The Great Disney Blogathon: Cinderella (1950)
|January 20, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
I’ve spent a while thinking about how to approach this post. It’s hard – and perhaps defeats the purpose – to separate Cinderella from its various contexts: from the Princess Collection, both as a marketing juggernaut and an assemblage of female protagonists; from the postwar period; from the so-called “Cinderella syndrome” and feminist revisions of the tale; from its own sequels; from my own lifelong love of the film; and from what it meant to the studio at the time. And heck, just from the context of viewing the films chronologically, since after six anthologies in a row – some of which I legitimately love – Cinderella is like a breath of fresh air.
So let’s take those last two first, because when I say I was chomping at the bit for a full-length fairy tale after all those anthologies, I share that feeling with basically everyone in 1950. Now, Walt had wanted to do a full-length treatment of “Cinderella” for years – the film, when released, was promoted with the slogan “Six years in the making!” but sketches and notes about it go back to the 30s, and he even made a Laugh-O-Gram version in 1922 – but at the time that production on Cinderella started in earnest, the studio was just barely in the black. Out of the studio’s back catalog, only Snow White had been a hit; Dumbo and the anthologies were workaday films that made back their initial investments but were not seen as triumphs by any measure,1 and everything else had lost money. With the war over, Walt had a fully-staffed studio and access to the overseas market again, but he didn’t have a ton of capital – and the $3 million Cinderella was definitely a risk. It was widely accepted that if it failed, the company would fold.
But Walt was always and forever a “go big or go home” kind of guy (much to the frustration of his more financially-minded brother and partner Roy), and so Cinderella was made. And in this case, at least, Walt was proven right. Cinderella was widely received as a triumph, an instant classic, a return to form.2 Though critics did say that it wasn’t the visual masterpiece the early 40s films had been – and I can, and will, debate that point – they were overwhelmingly positive towards the movie, and audiences even more so. The initial release put the company firmly in the black; subsequent releases in theaters and in various home entertainment formats have made billions of dollars for the company ($60 million over two separate theatrical re-releases in the 80s! $64 million for the first DVD release alone!) – and that’s not even taking into account the merchandising profits. The true financial value of the film is incalculable, though; aside from everything it did for Disney’s brand, kicking off the 50s on a high note enabled Walt to experiment with things like television and Disneyland well before any of his competitors. In a very real sense, every penny the company’s made since 1950 can be traced back to Cinderella.
And Cinderella holds an iconic status no other Disney movie has. It’s the ur-Disney movie (and the ur-fairy tale, although which of those is cause and which is effect, I’m not sure). If I had to explain Disney to someone who’d never heard of the company and could only show them two movies, it would be Cinderella and The Lion King.3 Though not the most popular princess (that honor goes to Ariel), Cinderella is certainly the central figure of the Princess Collection; Walt Disney World is dominated by her castle. She’s kind of a big deal.
So with the weight of all that upon it, how does the movie hold up? Pretty darn well, as a matter of fact.
As I mentioned above, critics then and now compared Cinderella somewhat unfavorably to the earliest films: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi. And to be fair, the animation in Cinderella doesn’t have that rich, lush quality, those heavy forests and naturalistic animals, those unfettered flights of fancy. It doesn’t have shots where you can see the innovation and expense poured into them. However, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Films like Pinocchio and especially Fantasia have never been as beloved as Cinderella, and it’s partially because they get in their own way. They’re so busy trying to be beautiful and push the envelope that you lose the story and characters, and it’s story and characters that make people love a movie.4 Cinderella has a clean story, clean animation, and lovable (or intentionally hateable) characters, and that’ll get you further than all the expensive multiplane shots in the world. Again, out of the four movies between Snow White and the anthologies, the one that turned a profit was Dumbo, the least “artistic” one of the bunch. That’s not a coincidence.
All of this isn’t to say that the animation in Cinderella (or Dumbo, for that matter) isn’t good; it’s wonderful, of course, and downright breathtaking in spots. The character work is superb, thanks in large part to the extensive use of live action footage. Something like 90% of the movie was filmed with flesh-and-blood actors and the animators used that as a starting point for their work, which helped make the human figures more natural. Live action footage was also used for Snow White, but there twice as many ordinary humans in Cinderella, and unlike Snow White’s Prince and the Huntsman they get legit screentime, so the impact on the overall film is far greater.
