDF version, the relevant text for this illustration is “Then Tom Thumb lost his temper. He put the ham in the middle of the floor, and hit it with the tongs and with the shovel–bang, bang, smash, smash!”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48458069 – credit for Beatrix Potter image

http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Mrs_Danvers.jpg – credit for the Mrs Danvers image

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinderella_(1950_film) – wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042332/ – IMDB profile

https://thedisneyodyssey.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/classic-no-12-cinderella-1950/ – another excellent WordPress review of the film (and check out the rest of their content!)

 

Bonus Titbit – here is the complete text of the Royal Proclamation posted on the castle gate!

“All loyal subjects of his Imperial Majesty are hereby notified by royal proclamation that in regard to a certain glass slipper, it is upon this day decreed that a quest be instituted throughout the length and breadth of our domain. The sole and express purpose of said quest is as follows to wit: that every single maiden in our beloved Kingdom shall try upon her foot this aforementioned slipper of glass, and should one be found whose foot shall properly fit said slipper, such maiden will be acclaimed the subject of this search and the one and only true love of his Royal Highness, our noble Prince. And said Royal Highness will humbly request the hand of said maiden in marriage to rule with him over all the land as Royal Princess and future Queen.”

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