Friday, May 31, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Faerie Tale Theatre (1982)

In the '80s, Shelley Duvall produced an awesome series of fairy tale adaptations for Showtime. It was shot on video and the sets weren't always lavish, so the look doesn't necessarily hold up as top tier, but Faerie Tale Theatre had top talent working on it, in front of the camera as well as behind.

The sets were often designed to imitate the work of famous illustrators, so "The Frog Prince" looks like Maxfield Parrish's work, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is inspired by Norman Rockwell, "Hansel and Gretel" has an Arthur Rackham vibe, and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is based on NC Wyeth. I understand that the "Beauty and the Beast" episode was designed to mimic Jean Cocteau's excellent 1946 adaptation of the tale.

Duvall also got great directors to work on the episodes. Eric Idle directed "The Frog Prince," Roger Vadim did "Beauty and the Beast," Nicholas Meyer did "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," Tim Burton did "Aladdin," and Francis Ford Coppola did "Rip Van Winkle."

And the actors are a Who's Who of '80s (and beyond) celebrities like Robin Williams, Teri Garr, Hervé Villechaize, Jeff Bridges, Mick Jagger, Mako, Edward James Olmos, Anjelica Huston, Mary Steenburgen, Malcolm McDowell, Ricky Schroder, Joan Collins, John Lithgow, Pee Wee Herman, Carrie Fisher, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Lee, Jeff Goldblum... As impressive as that list is, it's maybe a third of the top-name people who appeared in these stories.

I watched three episodes for this project and I bet you can guess which ones they were.

Elizabeth McGovern (She's Having a Baby, Downton Abbey) plays Snow White and she's certainly beautiful, but her performance isn't as inspired as the true stars of the show: Vanessa Redgrave (The first Mission: Impossible movie) as the Evil Queen and Vincent Price (oh, you know) as her Magic Mirror. Price is charming and droll as he rolls his eyes at the Queen's vanity, but Redgrave is next-level amazing with the way she prances and primps in front of the mirror. I'm pretty sure Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs learned everything he knows about preening from Redgrave's Queen. She's marvelous and tragic as a woman who deep down understands that Snow White has replaced her, but is fighting it with every ounce of will that she has.

Other cast members in this one are Tony Cox (Spaceballs, Bad Santa) as one of the dwarfs, and Rex Smith as the Prince. Smith's coolest other role has to be Daredevil in the Trial of the Incredible Hulk TV movie from 1989, but he also appeared opposite Linda Ronstadt in the '83 movie adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. He puts those singing skills to good use in Faerie Tale Theatre.

"Cinderella" has Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Bride) in the title role, Jean Stapleton (All in the Family) as her fairy godmother, and Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as the Prince. A highlight of this one is how much time it spends building a relationship between Cinderella and the Prince. It shows a lot of the ball and Beals and Broderick do a nice job convincing me that they're falling in love. That's especially good since the theme of the FTT version is that Cinderella is perfectly capable of winning the Prince over by herself. The Fairy Godmother just gets her in the door.

There's also a fun bit between the stepsisters and the prince at the ball, since one of them is played by Edie McClurg. She was also Ed Rooney's secretary in Ferris Bueller the following year, so we get to see Grace hit on Ferris. Another actor worth mentioning is James Noble as the King. If you're familiar with the sitcom Benson, Noble is basically still playing Governor Gatling in this.

"Sleeping Beauty" was easily my favorite of the three episodes, mostly because it has Bernadette Peters as the princess and Christopher Reeve as the prince. It also keeps Perrault's Don't Rush Into Love as a theme and presents it in a really fun way. Most of the story is told in flashback by a woodsman to the prince and his squire (Ron Rifkin from Alias), but we also get flashbacks to the prince's past. We see both the prince and the princess trying to find potential spouses, but failing because their parents throw them at awful people, who are also hilariously played by Peters and Reeve. Other actors in this one include Rene Auberjonois (Benson, Deep Space Nine) and Sally Kellerman (MASH, Back to School) as Peters' parents, Beverly D'Angelo (National Lampoon's Vacation) as the evil fairy who curses the princess, and Carol Kane (The Muppet Movie, Taxi) as the good fairy who modifies the curse.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Fractured Fairy Tales (1959)

In the '50s, the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show had a segment called Fractured Fairy Tales, which were humorous adaptations of the classic stories. I wasn't around at the time, but Rocky and Bullwinkle were still in heavy syndication when I was a kid. And Fractured Fairy Tales was always one of my favorite parts of any episode.

I didn't want to watch all of them for this project, but I thought I might watch at least the three stories that I've read up to this point. I was surprised to find the silly, little spoofs actually insightful.

