Having a Ball
Taking the magic out of Cinderella is a risky stratagem, like taking the songs out of a musical — the Leslie Caron vehicle THE GLASS SLIPPER does both, which accounts perhaps for its minor status in the MGM canon. I can’t help thinking that when building films around Caron — an actress and dancer but not a singer — the studio might have compensated for her vocal lack by surrounding her with singers, or dubbing her (but how to mimic that wondrous, unpredictable delivery?). Musicals without songs like this and LILI are strange animals — and how much actual ballet does the movie audience want, even with a talented director of musicals like Charles Walters running the show?
If it doesn’t have songs or magic — for some reason, somebody thought a more naturalistic version of the Cinderella story was the way to go, even if it still looks as fanciful as any other MGM musical– it at least has charm. Caron makes sure of that, something to do with the way she can be gauche and elegant, vulnerable and belligerent, innocent and sophisticated, all at once. Michael Wilding, as “Prince Charles,” was always going to seem a little insipid by comparison — if he gets the girl, she’s going to make a dessicated husk out of him in one night, the vivacious minx — but he has a sweetness that always makes me want to put up with him and maybe slap him on the back and buck him up. And Estelle Winwood is a fantastic idea as the fairy godmother, here transmuted into an eccentric recluse who takes a shine to Ella. Huge eyes practically spilling out the sides of her head.
None of this, and Elsa Lanchester as evil stepmother too, would be quite enough if Helen Deutsch, screenwriter, hadn’t turned the scenario at least partway into a feminist fable, with an acerbic narration spoken by Walter Pidgeon and some terrific dialogue for Winwood which disguise sound sense as madness.
“All women must endure these discomforts,” says Winwood of the agony of wearing glass shoes, “For fashion. It fascinates men; makes them marvel at women; fills them with Awe — because they know they couldn’t stand it.” It’s not quite a radical sentiment, but it comes at traditional gender roles from a non-traditional angle, which opens up the ability to question things. And for 50s MGM, that’s something.