Having a Ball

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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?

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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.

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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.

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10 Responses to “Having a Ball”

  1. This came about thanks to the surprise success of Lili. But where Walters, Caron and Deutsch triumphed with that simple story they’re on shaky footing with this classic tale. Moments work but overall it’s surprisingly flat.

  2. I found Lili quite flat a lot of the time. The dramatic problem seemed easily solved and so the whole movie is kicking furiously at an open door. Of the two I probably prefer Glass Slipper, but the innovations in this one do strip away quite a lot of the dramatic potential. The slipper itself is an irrelevance when the Prince has already met Cinders and knows exactly where to find her!

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    Prokofiev’s glorious score and the ballet productions it’s danced to is my favorite version of “Cinderella” by far. The wonderful Mariinsky Ballet are bringing a production of it here to Los Angeles, in October, can’t wait.

  4. DBenson Says:

    The opening scenes have Ella and her upsacle young adult peers behaving like six-year-olds. Perhaps to play to the little girls in the audience, eager to equate her sufferings with the playground class warfare they understood.

    Wonder if they (or their parents) had trouble with the rest of the film. It’s stated outright that the stepmother’s rich relation got that way after being “ruined” by the king; in a later throwaway the prince recalls her having him sent away to school, implying a place in the household. The prince himself admits to being an unwise womanizer. I felt the tone of the film wasn’t so much feminist as sort of bitchy.

    And the classic Cinderella problem: She has to look beautiful despite being ugly to everybody onscreen. Even with her face carefully smudged up, how is possible the local boys aren’t chasing the well-formed Leslie all over the village? Maybe she’s too poor for marriage, but the film is very clear that men can have dishonorable intentions.

    Caron and Monroe make for interesting comparison, at least on the basis of their early iconic roles:
    — Monroe was a male fantasy of bright, uncomplicated sex. She seemed happy and even eager to oblige, often not aware there was anything more to it. In “Bus Stop” she has to be taught there’s more than sex. In “Seven Year Itch” she’s the fantasy times ten, perfectly okay with whatever. In “Some Like It Hot” her character is at least aware this is a weakness, yet she falls for a saxophone player despite a conscious effort to be a golddigger (echoed in “How to Marry a Millionaire”).
    — Caron was a slightly different fantasy, the beautiful virgin about to Blossom, and therefore ready to Bloom with a worldly man. In “Gigi” the hero is repelled when she becomes worldly; order is restored when he comes back and nervously proposes, making her revert to the innocent maid who can only be had on those terms. In “Glass Slipper”, “Lili”, “Daddy Long Legs” and “American in Paris” she’s still emphatically the little virgin whose innocence will redeem/complete a worldly man.

  5. Couldn’t disagree more about “Lili” (which I saw when it opened in New York at one theater where it ran for two years) Caron’s naivete is the key that unlocks the door of Ferrer’s self-hatred. The puppets are his means of speaking the truth he can’t himself utter.

    And note that in the film’s last shot the puppets become “real.”

  6. Lili has that icky dream sequence with the life-sized puppets…

    Glass Slipper doesn’t even have the nerve to keep Caron dirty until the ball: she’s all clean and wearing elaborate eye makeup long before she gets there, which takes a lot of the impact out of her makeover. “Bitchy” is fair, I guess — I liked the idea that she’d become truculent and resentful through being mistreated, rather than being the usual sweet doormat of myth, but the movie doesn’t do anything with this idea.

    In general, everything suggested by the VO seems promising — cynicism and bitterness but with a heart underneath– but it isn’t carried over into the action.

  7. DBenson Says:

    Caron’s character IS nicely done and far from bitchy — the only vintage Cinderella I can think of who wasn’t a cup of self-effacing sunshine 24/7. But the bitchiness — perhaps snarkiness is a better word — lurks not just in the voiceover, but in the plot ideas: the courtesan relative, the jerky villagers, and the notion that the prince is mainly a sucker for hard-luck dames. These things are not writ large. They’re perhaps deliberately soft-pedeled, a little something for adults who might squirm through an all-fluff version of the story (even Disney felt the need to keep slapstick comedy in the foreground while Ella and her prince were as idealized as Barbie and Ken).

    While “Lili” (like the other Caron features) is still an unironic pleasure, the virgin-ready-for-harvest theme is still there: It takes a girl so young and innocent she believes puppets are real to redeem the mature cynic. This is not to say this was a conscious agenda at MGM or even within a specific film. It was a theme that was out there in the culture. In the 20s and early 30s especially it wasn’t uncommon or totally unacceptable for adult leading men to have teenage costars, on and offscreen. Much later I knew a sharp and progressive woman who loved “Manhattan” with Woody Allen returning to Mariel Hemingway. More to the point, it was a formula that had worked with Caron before.

  8. Caron was unavoidably younger than any of the other MGM stars, so it may have seemed somewhat inevitable to cast her in this way, but An American in Paris at least doesn’t make a big deal of her virginity or naivety or innocence, as I recall.

  9. Leslie Caron told me that in the dream ballet Walters (who of course choreographed) danced the part od one of the life-sized puppets — though she couldn’t recall which one. I don’t find it “icky” at all — but chaque a son GOO.

    The Older Man / Younger Woman scenario you speak of Mr. Benson achieves its apotheosis in Gigi — which of course stars Leslie Caron.

    Caron’s more recent roles are quite striking, particularly Merchant-Ivor’s superb Le Divorce where she’s a world-wise older woman regarding the lovely and charming Kate Hudson’s romantic travails at the hands of the sort of French roué she fended off half a century before with dark amusement.

    She was to have co-starred with Albert Finney in Rivette’s L’Histoire de Marie at Julien back in the early 70’s, but three days into the shoot the great auteur had a nervous breakdown and the production was scratched. He took it up again years later eith Emmanuelle Beart and Jerzy Radzilowicz.

  10. — by which time it had changed quite a bit. I love the result, but it would be fascinating to have both versions.

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