Director: Charles Walters
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In my review of I’ll Cry Tomorrow, I mentioned that the 1950s were the heyday of classic women’s films. The ’50s were also the Golden Age of the musical. Gene Kelly was the reigning lord of the dance in these grand entertainments, and several female dancers fluttered around his flame, including Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and a charming young ballet dancer named Leslie Caron, whose debut in films was starring opposite Kelly in the renowned An American in Paris (1951). Caron went on to star in the popular but tough-minded Lili (1953), her first collaboration with director/choreographer Charles Walters. When MGM decided to film another version of the story of Cinderella, it hoped to strike gold by again teaming Caron, Walters, and screenwriter Helen Deutsch.
I am a big, big fan of musicals, but some of the best ones of the ’50s seemed to have vanished without a trace. Give a Girl a Break (1953), starring Marge and Gower Champion, is one such musical that I recently caught on Turner Classic Movies and have been praising ever since. Now (again courtesy of TCM) I add The Glass Slipper to the list of Golden Age musicals that the public should rediscover.
The Glass Slipper is a fairytale film that, for the most part, provides everyday explanations for the magical occurrences with which we are all familiar. Its most radical departure from fairytale scripture is to make Cinderella a belligerent outcast in her small village rather than a beautiful flower cowering in a corner, waiting for a magical messenger to free her from bondage to her stepmother and stepsisters. When we first meet Ella, she is being taunted by villagers for her filthy appearance with their nickname for her—Cinder-Ella. She sticks her tongue out and in all other ways makes herself as unappealing as possible while proclaiming that it has been prophesied that she will live in the palace one day. She reserves her sweetness only for an organ grinder’s monkey.
When Cinder-Ella returns to her home, she is beset by demands and insults from her stepmother (Elsa Lanchester) and stepsisters Birdena (Amanda Blake) and Serafina (Lisa Daniels). Again, contrary to fairytale convention, the vain stepsisters are beautiful on the outside. Director Walters has his fun, however, by showing a flawless Birdena look into her mirror and bear her teeth like an animal. It is in similarly understated visuals and clever scripting that we grasp the fuller stories of these characters and their potential fates. When Cinder-Ella runs off to be alone in her special place in the woods, narrator Walter Pigdeon cautions like a cousin of Dicken’s Spirit of Christmas Present, how her rebellion will be silenced if she is subjected to a few more years of oppression by her stepfamily and eventually she will be turned to timid servitude for the rest of her unlovely, unloving life. This observation lets us know that we are living in a real world where a “happily ever after” may not be a slam-dunk.
Cinder-Ella meets an eccentric old woman, Mrs. Toquet (Estelle Winwood), at her secret place. Toquet has a reputation in the village as a lunatic who lives in the woods and only comes to the village at night to steal. Even Cinder-Ella has heard the rumors and is wary of her. But Mrs. Toquet offers her friendship and declares that she likes the sound of the word “Cinder-Ella” as much as she does “elbow” and “windowsill”. Along with such nonsense, she offers wisdom to Cinder-Ella, and Cinder-Ella begins to feel less alone. She looks forward to the next day, when she will meet Mrs. Toquet again in the woods.
Prince Charles (Michael Wilding) has his own longing for the woods. He confides to his friend Kovin (Keenan Wynn) that he feels most alive in nature and further confesses a weakness for tragic, weeping women, developed when he saw a 5-year-old girl crying inconsolably in the village over the loss of her mother. Naturally, he meets that girl—Cinder-Ella—at her secret place, and pretends that he is the son of the palace cook to gain her confidence. She pushes him into the pond when she detects that he may be laughing at her. As they watch her run off, Charles tells Kovin that she has “a tender heart half afraid to love.” Despite her fear, Cinder-Ella meets her young man again the next day. He apologizes and presents her with an invitation to the palace ball. When she protests that she doesn’t know how to dance, he teaches her. The prince impulsively kisses Cinder-Ella. That’s it. Cinder-Ella feels energized by what might be the beginnings of love.
Cinder-Ella’s household is all aflutter when rich cousin Loulou comes to visit. Cousin Loulou came by her fortune by seduction, and, the narrator notes, Serafina and Birdena look forward to the day when they can be ruined in just such a profitable manner. Later that evening, Cinder-Ella dutifully helps her stepsisters get ready for the ball, though she is wracked with envy that she cannot go, too, because she lacks the proper attire. After her stepfamily leaves for the ball, she falls asleep, only to be awakened by Mrs. Toquet, who brings her into the garden to show her a wedding cake gown pilfered from cousin Loulou’s house. She helps Cinder-Ella dress, doing her best with the short, jagged hair that Cinder-Ella was left with when she cut her hair in a fit of pique, and sending her into a carriage Mrs. Torquet has arranged for her. The carriage driver’s real customer is attending a party of his own and must be picked up at 1 a.m. So Cinder-Ella must leave the prince’s ball at midnight. This is a clever turn on the usual fairytale explanation for the curfew.
When Cinder-Ella arrives at the palace, she tries repeatedly to escape to the kitchen where she thinks she will find her beloved slaving over a hot stove. Indeed, she has daydreamed him in the kitchen during one of the two ballet sequences in the film. Cinder-Ella becomes the most popular girl at the ball, but none of her ardent dance partners can get her to say a word. Finally, when Charles joins her on the ballroom floor, she is more bewildered and desperate to keep cousin Loulou and her stepfamily from seeing her than she is in rejoicing over her good fortune. At midnight, she flees.
Rumors circulate that the prince intends to marry the bewitching dark-haired girl at the ball, thought to be an Egyptian princess who doesn’t speak the language. Despairing, Cinder-Ella runs away from home, back to her secret place, where Mrs. Toquet appears but fails to comfort her or, indeed, to make any sense at all. Perhaps she is just a daft old kleptomaniac. Cinder-Ella falls asleep, and awakens to Charles telling her he is looking for the foot that will fit the glass slipper left behind at the ball. She says, “I have the other!” It is tied inside her satchel. He fits the glass slipper onto her foot in full view of the villagers. We are told that Mrs. Toquet was indeed her fairy godmother and that they “lived happily ever after.”
This film is wise about human motivation and compassion shown in easily recognizable ways. While we are made to loathe the stepmother and stepsisters, they are not made as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside. The attractive frequently get ahead regardless of their deservedness. Cinder-Ella was on her way to being a friendless freak beyond help, tracking much more closely with the idea that all human beings reach milestones of development that will determine their course in life forever. Even Prince Charles (Charming) falls for Cinder-Ella because he has a certain fetish that originated in his glimpse of her at the age of 5. As I finished watching this film, I thought that the marriage of Cinder-Ella and Charles may well be doomed. Once he gets over the fetish that attracted him, what will he have to say to a girl who is ignorant, probably illiterate, from a vastly different walk of life from his?
It is not inappropriate to ask these questions of a film that posits its fairytale characters as real people and its tricks not as enchantments but as business arrangements. Perhaps this a fatal flaw and one of the reasons this film has sunk below the horizon of the more famous canonical versions. Nonetheless, as an adult, I appreciated the cleverness of this story, its humanity, the artisty of its beautifully rendered sets and costumes, its sweet music and dancing, its strong supporting cast, and finally, the vulnerable, winning performances by Leslie Caron and Michael Wilding. This is one glass slipper that fits adults beautifully. l