There’s also a real sense of place, even without those rich, dark forests; I love the tall, narrow architecture in the film and the haughty grandeur of Cinderella’s home, the Versailles-esque vibe that permeates it. There’s something just a little bit too pretty and unreal about everything, deliberately so; Walt, who oversaw this film closely, suggested things like making the wheels of the pumpkin carriage too delicate to actually support its weight without magic. It’s little details like that which help to give a subtle fairy tale feeling to the whole film.
And there are moments of sheer dazzle, too. Like the lovely “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” scene, where Cinderella sings harmony with her own reflection in dozens of soap bubbles (a brainchild of Walt’s that also involved a pioneering use of overdubbing, which was a brand new technique). Or the semi-abstract, dreamlike stroll through the gardens as Cinderella and Prince Charming sing “So This Is Love.”5 Or the dizzying journey up the attic stairs that makes up the film’s climax; the perspective and timing in that scene are incredible. Cinderella’s not a no-frills movie, it just uses those frills to support the story.
And since I just mentioned two songs, let’s talk about the music. Cinderella marked the first time Walt hired Tin Pan Alley songwriters – Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman, to be specific – since he wanted a more Broadway sound, and it paid off. Three of the songs in the film showed up on the Hit Parade: “The Work Song,” “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” (Can you imagine just chilling out listening to “The Work Song,” better known as “Cinderelly,” on the radio? Relaxing by the fire, listening to those squeaky mouse voices? 1950 was weird, guys.) It was also the first time Disney published their own music; they formed the Walt Disney Music Company to do so. It was an uncommon practice for movie studios at the time but wound up being a lucrative success for Disney (and the Walt Disney Music Company went on to be a major arm of the Disney empire). And of course the music from Cinderella remains iconic, especially the songs listed above.
Okay. So. Now to tackle the elephant in the room: Cinderella herself.
Cinderella (and her film) has long been held up as an anti-feminist character in an anti-feminist text. She’s passive. She’s bland. She sits around waiting for a man to rescue her. She cooks and cleans and she’s relentlessly nice and she never sticks up for herself. Her salvation takes the form of marriage and domesticity. There’s a whole dang syndrome named after her to describe women who are waiting for their prince to come. Et cetera.
I’ll give the critics this: she’s passive. She’s rescued twice – never by a man, as lazy critics claim, but by the Fairy Godmother and by the mice. She never packs her little bag and sets off on her own. Though I think there are justifiable reasons that she doesn’t, in the context of her world, it does make for a protagonist who isn’t really driving the plot so much as happenstance and rodents. That’s a flaw of plotting as well as character; a story should be driven by its hero’s choices, and Cinderella certainly isn’t (though the same could be said for, say, Dumbo or The Sword in the Stone or 101 Dalmatians).
And I have to be honest – I’m willing to give Cinderella a bit of a pass because when I think about her, it’s not in the isolated context of her movie, but in the context of the Disney Princess Collection, where she is not a protagonist who fails to protag aggressively enough, but one option among 13 for little girls to identify. And let’s face it: not every little girl is as rebellious as Merida or as sporty as Mulan or as curious as Ariel or as determined as Tiana. Some little girls are going to look at quiet, gentle, compassionate Cinderella, and see themselves. As far as I’m concerned, the more variety in personalities in the Princess Collection, the better – even more passive ones.6
But what I think people forget is that Cinderella is also a victim of abuse – the word is used explicitly in the opening narrative. Not only that, she’s a victim of abuse in a vaguely 19th century world created in the late 40s. It’s hard enough for a woman to leave an abusive home now; how much harder would it be in Cinderella’s world, with fewer options? I’m not making excuses for the filmmakers, who could have invented any number of ways for Cinderella to strike out on her own, or the sexist society they lived in, which could only envision a woman as a domestic drudge or a princess, but I’m sympathetic to Cinderella as a character.
And oh man, does the Disney pedant in me hate it when Cinderella is accused of having a “Someday My Prince Will Come” attitude, because that’s not even the right movie. Yes, she does have a dreaming song – “A Dream Is a Wish Your Hearts Makes” – but we’re never told what that dream is. Certainly she doesn’t seem to be contemplating marrying the prince – she doesn’t even realize it’s him until Lady Tremaine tells her, the day after the ball. I think it’s far more likely that her dream is for a loving home, and are we really going to fault her for that?