Like in the Grimm Brothers' version, "Snow White" focuses on the Queen and her obsession with holding onto the value her culture assigns her as a woman. When her magic (coin-operated) mirror sends her to the dwarfs' house to find Snow White, the princess isn't there, but the dwarfs have just opened a gym that they're happy to sell the Queen a lifetime membership to. When that doesn't return her to Fairest In The Land status, she goes back to the dwarfs again. This happens several times. Snow White is never there and the dwarfs have some new scheme to help the Queen find her value: dance lessons, health food, charm school. At the end it's revealed that the whole thing is a scam with one of the dwarfs working inside the mirror to drum up business and capitalize on the Queen's insecurities.

FFT's "Cinderella" is about appearances and materialism. Cinderella is actually pretty lazy and just wants an easy way to get the lifestyle she craves. (Her sisters are barely in it, but they're hardworking scullery maids, so Cinderella is solely responsible for her attitude.) The fairy godmother shows up to grant Cinderella her wishes, but there's a catch. Cinderella has to sell a huge supply of kitchen utensils by midnight or she'll lose her fabulous prizes. Meanwhile, the prince is going bankrupt and has to pay off his creditors by midnight or he'll lose the castle. When Cinderella shows up to sell the prince some pots and pans, he's fooled by her appearance and thinks she's rich. So while she's trying to get him to buy utensils, he's trying to get her to marry him, both getting increasingly desperate as 12:00 approaches. Both Perrault and the Grimm's versions are about more than marrying a rich prince, but Cinderella certainly uses appearances to obtain her escape from her stepfamily. There's a lot more to her than just looks, but the other characters in the story don't see that. FFT's commentary on appearances is a valid focus.

Finally, "Sleeping Beauty" also gets a materialistic makeover. It rushes through the early part of the story to get to the prince's arrival. We're told that he's supposed to kiss Sleeping Beauty (borrowed from Disney, possibly, since this episode didn't air until the early '60s), but the prince decides at the last moment that an awakened princess is after all just a princes. A sleeping princess is a novelty, so he turns the castle into a tourist attraction. That's darkly fascinating when I consider that the Grimms' version of the story is about pausing the princess' maturation process. In FFT, the prince keeps it paused even longer than it needs to be, simply for financial gain. And it occurs to me that modern Disney sort of does the same thing with the young teenage girls that it turns into stars.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Who's in it?: I was pretty dismissive of the casts for Snow White and Cinderella, but I'm starting to recognize some recurring voices now. For instance, Eleanor Audley who plays Maleficent was also the voice of Cinderella's stepmother. And Barbara Luddy who plays the delightful fairy Merryweather was also the voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp and would go on to be the voice of Kanga in Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh films. Verna Felton is another fairy and came to the role with experience as Cinderella's fairy godmother (among other Disney roles like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland).

What's it about?: It credits Charles Perrault's version as its inspiration, but it's a very loose adaptation, restructuring the whole story around some familiar elements.

How is it?: I don't envy Erdman Penner and his fellow screenwriters for the job of adapting "Sleeping Beauty" for an all-ages audience. In both Perrault and Grimm, the themes are rather grown up. Perrault advises his audience to take romance seriously while the Grimms more or less celebrate puberty. But there's so much cool imagery in the fairy tale that it's begging for Disney to put it on the big screen. The result is a beautiful spectacle with a light story.

It's remarkable how great the characters are though. Maleficent of course is an A+ villain, but the fairies (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) are also super memorable and fun. Prince Phillip is the best developed and most Charming of all the Disney princes so far. And the film spends a surprising amount of time with the two kings Stefan and Hubert who pledged their children to each other as infants and are rethinking that decision now that their kids are older and able to think for themselves.

It's too bad that the title character doesn't have more to do. Aurora (named after the daughter of the title character from Perrault's version, while her alias - Briar Rose - is the title character of the Grimms') is beautiful and pleasant and has her own opinions about things, but she never gets to do anything about them. Penner and Company add a nice element by having Aurora meet Phillip before they're supposed to so that they fall in love without realizing who each other are. This calls into question the arranged marriage and leads to some nice teen rebellion, but of course it's all temporary and ultimately meaningless since the conflict isn't real. It's just an easily resolved misunderstanding.

Outside of just how gorgeous the film is (artist Eyvind Earle's concept designs and background paintings are breathtaking and it's amazing how successfully they're incorporated into the film), its hard to see the point of the story. No one learns anything. The stated message in the film is that Love Conquers All (primarily illustrated by Phillip's determination to defeat Maleficent and rescue Aurora, but also in the power of Love's First Kiss to awaken the princess, something that this film came up with as far as I can tell), but it's a hollow idea. Phillip and Aurora barely know each other, so while I believe that they're attracted to each other and have the beginnings of a fine relationship, it's too flimsy to hold the weight of the professed theme.

