Cinderella (1950) Review
What do I know about the film?
So what’s your pleasure gentle reader? Is it The Lion King? Robin Hood? Aladdin? Whatever your favourite is you should thank ‘Cinderella’ because if this had failed the Walt Disney Studios would have closed. Mickey Mouse would have been out on his ass, giving blow jobs on the streets of LA.
‘Cinderella’ was their final shot at glory. They had not had a world wide box office smash since ‘Snow White’ and they were in a hell of a lot of debt. It was do or die. Sink or swim. The chips were on the table. Um…The chips were down. The chips were somewhere unexpected. Another clumsy metaphor to emphasise the stakes were high…It was super fucking serious all right guys!?
To cut down on the cost of animation, the film was planned out with live action models to the point that they actually prepped 90% of the film with models, actors and basic sets so they knew what they were going to do when it came time to animate. Despite this ingenious plan they still had to draw the damn thing and the production cost came to a total of $3 million which was a lot for an animated film back in 1950.
So did it do well? No. It didn’t. Disney closed down and…Nah, I kid. It did brilliantly. Between the huge box office receipts, film merchandise and soundtrack record sales Disney were able to branch out and begin to grow. In the next decade they would develop many new films, a distribution company, enter television production and create Disneyland. All thanks to Cinders.
Nobody could ever accuse Walt Disney of not being a trendsetter. ‘Cinderella’ had some music that Uncle Walt suspected would be popular. So he did something nobody had ever thought of: He published and copyrighted them. But with whom? Why the newly invented Walt Disney Music Company of course! Because why give other people money when you have decided you want it all? Prior to this innovation, movie studios generally felt that song rights were not worth the paper work and would sell them to whoever wanted them, hence why a lot of old school musicals use the same songs as each other. (Did you know NONE of the songs from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ were written for that film? No. Not even Singin’ in the Rain.) So when Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (I AM NOT WRITING THAT AGAIN. I AM TOO DYSLEXIC FOR THAT SHIT IT NEARLY BROKE MY BRAIN) became a chart hit on four different occasions, guess who got paid? Good idea Disney. Good idea.
Did I see it as a child?
Yes. I liked this one but I did not have it on VHS which means I did not watch it a lot. The last time I watched it was when I was about 18 at a sleepover, so I remembered some details about the plot and characters. And yes. Some 18 year olds have sleepovers. Not the sexy kind. The Pyjamas, Ice Cream and Disney kind. So kind of sexy, sure.
Seriously? You don’t remember the plot to ‘Cinderella?’ It is based on a story so old and timeless that nobody can agree who first came up with it, although the most famous adaptation came from the Brothers Grimm. Basically it goes unfortunate person becomes fortunate so yeah, I guess it is hard to pin down who came up with that one.
But what say Disney? How did they take on this tale as old as time?
Well when her Dad goes and dies before the first song, Cinderella is left at the mercy of her crafty Stepmother and ‘awkward’ Stepsisters. She has to do all the chores, be verbally abused for the smallest of mistakes and lives largely in isolation. As a result her only hobby seems to be clothing vermin, which does not reflect well on her mental state.
Meanwhile in a nearby castle an angry King is concerned that his son is growing up too fast (a point emphasised by a pretty spot on portrait gag) and wants to invite all the upper class women in the kingdom to a big party so he can get him married off asap. The party is to take place that very night…. Ok, this was before Facebook and the like…How the hell did they get the word out? Are we supposed to believe that NONE of these eligible girls had plans?
Anyhoo, Cinderella fancies going to the party to have a go at meeting the prince but in a series of increasingly disturbing scenes realises it ain’t happening on the Stepmother’s watch. But, thankfully, a Fairy Godmother appears, a fact Cinderella takes in her stride suggesting this kind of thing happened a lot in the olden days. The Fairy Godmother kits her out with a nice outfit and a hideous haircut and tells her she has till midnight to enjoy the party. A fact that nearly slips the mind of a love struck Cinders…
I could have wept when I saw how beautiful the animation looked. After months of watching cartoons so cheap they may as well as have been created using one of those little flipbooks, I was blown away by the attractiveness of each and every scene. The iconic castle, the stairs that look like real marble, the shimmering material of the dress, the intricate details on the various objects, the eyes of the Stepmum, the bubbles with lots of harmonising Cinderella clones in them…Thank God for that. Quality, people. Quality. Quality drips from the pores of this film. As with ‘Pinocchio’ before it, there are no superfluous design choices either, they all enhance the story and communicate to the audience.
