This week I watched Disney’s Cinderella for the first time. I admit that slightly hesitantly, not least in case the students on my film module take it as evidence that I am entirely unqualified to teach them anything! Because of various reasons, Disney is a bit of a gap in my education. I didn’t see most of the films whilst growing up, and when I did I tended to see them at a friend’s house or in snippets on TV, so I didn’t watch them repeatedly til they became part of my cultural instincts.
From the way friends talk about Disney, this last way of watching seems to be a major part of the real experience. I gather they’re not so much films to be watched as intended to be rewatched: the fairy tale/ mythic narratives, the layers of animated references and jokes, the musical sequences, young audience and happy endings, all seem to imply works which are designed for multiple viewings.
They look like they offer the comfort and intrigue of continual iteration rather than the pleasures of narrative twists or striking character development. Italo Calvino described a classic as a book which no-one ever says “I am reading…”, but only “I am rereading…”; taking him a face value Disney films seem to be constructed to become “classics”.
Certainly that seems to be the way a lot of people watched them and understood them. I remember sitting slightly baffled at an extremely boisterous house party at college, whilst everyone around me drunkenly bawled out Disney songs. And then started another. And another. Never mind why they were all chugging cider and wailing about being a mermaid or finding a whole new world, how did they know all the words? This wasn’t knowledge, it was a whole culture I didn’t know much of anything about. (See also: the profound significance that Robin Hood fox fellow apparently has for a number of British and American women of our generation.)
So I finally got round to deliberately watching some of them, and they’re absolutely fascinating. You probably all know that. Given how many of the readers of this blog are probably familiar with the films, and what excellent comments you all leave, I thought it might be worth recording what I noticed on a first watch, and asking you to pile in with reactions, corrections, responses, etc.
I imagine much of what I do will be misreading, or missing the point, particularly since I’m watching Disney films for the first time somewhere north of thirty, but I’ll be very interested to hear where I’m going wrong, or what you saw in the same film.
So, Cinderella, then. It starts with the same sort of negotiation between a book and a film that I saw in The Sword in the Stone (watched earlier this term…) We don’t jump straight into a full animation, first we see a book, then it opens, then we get a sequence of what would be stills (except this is animation), with very small elements animated within the frame. They remind me of Victorian and Edwardian tableaux vivants, where you know the figures are capable of movement, and in fact they’re holding back from continuing the story in order to present a picture to you.
With The Sword in the Stone, I thought there was some anxiety about sources there; wanting to root itself firmly in the Malory tradition whilst also not relinquishing all of its claims to add something new and vital. (Or even to supply the oral popular tradition which ran alongside “official” and “literary” versions of the story like Malory – I noticed that the voice reading out the lines of the song didn’t always tally with what was written in the book.)
Something similar might be going on here: a desire to show that the film was connected with fairy tale traditions, so was “authentic” in that sense, but wasn’t defined by its faithfulness to an existing version of the story. Or perhaps by showing a book, and then gradually going beyond illustration through tableau into animation, it was simply glorying in what film could do that books couldn’t. Either way, it seemed important that this prolonged negotiation with other forms went on before we got the main story.
There was a surprising stress on the fact that this was a “tiny kingdom”, rather than the non-differentiated anywhere kingdom of the fairy tales I was familiar with. “The King” wasn’t just the king of “the kingdom”, but was located in a kingdom described as unusually small, implying the presence of other kingdoms around. I thought this might connect with Farah Mendlesohn’s and Edward James’ comments about the origins of “Ruritanian” romances (such as The Prisoner of Zenda, where the term Ruritania originated):
an opportunistic fiction developed in the late nineteenth century, in response to growing awareness of a number of small principalities in the Balkans which appeared to have the kind of romantic royal families and aristocracies no longer found in post-revolutionary Europe. It is linked to the historical novel, but also to the lost race novels of the same period…Ruritanias are kingdoms which don’t exist, and in which therefore anything can happen. Their connections to fantasy is frequently through their use of fairytale plots
They also mention the “kinds of ritual and pomp that marked typical nineteenth-century Ruritanias” (A Short History of Fantasy, 62). I wonder whether this is a helpful way to read this film: as a story about an odd little kingdom which is being perceived through a post-monarchical society which finds such kingdoms both absorbing and rather silly. The United States of America, in other words.
The distortion of the proportions in the king’s palace would certainly bear this out: the giant bed which needs steps to get into, the vast ballroom in which the dignitaries need opera glasses in order to even see their guests. These are flourishes of whimsical fantasy, creating a world so luxurious and so elegant that it is entertaining, but they also have a faintly satirical air.
There is something silly and futile about the ballroom in which the hosts can’t properly see the guests, or a bed which bears no proportion to the body which is supposed to rest in it. Is there a slight hint of condescension from the culture of an acknowledged world power to the little-Europe kingdoms which used to claim the title of Empire?
Speaking of distorted proportions, I saw what looked very much like German expressionism in various parts of the wicked stepmother’s house. The slanting lines of her drawing rooms, all pointing in slightly different angles, with the imprisoning bars of shadow thrown across the wall, reminded me strongly of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and its style.
Shadows seemed to play into the same style: threats kept encroaching into the frame via the shadow of someone off-screen which fell across the action, or gradually moved in to cover a character whom we should see. I kept being reminded of the shadows in Nosferatu.
The accents caught my attention as well: there seemed to be a “home key” in Cinderella’s voice, from which I could distinguish three variations. The mice spoke in Italian-American accents, the Fairy Godmother had an undertone of Irish-American and the Wicked Stepmother had the flat vowels of a Boston Brahmin. That’s what I think I heard, anyway – any US readers are very welcome to correct me (or indeed other readers with a better grasp of these things than me.)
From my sense of the implications of those accents, and the characters they’re attached to, is it fair to assume that (in this film) Italian-American here signifies urban workers (perhaps in service industries like restaurants or taxis), Irish-American implies dependable and helpful with a streak of “Celtic” creativity and whimsicality, and Boston high society signals someone bound by conventions and rather too fond of the sort of Ruritanian pomp which the King represents (but which his son apparently rejects?)
If I’m reading that right, the accents of this world locate it somewhere on the East Coast of the US, maybe in New England or outside New York, and the group Cinderella herself represents are (comfortable) middle-class, suburban rather than urban or “country”, think servants are anachronistic and a bit wrong but are accustomed to being “served” in service industries, believe in social order but would deny any justification for it but merit – in other words, the salaried professional class of the US. Of course that doesn’t mean the film assumes everyone watching it will be like that, but it seems to assume that as a norm or aspiration. Is that fair?
So those were my initial thoughts on seeing the film – I’d really appreciate your responses. Am I misreading it? What have I overlooked? Are the king’s moustaches signifying something about upper-class masculinity? Is the opening book sequence (as a friend suggested) more about reassuring parents that this film is a culturally worthy product, and not just something to keep the children quiet? What does this film look like if you don’t remember ever seeing it for the first time?