Rating: Four out of five crazy kids in love.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "Briar Rose" by The Brothers Grimm

Illustration by Maxfield Parrish

The literal translation of the Brothers Grimm's "Dornröschen" is "Brian Rose" or "Little Briar Rose," but some collections just call it "Sleeping Beauty" since it's Perrault's title that most people know the story by. The Brothers have whittled down Perrault's tale though into what we recognize today. It's got a true Happily Ever After ending with no post-wedding adventures involving a monstrous mother-in-law. But it also removes a lot of the detail even from the familiar parts of the story.

Before I get into that, there are a couple of other changes that I found interesting. The fairies are changed to Wise Women and the King and Queen are much more accountable for not inviting one. They don't omit her for any good faith reason, but simply because they don't have enough gold place settings for all the Wise Women in the area. It seems like maybe there's a better way out of that dilemma than just blowing one off, but I'm no king, so what do I know. The rest of the banquet plays out mostly like it does in Perrault until it comes time for one of the Wise Women to modify the curse of the offended one.

She still changes the death curse into a hundred-year sleep, but there's no prophecy about a prince being involved in waking her up. And there's still certainly no mention of a kiss. It's just that the sleep has a hundred-year expiration date on it. And when the forest of brambles grows up around the castle, there's no explanation for why. It could be the kind Wise Woman protecting the princess like she does in Perrault. Or it could just be nature reasserting itself and taking over.

There's also no reason given for why the brambles turn to flowers at the end of the hundred years, letting in the first prince to come along, but that does seem to suggest that the bramble forest is more than a natural occurrence. Most likely it's part of the good Wise Woman's blessing. Readers are just left to figure that out for themselves.

Readers also have to figure out the point of the story for themselves, too. The prince finds the princess, immediately falls in love with her and kisses her and that's when she opens her eyes. The kiss doesn't break the spell; I imagine the princess lying in bed half-awake, but with her eyes closed like you sometimes do after a long, peaceful sleep. She may even have heard the prince enter the room, but ignored it, confusing it with a dream. She can't ignore the kiss though and that's what gets her back to full consciousness. The Grimms' just write that she "looked at him kindly" and the next thing we know they're getting married. The End.

So what does it mean? In absence of any specified meaning in the story itself, I'm going to modify the one given by Perrault. There does seem to be this theme around the princess' arrested development in the areas of romance and sex, but the Grimms don't moralize about it. They don't specifically warn readers against rushing into romance. In fact, rushing into romance is exactly what the princess and prince do once she wakes up.

So that turns "Briar Rose" into something of a fantasy about a young woman blossoming into maturity. Just as she reaches the threshold of sexual awakening, she's thrown into suspended animation and made to wait. And any potential mates will have to hold off as well. The title of the story supports this. The princess is nicknamed Briar Rose after the bramble forest that springs up around the castle during her sleep. She's cut off sexually; unattainable. But as she nears awakening, the forest that she's named after literally blossoms. The Grimms write that the flowers "open a path" for the prince. I don't suspect that all of this blossoming and opening language is accidental.

Like with "Snow White," the Grimms' point with "Briar Rose" isn't to teach a lesson. It's simply to highlight a reality. "Snow White" is a tragic example of the devaluing of women as they age. "Briar Rose" pauses the moment of a young woman's sexual awakening as something to be savored and celebrated. No wonder Disney made some changes.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" by Charles Perrault

Illustration by Warwick Goble

I love Charles Perrault for spelling out his morals at the end of his stories and telling me exactly what he wants me to get from them. In "Sleeping Beauty," it's all about delayed gratification and not rushing into romance. The young princess in the tale waits a hundred years for true love.

And true love it is. I was surprised by how much energy Perrault invests in developing the romance. This isn't Snow White where the prince simply sees a beautiful girl and immediately wants to possess her. And in Perrault, there's no Love's First Kiss needed to break the spell.

There are some other surprises in the story, too, so let me get those out of the way first. I'm most familiar with the Disney version and expected a certain amount of malevolence out of the being who curses the princess, but it's simpler than that. We're dealing with fairies and if there's anything they teach you in Fairies 101, it's that you don't slight them, even accidentally. When the princess' parents give a banquet to celebrate her christening, they neglect to invite an older fairy whom no one's heard from in a long time. They assume that she's dead or busy or something. When she shows up, they're embarrassed, but immediately try to correct their error by inviting her to eat. She accepts, but is offended again when they're short a set of the golden table settings they'd had made for the occasion. It's nobody's fault, but that's what happens when you get involved with fairies.