Ok so it looks nice…what about the characters? Good news! A lot of them are brilliant. The Fairy Godmother is so memorable and yet only appears in the film once and very briefly at that. Cinderella has just been assaulted by her Stepsisters and after they depart for the ball she flees to the garden to have a good cry. As she weeps her Fairy Godmother appears. Her entrance is made somewhat awkward by the fact that she fades in sitting on a bench that Cinderella is crying on. What is wrong with that? Well…She is stroking Cinderella’s hair. Which is creepy seeing as they have not been formally introduced. And Cinderella’s face is kind of buried in her crotch. See? Awkward. Despite this Cinderella is very accepting of this new twist in her tale (perhaps she read the book?) and the Fairy Godmother wastes no time in singing an awesome song and turning Cinderella’s various animal friends into an acceptable entourage for the party. Her matter of fact delivery, this is her job after all, is wonderful and makes the previously unexplored idea of magic in this universe much easier to accept.
It is kind of awesome to have a cool, snap to it, no nonsense older woman be a major player in a Disney film. This is not the fairy from ‘Pinocchio’ who is all pretty in an undefined glowing way. This is a real woman who has lived and seen it all. She has forgotten more about magic than most Disney characters will ever learn. The success of the character opened doors for the next Disney princess film to feature several older females so I am grateful to her for that reason. You go Fairy G. My only complaint is that she never returns. While her being a deus ex machina during the finale would have been crap, you would think she would at least be invited to the wedding. That’s gratitude for you. Even if Cinders doesn’t appreciate you mate, I do.
But is not just the heroes that are well represented in this. You can’t have a Disney classic without a good villain. Cinderella actually goes one better and has a great one. One of the greats. The wicked Stepmother, who is actually called Lady Tremaine, is introduced shrouded in darkness, her clipped tones betraying just a hint of hostility towards her unlucky stepdaughter. The abusive relationship dynamic between Cinders and the Good (bad) Lady is played brilliantly, with the animators and the two voice actors really nailing these quiet moments between the two of them.
Think of it like this: The events of ‘Cinderella’ all play out in about 24 hours. We see Cinderella wake up in the morning, do chores, they are invited to the ball, Cinders can’t go, she goes anyway, the next day the Duke comes to the house with the glass slipper. We don’t have much time to get an idea of why Cinders doesn’t just say ‘screw this’ and walk out the door away from her oppressive and emotionally stunted step-family. Some people might come away from the film still wondering this. But I have worked with children who have experienced emotional abuse. And the movie gets it spot on. Of all the Disney films to represent a harsh reality, I bet you didn’t think it would be ‘Cinderella’ did you?
When Cinders gets in trouble for supposedly planting a mouse in her sisters’ breakfast she is not screamed at and hit. The Stepmother acts disappointed that Cinders would behave so childishly, knowing full well she is innocent. But the clue is the warning in the words. The emphasis on ‘silence’ when Cinders tries to defend her position. Giving her chores she has already done to demonstrate Cinders time is best wasted. When the Lady tells Cinders she will be allowed to attend the ball if she gets her chores done, Cinders reacts like this could actually happen and is very grateful. This suggests that the Lady gives just enough love or even the possibility of love that Cinders remains hopeful and dependable. Abusive Relationship 101 that. And, most telling of all, when Cinderella rushes down the stairs all breathless and excited in her new dress, the Lady takes a few steps towards her…and if you see the look the animators put on Cinderella at this moment you will understand the power struggle in their relationship. She does not know what is going to happen but she really and truly fears her. She might get slapped or kissed. She might be safe or at risk. There is no way of predicting the behaviour of her captor.
This scene is actually hard to watch. Lady Tremaine fondles the beads around her neck with faux innocence, tipping off her daughters to the fact that all the items that make up the outfit have been pilfered from their rooms. At this point the Stepsisters really go for Cinders, not holding back, ripping and tearing at her clothes until she is left in rags and completely humiliated. The Lady is very clever. She goes a step further than just forbidding her to go. She gives Cinders hope and then manipulates her daughters into snatching it away, leaving our heroine broken and bereft. It is pretty brutal and gives us just a snippet of what Cinders has had to put up with in her short life.
After Cinderella accidentally gives away the fact that she is the one who the Duke is looking for before he arrives (she starts humming and dancing happily while still in the presence of her evil family…read the room bitch!) there is a great shot of the penny dropping in the deep green eyes of Lady Tremaine. It is a fantastically memorable piece of animation and builds suspense in the third act: We know she knows but Cinders doesn’t. Not since my first viewing of the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie have I willed a character to get away so much. As the Lady approaches Cinderella’s room to lock her in I was screaming: ‘Run you moron! RUN!’