One thought that struck me while rewatching Cinderella for this post is that her situation isn’t all that different than, say, Rapunzel’s, except that it’s more clearly labeled as what it is – servitude, imprisonment, and emotional manipulation and abuse. (And, like Mother Gothel, Lady Tremaine is one of the most chilling Disney villains out there because she’s just so damn believable.) Unlike Rapunzel, though, Cinderella isn’t given an escape besides matrimony, and it makes me wonder: If Flynn Rider had shown up on Cinderella’s doorstep, would she have gone with him? The movie doesn’t give us a chance to find out, but that’s not the character’s fault.7As a final point in Cinderella’s defense, I want to note that being narratively passive is not the same as being bland or having no personality, accusations I’ve also seen thrown her way. She’s actually kind of a big weirdo if you think about it – I mean, come on, the girl spends her time sewing tiny shirts for mice. She’s also defiant enough to put her foot down and insist on her right to go to the ball, despite her stepsisters mocking her. And interestingly, she has this kind of snarky, quietly sarcastic edge to her that comes out when she’s alone or with the animals. She can’t talk back to her stepfamily, so she talks back to the steeple bell, to the cat, to her own ambitions – not to mention getting in a little dig about her stepsisters’ (lack of) musical ability. The dichotomy between the sweet, obedient Cinderella and the private, sarcastic one goes back to the animation, as the character was animated by two different members of the famous Nine Old Men, Eric Larsen and Marc Davis. Larsen wanted her to be simple and down-home and sincere – and that certainly shines through – but Davis gave her a sharp edge of sophistication that often manifests as a sort of quiet, caustic wit. There’s definitely a personality there, if you take the time to see it – it’s just not a loud one.
So no, Cinderella isn’t a feminist hero, and she isn’t perfect. But darn it, I like her.
There’s still plenty to say about Cinderella – I haven’t even really talked about the supporting characters or the voice acting or how awesome the Lady Tremaine I met at Disney World this past Christmas was or the fact that Cinderella has NO TOES – but this post is already pushing 3,000 words, so I will just leave you with this tidbit: when my stepmother was pregnant with my little brother, my then-four-year-old sister wanted to name him Rucipee, which is what the mice call Lucifer the cat.8 I think we can all agree that that is a fine legacy for any film to have.
- Poor Dumbo gets no respect. I still love you, baby. ↩
- “Disney’s back!” was declared pretty much instantly, which is funny, because this was only the company’s second fairy tale. But the success of Snow White had pretty much ensured that the company would be most strongly identified with fairy tales and princesses forevermore, and Cinderella sealed the deal. ↩
- Princesses and funny animals, domestic and epic, classic and Renaissance. BOOM. Bases covered. ↩
- We’ll see another really good example of this in half a century with Treasure Planet. ↩
- The dreamlike quality is probably a legacy from the original plan for that scene, a song called “Dancing on a Cloud.” Walt was super into the idea of lovers dancing on clouds (see also “Two Silhouettes” from Make Mine Music and even Bambi and “Bongo”), but the idea didn’t come to full fruition until the end of Sleeping Beauty. ↩
- I have A LOT of problems with the Princess Collection, starting with the name – why oh why can’t it be the Heroine Collection, and privilege being true to yourself and forging your own path over prettiness and daintiness and self-effacing “niceness?” Why did Merida get skinnier when she joined the collection and why was there so much bling added to Pocahontas’s already racially-insensitive and historically inaccurate minidress? And why do we need five blondes when Tiana and Jasmine have to mug desperately in the background of the clip art just for a chance to be featured on a backpack or some bedsheets? But I do believe that all-female ensembles are hugely important for little girls because they’re a way for them to find themselves in the media. That moment when you can point to a character and say “There I am. That’s me,” is hugely important, and the Princess Collection is a way to do that. ↩
- However, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time DOES give us that chance, and it’s actually fantastic. Seriously, it’s one of the best sequels. So excited for that post! ↩
- Specifically, Rucipee Saldrum. We have no idea where “Saldrum” came from. ↩