Like in the Disney version, one of the other fairies is able to hold back her blessing until after the child has been cursed. But in Perrault, it's a young fairy who suspects that the old fairy will do something nasty and so intentionally waits until last to bestow her gift. When the old fairy curses the child with death by spinning wheel, the young fairy changes it to a sleeping curse. She stipulates that the princess will sleep for a hundred years, but "at the end of that time a king's son shall come to awaken her." There's no kiss or even love required to break the spell; just the boy's presence.

And it's also the young fairy who creates the forest of brambles and thorns to surround the castle so that no one messes with the sleeping girl. The young fairy is really quite thoughtful and foresightful in the story. She's got dwarfs for servants and a fiery chariot pulled by dragons. I like her a lot.

A hundred years later, the kingdom has been overthrown and a new royal family has taken over. When the new prince is hunting in the woods, locals tell him the story of the enchanted castle and he realizes that the time is about right and he is a prince, so he goes to check it out. Again, nothing is said of marrying or even kissing the girl. It's really just an adventure that the prince is curious to see through. The bramble forest parts automatically and forms a path for him.

When he finds the princess, she wakes up. All it takes is his being in the room. And it's her who immediately falls for him out of gratitude. "Is it you, dear prince?" she says. "You have been long in coming!" And because of how she reacts to him, he starts to fall for her, too. Perrault says that the prince kind of stumbles over his words, but that the two of them talk for a good long time. "The less there is of eloquence," Perrault writes, "the more there is of love." That's pretty cool.

After a few hours of conversation, they decide to have supper and then go ahead and get married. So it is fairly whirlwind, but not immediate and certainly not the shallow, courtly romance that I expected from a story by an 18th century Frenchman.

Another surprise is that the story doesn't end with Happily Ever After, either. If romance is worth waiting for, it's also worth working through. Perrault reveals right away that something is amiss, because the prince keeps his marriage a secret from his parents for two years. He even has a couple of kids with the princess before his folks find out.

Turns out that the prince's mom is part ogre and prone to eating children. I won't spoil what happens when she finds out, but the story is short and easily available online. It's worth checking out. It's a cool fairy tale adventure in itself and I like the refusal of Perrault's whole story to paint romance as something easy.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Cinderella (1957)

Who's in it?: Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music), Ilka Chase (the original Ocean's 11), Kaye Ballard (The Hollywood Squares, Match Game), Alice Ghostley (Bewitched, Grease), and Jon Cypher (The Food of the Gods, Masters of the Universe)

What's it about?: Rodgers and Hammerstein adapt the fairy tale for live television.

How is it?: It gets off to a weak start, but picks up as it goes. The opening number has the whole kingdom singing "The Prince Is Giving a Ball," a silly, meaningless, little song that sounds more like Gilbert and Sullivan than Rodgers and Hammerstein. And then there's the characterization of Cinderella herself, who's played by Julie Andrews, but it's R&H who are the problem.

I'm prepared for and even looking forward to adaptations where Cinderella's only "action" is her kindness. There's power in being good to your enemies, but this Cinderella doesn't even have that. Her signature song is "In My Own Little Corner" where she sings about how her only refuge is to retreat into her imagination:
I’m as mild and as meek as a mouse
When I hear a command I obey
But I know of a spot in my house
Where no one can stand in my way
In my own little corner
In my own little chair
I can be whatever I want to be
I cut Disney's version slack in spite of "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," because it's undercut by the rest of the film where Cinderella does take as much subtle action as her situation allows. Rogers and Hammerstein's character is only able to wish and dream and hope.

Her fairy godmother (charmingly played by Edie Adams, who also played Sid Caesar's wife in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) is an actual godmother who's keeping her fairy background secret. So she has a previous relationship with Cinderella and comes over quite a bit. Which means that Cinderella hasn't suddenly won the attention of the fairy realm or finally earned something for herself. The godmother is super pleasant, but she comes across as just sort of being on the job (though looking after Cinderella seems to be a job she enjoys).