So we have an enjoyably scatty but competent supporting character and a spot on villain, not to mention a menagerie of animal sidekicks that are always good to entertain the children. I assumed Cinderella herself would be the problem with the story. Surprisingly no. She was much more of a compelling character than I remembered. She was not off to a great start what with her being able to speak bird, naming her mice after Roman emperors and babbling about dreams being wishes that can come true. But then she made it up to me with one or two moments of genuine, honest to goodness snarkiness. When she catches the cat and dog behaving like, well you know, a cat and a dog, she tells the canine that Lucifer (subtle) the feline must have some good qualities and then fails to name any. Because she can’t. Best of all, when she gets the letter about the Ball her stepsisters are upstairs singing poorly. She heads up, musing that she will have to interrupt the ‘music lesson’ and there is definite bitchiness in the delivery. It is funny and makes her seem a lot more human and relatable than I recalled her being.
As I have covered, I truly empathise with her plight and this is credit to the wonderful Ilene Woods who plays her. In stark contrast to the dreadful vocal performance by the actress who played Snow White I could listen to Ms Woods for hours. She sells both the typical Disney virtuousness and the emotional moments. When Cinders is locked in her room and it temporarily seems like all is lost, her grief seemed very real and actually quite heart breaking. And her singing voice? Stunning. It is so rich, like honey and is all the more impressive considering she recorded it when she was still so young. Plus she is an alto! Lead females are never altos! I salute you Woods.
The actress died in 2010 at the age of 81 due to complications involving alzheimers. I only know that because I just looked her up online to confirm that she existed and that. And now I am a bit weepy because apparently towards the end of her life she was confused and unsettled and one of the only things that the nurses could do to comfort her was play ‘A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes’ Even though she couldn’t remember that it was her own voice she was hearing and that she was Cinderella. Ok. Hang on. I need to get a tissue. Rest in peace, you silky voiced beauty.
This film has an undeserved reputation for being a bit twee. Possibly because of a lot of stuff I will cover in the next section. So while it is not completely undeserved, the only way you could dismiss it is if you decide to deliberately overlook the skill and heart that clearly went into it. Not to mention it is full of good humour and seems to be pretty aware of the silliness at various moments.
One of my favourite scenes is the mice helpfully creating a dress for Cinderella. First of all the song leading into it is a great mix of frustration and triumph and, for me, is the mice at their most winning. I especially like when Gus and Jaq enthusiastically volunteer to get started and are told firmly: ‘Leave the sewin’ to the women! You go get the trimmin!’ As my viewing partner Alex pointed out: ‘Yes…because choosing ribbon is the work of men!’ At this point they could have cut from their cheerful song to the reveal of the dress but there is a great moment where you see the logistics of them putting the frock together and it made the whole thing seem, God save me, probable. Sure mice probably don’t have the dexterity to handle scissors safely, but through the use of long bits of strings, blue prints and quality organisation, the scene demonstrates how it could actually be done. And it looks brilliant.
There is some pretty classic slapstick, silent comedy and sad sack humour on display throughout ‘Cinderella’ whether it is the mice choosing who should face the cat and pre-emptively mourning the selected candidate or the put upon Duke having to face down the King when Cinderella slips away at midnight, causing the King to chase him round with a sword threatening to murder him if he does not get his son married off and producing royal Grandkids. Kings be crazy. And you can tell the Duke hates him and can barley hide his resentment. In a lot of ways he is more suited to Cinderella than The Prince. They have been through similar stuff.
The Duke even gets to make a wink-wink joke for the benefit of the audience too. While using his monocle as a yo-yo, as bored rich people are wont to do, he points out that love does not work the way the King believes and the Prince won’t just walk up to a girl, ask her to dance and fall in love right away. Of course, that is exactly what happens. Ok, so the people at Disney know it is a bit silly…Does not change the fact that it is.
But we will get to that in a moment. The most important thing to take away from this review is this should not be a film reserved for little girls who want to be princesses when they grow up. It is fun, funny, scary, beautifully drawn, well scored, well acted and if any film from this era was going to save the Walt Disney Company I am not remotely surprised it was this one as there is something here for everyone.
What Doesn’t Work:
Prince not so Charming is so bland I swear you could cut him out of the film and nobody would notice. Seriously. He could be an off screen character, like the Wife of Niles in Frasier, and nobody would miss him. We know nothing about him except he loves Cinderella so much that he sends his Man Servant to go find her after the Ring-Wraiths fail to retrieve her. (This observation must also be credited to Alex. She is very funny.) Hell, we don’t even get his name. At no point is he referred to as Charming or anything. He is just his status. Prince. A literal representation of the kind of splendour that Cinderella would like and nothing more.