It's irksome when she and Cinderella share the song "Impossible: It's Possible" about the unfeasibility of Cinderella's wishes. In this version, it's Cinderella who spots the pumpkin and decides it would be really nifty if it changed into a carriage with some mice-horses to pull it. It's a crazy, dumb fantasy, yet Cinderella believes that if she can just hope hard enough, that maybe it'll come true. Her godmother tries to discourage her, so the song goes:
Such fol-der-ol and fid-dle-dy dee of course, is impossible!
But the world is full of zanies and fools
Who don't believe in sensible rules
And won't believe what sensible people say.
And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes,
Impossible things are happening every day.
Setting aside that "fol-der-ol and fid-dle-dy dee" feels very ripped off from "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," I don't like the comparison between actual magic and the everyday miracle of working to achieve something against enormous odds. Wishing that a pumpkin would turn into a carriage is not the same thing as overcoming adversity in whatever small way you can. And it makes Cinderella seem naive and rather useless when she confuses the two.

Even so, these opening scenes aren't all frustrating. Cinderella's stepmother (Ilka Chase) and stepsisters (Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley) are really funny. Especially the sisters. Ballard was a staple on '70s game shows Hollywood Squares and Match Game, so she's been making me laugh pretty much my whole life. And I'm fond of Ghostely from her role as the Stephens' housekeeper / nanny Esmerelda on Bewitched. Ballard's character is named Portia after the character from "The Merchant of Venice" and her mother insists that she be as intelligent as her namesake. She hilariously is not and Ballard gives her a great, hee-hawing, snorting laugh to underline it. Likewise, Ghostely's character is a gloomy woman named Joy. I enjoyed them both a lot.

And then, once we get to the ball, the rest of the play catches up and takes a lovely turn. I didn't expect much out of Cinderella and the Prince's (Cypher) romance, but they share a song called "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" that's engagingly profound. The Prince wisely doubts the love-at-first-sight emotions he's experiencing and tries to make some sense of them. Cinderella understands and reciprocates. They don't come to any easy answers, but through the song they ask each other, "Do I love you because you're beautiful or are you beautiful because I love you?" That's surprisingly insightful and touching and it got me on board with them as a couple. Not in a Happily Ever After sense, but I decided that they were at least asking the right questions to make their romance work.

Another cool song takes place the morning after the ball when the stepsisters debrief with Cinderella about their evening. The song is called "A Lovely Night." Cinderella, still pretending not to have been at the ball, describes what she imagines it would've been like to attend. The sisters pretend that Cinderella's fantasy is exactly what they experienced, even though they each only got a minute or two with the Prince and generally had a frustrating time. So Cinderella's singing about her evening and pretending it didn't happen, while the sisters are singing about it and pretending it did. I love the irony in that.

And of course Julie Andrews is amazing. The rest of the cast is great too. The Prince's parents get their own scenes, revealing that the ball is all the Queen's idea because she's worried about her son and feels he may be lonely. The King and Prince aren't that excited about the ball, but are going through with it to please the Queen. Despite their royalty, they feel like a real family that truly cares about each other.

Rating: 3 out of 5 funny stepsisters.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Cinderella (1950)

Who's in it?: Some cartoon people; a bunch of mice.

What's it about?: An animated, musical adaptation of Charles Perrault's version of "Cinderella."

How is it?: I love the mice and the stepmother is deliciously wicked, but I've often had trouble connecting with Cinderella herself and the apparent message of the film (offered in the closing lines of its signature song): "If you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true." That's ludicrous.

Having recently re-read Charles Perrault's fairy tale though, I think the song "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" undermines the actual message of the movie, which is borrowed from Perrault and legitimately profound. It's not mere faith or wishing that makes Cinderella's dreams come true; it's the kindness that she insists on putting into the world, whether it's to helpless animals or her foul, mean-spirited, persecuting step-family. She's lovely to them all.

But even though it takes that moral and other elements from Perrault, Disney's Cinderella does borrow from the Brothers Grimm in some interesting ways. Her kindness to animals leads to their helping her out in all sorts of ways, including pitching in with her chores, which is something that Cinderella's birds do in Grimm. The Disney animals also provide a dress for Cinderella to wear to the ball; another Grimm Brothers reference, though it ultimately doesn't last (in a truly harrowing, heartbreaking scene) and Perrault's fairy godmother has to step in.

It's the involvement of the fairy godmother and the prince in Cinderella's salvation that gives her a reputation for being helpless. But she deserves better than that. It's her kindness not only to animals, but especially to her enemies, that earns her the attention of the fairy realm and her adoption by a (god)mother who actually does care for her. It's a subtle kind of agency, but Cinderella is more active in her own salvation than she gets credit for. The prince doesn't rescue her either; he's just the prize that she gets rescued to.

Rating: Four out of five pumpkin carriages.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "Cinderella" by The Brothers Grimm

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

While the Grimms weren't averse to modifying old folk tales to suit the tastes of their contemporary audience, they also weren't intentionally using those stories to train children, unlike Charles Perrault. So where Perrault's Cinderella is a gracious and inspirationally kind character, the Grimms' version has a more combative relationship with her persecutors.

Perrault's stepsisters are vain and selfish, but they aren't particularly vicious toward Cinderella. They're uncaring without going out of their way to be mean. That's not the case in the Grimm version, where the stepmother especially lives to make Cinderella's life harder. She purposely dumps beans in the fireplace ashes, for instance, and makes Cinderella pick them out. When Cinderella begs to go to the ball, the stepmother sets impossible tasks as conditions for her permission, then reneges when Cinderella completes them. Because of this, we're allowed to feel okay about the violent end that the stepsisters come to in Grimm. They chop off parts of their feet to try to fit into the decisive slipper and then at Cinderella's wedding, birds peck out their eyes. These are the same birds that have aided Cinderella through the whole story, so at worst, she's complicit in the maiming. At best, she doesn't exhibit the forgiveness that Perrault's heroine does.

The birds are important to the Grimms' story and they're something that Cinderella herself seems to control on some level. There's no fairy godmother in Grimm; that's all Perrault who wanted to reward Cinderella's kindness by giving her a kind parent to replace her deceased mother. The Grimms sort of do that too, but in a darker way, as you'd imagine. In Grimm, Cinderella's mother is more directly active through her own grave site.

The Grimms' version borrows an element from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. (I don't know that Barbot de Villeneuve was their direct inspiration, but the similarity is clear.) In Beauty and the Beast, Belle's father takes a trip and asks his daughters what he can bring back for them. Belle's vain sisters demand clothing and jewels, but Belle humbly requests a single rose (and only when her dad insists that she ask for something). Of course, it's how he gets that rose that creates all the trouble for the family.

Cinderella's dad does the same thing and the stepsisters ask for the same clothes and jewelry. Cinderella copies Belle by asking for a plant, but it's a weird one. She wants a branch from the first tree to brush against her father's hat on the trip. He complies and Cinderella takes the branch to the backyard and plants it in her mother's grave where it grows into a tree. White birds nest in the tree and grant Cinderella wishes. They help with the impossible tasks created by the stepmother and they also provide Cinderella with the three, increasingly elaborate dresses she wears on consecutive nights to the prince's ball.

None of this is ever explained, but there's clearly magic at work. The difference between Perrault and Grimm is that the Grimms' Cinderella doesn't wait for another character, the fairy godmother, to come and help her out. This Cinderella is active. And possibly a witch.

Again, there's no explanation given for any of this in the story, but Cinderella is so specific about what she wants and how she goes about getting it. The only thing that makes sense to me is that she's planning it. She asks for the branch, plants it in her mother's grave, and then uses the tree - possibly with the aid of her dead mother's spirit - to rescue herself and take revenge on her stepsisters. Super cool and spooky. I'm betting there's not a film version that takes that approach.

Thanks to the Disney film, which took most of its inspiration from Perrault (even giving him a credit in the opening titles), Cinderella is often accused of being a lame, reactionary character. But that's not at all true in the Grimm version. The point of their tale isn't a moral lesson about gracious perseverance. It's a dark story of revenge inspired by the journey that children take as they grow and are ultimately separated from their parents. Cinderella's childhood was defined by doting, praising parents, but that died with her birth mother. She holds onto the spirit of those times though to help her through the more critical, demanding mother that she has to deal with as a teenager or young adult.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper" by Charles Perrault

Illustration by Marie "Rie" Cramer (1887–1977)

Charles Perrault was a 17th Century French author who, like the Grimm Brothers a hundred years later, documented oral fairy tales for a reading audience. Perrault's primary audience was children though and he included morals at the end of each tale so that young people would know exactly the lesson he intended them to learn from the stories.

With "Cinderella," Perrault wanted kids to understand the value of what he called, "grace." He mentions it a couple of time in the moral. He says that physical beauty is cool and all, but "grace is priceless and wins any race." And then later, "Grace is a gift that the fairies confer: Ask anyone at all; it's what we prefer."

What he's talking about is character. Yes, Cinderella is a beautiful woman and when she's dressed in the right clothes she gets all the attention at the ball. But Perrault argues that it's her kindness and humility that actually win the day for her. Her father is still alive in Perrault's version, but he's "completely under the thumb of his wife" and apparently oblivious to the way his daughter is being treated. Cinderella doesn't complain though and she's gracious in the way she treats her mean step-sisters, helping them get ready for the ball. Once she marries the prince, she forgives them and even procures noble husbands for them as well. This version of the story is all about patiently persevering through suffering. It's a valuable moral, though I question the assurance that everything will turn out okay in the end. Real-life circumstances don't always work out the way they do for Cinderella. But I do believe that patience and perseverance are their own rewards.