So why should we care about him and by extension them? Even though the film acknowledges they fall for each other fast it does not change the fact that it is stupid. It is the main reason this has become a Disney cliché, parodied perfectly in ‘Enchanted’ when the characters exchange names only for the prince to declare: ‘We will be married in the morning!’ Why was Disney so afraid to show a relationship develop and grow naturally? One dance and one telepathic duet doth not a life long commitment make.
According to the Disney history books, there was supposed to be a scene between Cinderella successfully trying on the glass slipper (Ouch. Glass? Ouch.) confirming her as the tiny footed babe from the ball and the final shot of them leaving the palace married as the mice throw rice at them. Wait…she brought her MICE to the palace? Jesus…You can take the screwy girl out of her prison but you can’t stop her clothing vermin.
Anyway. Missing scene. It was supposed to be the pair being reunited and the Prince expressing his surprise that his love was not a posh bird. But in the end he would decide it did not matter to him that much and love would conquer all. Walt decided to cut it though, thinking the story was over and didn’t need to be dragged out. Wise man. Another fun fact: 20 minutes into the film and I noticed the ball had yet to be mentioned. It takes a really fucking long time for them to get to the party. There is a LOT of cat chasing mice shtick. Which is done well but…Perhaps developing your main characters would have been time better spent. I mean, they literally trade about 5 words before she is brought before him as his fiancé. Not only is it crap story telling it is not a great message to give to small children. Think I’m overreacting? Have you seen the divorce rates in the world? How many people saw Disney films growing up and were taught that building a life together involves meeting, liking the way the person looks/dances, getting married and literally nothing else? Disney. Creating disillusioned adults since ’39.
While Cinderella herself is a major improvement on that Squawking Snow White Bint who started it all, she is still a little generic and passive, relying exclusively on others to win out, making her victory a little hollow. But I suppose she has a lot of helpful sidekicks to choose from. She really, really does. There are lots of mice, birds, a dog, a cat, a horse and some chickens. And later a pumpkin. A lot of people like the animals in this film but to be honest they tried my patience. Especially the mice whose voices are created by doing the Chipmunk thing of speeding up the recording. Which makes me sincerely fear for the actor who plays Jaq as even speeded up he sounded like he was on 6 packs of cigarettes a day…Hang on I am going to find out how the actor died…I have not looked yet but I am betting a fiver on lung cancer.
Heart Failure. Plus he voiced a lot of different characters for Disney including Mickey Mouse after Walt had to give up doing it himself due to…smoking. There you go. So maybe he just decided to make Jaq throatier to distinguish him from the other squeak voiced rodents. Because the downside of speeding up a recording is any character nuance is totally lost. Plus I find it really, really annoying. Disney has a lot of stories that are told from the perspective of humans that rely too heavily on critters. This is one of them. They need to trust that they can tell a story without the cute. The cute is not needed when your world is this finely crafted.
Frustratingly Disney continue their trend of insisting instant love happens very easily and make it impossible to care about the main relationship, but apart from that this holds up a lot better than I was expecting. ‘Cinderella’ is charming (even if the Prince really isn’t), brilliantly animated, well cast and gives us a princess who really suffers for her crown.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
The dress ripping scene, the way the Godmother appears caressing Cinders, Lady Tremaine’s eyes when she realises Cinderella went to the ball and Cinderella crying when she is locked in her room.
This is a tricky one. BBB (I am not writing it again. It doesn’t even deserve copy and paste. It hurt me too much) is probably the most enduring song but it is very short. ‘So This is Love’ is elevated by the fantastic Ms Woods but is still a fairly standard Disney love duet. ‘The Work Song’ makes me smile but is sung by the awful mice voices. I find the sentiment of ‘A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes’ make me cringe even though it is catchy. And Woods’s heavenly version of ‘Sing Sweet Nightingale’ is over before BBB. All of these songs are good…it is just none of them stand out as being the best for me. So what to do?
I went and listened to them all just now…Which one do I want to hear again the most? I have to be honest with my choice. Even though I don’t think this song is the best and certainly won’t be the most popular choice, this is the song that truly made me fall for Woods. So even though I don’t care for the couple at all just enjoy the vulnerable sexy vocal and sweeping melody:
Next Time: Curiouser and curiouser..Let’s all celebrate our unbirthdays with Alice in Wonderland (1951)