My fairy tale project is focused on the Brothers Grimm, but I wanted to compare Perrault's Cinderella to theirs, because they pull a whole different message from the tale. In fact, their Cinderella isn't patient or gracious at all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Five Bold Women (1960)

Pax and I welcome our wives, Stephanie and Diane to weigh in on the women-focused Western, Five Bold Women starring Irish McCalla and Jeff Morrow. Pax also shares a couple of Western comics he's been reading: the first volume of Stern from Europe comics and the first couple of issues in Dynamite's Man With No Name series. Meanwhile, I've been watching the contemporary Western, The Rider (2017) by director Chloe Zhao.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Who's in it?: A bunch of cartoons

What's it about?: An animated, musical adaptation of the fairy tale, "Snow White."

How is it?: Reading the Grimm version before watching Disney's affected my enjoyment of the latter. Disney's is still a great, successful adaptation, but I wasn't as over the moon about it as I usually am. On any other day, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a classic. It's amazing that it's 82-years-old. The animation is still top notch, Snow White is still utterly charming, the dwarfs are still hilarious, and the Queen is still completely terrifying.

As I wrote when talking about the Grimm version, the main character of the fairy tale is the Queen and I understand why she feels threatened. Her story isn't really appropriate as text for a children's film, though. Although it would have been possible to highlight as subtext. But Disney wasn't interested in that and I don't fault the filmmakers. It's just something I was thinking about as I watched this time and it dampened my enjoyment a little.

In other ways, it's a great adaptation. The prince comes out of nowhere in the Grimm version, so Disney makes a good call by introducing him earlier in the story and at least paying song-service to his love for Snow. The dwarfs of course are given names and personalities that are missing in Grimm. And the Queen's attacks on Snow are reduced to one, successful one instead of including the Grimm Queen's two, unsuccessful attempts that Snow stupidly refuses to learn from.

I don't know how I feel about sticking the Sleeping Beauty kiss in as the way to revive Snow White. She's revived by accident in Grimm, so I appreciate the attempt to make the prince more involved, but the Love's First Kiss antidote doesn't make a lot of sense. (Frankly, I'm not sure that it even makes sense in "Sleeping Beauty," but I'll wait until I've read the Grimm version of that before I decide.)

The Queen's death is far less horrifying in Disney than in Grimm, but it's still very powerful due to the sheer talent in the animation, score, and sound design. In all other ways, this is a faithful retelling of the Grimm Brothers' version with some extra singing and dancing thrown in.

Rating: Four out of five secret dungeons.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Filthy Horrors | Aaaand Poe

Darla, Jess, and I begin this episode in a haunted cemetery, an appropriate place to talk about one of our favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. After some talk about other horror we've been into the last month and a discussion of our own funerals, we dig specifically into "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Raven." With side-trips to other Poe stories as well as our favorite adaptations of his work.

Please Note: It was windy at the cemetery and the sound overwhelms the discussion a few times during that section of the episode. We cleaned it up as best we could, but if it's bothersome, you might want to skip ahead to about 20 minutes into the show. At that point we've moved inside and the audio is clear for the remainder of the episode.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "Snow White" by The Brothers Grimm

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

My watch-through of various Grimm adaptations isn't at all going to be exhaustive. Even though it's more than I'll be able to talk about on Filthy Horrors, I've only got about a month to watch and read everything I want to. So I'm hitting the high points. I decided to start with "Snow White" because it's so well known and also because the Disney adaptation is the first of the films I'll be watching.

I'm going to get myself a copy of the Grimms' complete works, but right now I'm reading Maria Tatar's Annotated Brothers Grimm. It doesn't have every single thing, but there are a bunch of stories in it and I love Tatar's notes. The character of Snow White has a justifiably bad reputation as a helpless, reactionary character, but Tatar helped me see that Snow isn't actually the main character of her story at all. That would be the Queen. And while she's never sympathetic, her plight is. In every way that women were valued at the time of the story, the Queen is being undermined by Snow. Even motherhood, as I'll get to in a minute.

In the earliest, oral versions of the story, the Queen isn't Snow's step-mother, but her actual, biological mother. And in at least one version, it's Snow's father who specifically wishes for a daughter with snow white skin, ebony black hair, and blood red lips. Because of this, the king feels a special relationship with Snow and the Queen feels threatened about being replaced by the younger, prettier girl. Motherhood is valued by the culture, but the Queen has already fulfilled that role while Snow is just starting to get ready for it. The best is ahead for her, as it were. Tatar points out that when Snow keeps house for the dwarfs, she's taking her first step towards becoming a wife and mother (though not specifically for the dwarfs who are deliberately asexual and non-threatening; Snow is just practicing in their house).

The Grimms weren't satisfied with only documenting the oral stories they collected. They modified them to suit the tastes and values of their own, then-modern culture. And since motherhood was highly valued, evil mothers in the stories usually became less problematic step-mothers. Which is what happened to the Queen. The story is more horrifying if the Queen is Snow's biological mother, but it also makes a lot more sense because it keeps the overall theme of the story intact.

Snow is innocent in all of this. That's part of her allure and a lot of what the Queen hates about her. But society isn't pure. It assigns disproportionate value to youth and beauty, both of which are fading for the Queen while Snow increasingly becomes the center of attention. I understand why the Queen feels threatened, even while I judge her harshly for what she does about it. And it's telling that she instructs her huntsman to bring back Snow's organs once he's murdered the girl, so that the Queen can eat them, ritually consuming Snow's essence so that the Queen can possess her youth and beauty.

With the Queen as the tragic main character, Snow becomes the antagonist and mostly a symbolic one. That's why she doesn't have a lot of agency. I'm curious to see which adaptations, if any, try to fix that. I'm also curious to see which adaptations keep the focus on the Queen. I know some pay more attention to her than others.

The dwarfs and the prince are just obstacles to the Queen's plans, so they're not super fleshed out either. The dwarfs only give Snow temporary shelter and don't have names or even personalities in the Grimms' version. The prince unintentionally rescues Snow at the end by falling in love with her beauty through the glass coffin. He doesn't appear in the story until the very end, so there's no previous relationship. She is literally just a piece of art that he wants in his home. But as he's transporting her from the forest to his palace, the carriage hits a bump, jostles Snow's coffin, and loosens the chunk of poison apple that's caught in her throat and is keeping her comatose. She's released by happenstance as if the universe is conspiring against the Queen. The value of youth and beauty is a powerful force and the story relentlessly rewards it.

Another example of this is how the Queen dies. Once Snow is revived, the Queen's mirror again proclaims that the Queen is no longer the fairest in the land. It doesn't mention Snow by name though, but only that the prince is now married and his bride now holds the title. The Queen has to go check this out and is horrified to learn that Snow is still alive. The couple seem to have anticipated the Queen's visit though, because there are a pair of white-hot iron shoes that the Queen is forced to wear and dance herself to death. It's violently sadistic, but the Queen is no hero and has more or less earned her fate. Rather than withdraw gracefully into old age, she's tried to murder Snow multiple times. Her comeuppance is fascinatingly brutal.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Who's in it?: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Ocean's Eleven, Jimmy Kimmel Live!), Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot, The Dark Knight), Lena Headey (300, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Game of Thrones), Monica Bellucci (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Spectre), and Jonathan Pryce (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Tomorrow Never Dies, Pirates of the Caribbean).

What's it about?: Witch-hunting charlatans Wilhelm (Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Ledger) question the truth behind their lies when they investigate a series of child abductions in a remote village near a dark forest.

How is it?: We're going to be talking about Grimm fairy tales for an upcoming episode of Filthy Horrors. I know that there won't be enough time to talk about everything I'll want to, so as I'm reading and watching things to get ready for it, I'll use this site as a journal to capture thoughts.

Before I even read one of the Grimms' fairy tales, Terry Gilliams' movie about them seemed like a good place to start. Although I'd completely forgotten that Gilliam directed it. It's got his trademark imagination and whimsy, but not many of the practical effects that I always associate with him thanks to his '80s movies like Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I miss the inventiveness that went into bringing those fantasies to life. The 2005 CG of The Brother's Grimm doesn't hold up well.

The buildings and other settings all look wondrously fantastical though and the actors are delightful. Ledger is acting against type as the nerdier brother, Jake, who believes the stories he's telling, to the annoyance of the more practical Will. And it's great to see Lena Headey in a role where I can root for her as I always want to do. She plays the village hunter, daughter of a previous hunter who went missing when she was little.

The story is typical Shakespeare in Love shenanigans where we get to see the "inspirations" for so much of the writers' work. The villain (Bellucci) with her long hair, impenetrable tower, and magic mirror is responsible for legends of Snow White's evil queen as well as Rapunzel. She's trying to resurrect herself and reclaim her beauty by kidnapping young girls and putting them to sleep until she's ready to use them for her magic ritual. And she's assisted in this by a werewolf who opens the film luring into the woods a girl wearing a red hood.

To be clear, I love this stuff and the script does a nice job weaving it together. It even sets the story during Napoleon's occupation of Germany so that French characters (like Pryce's ruthless Delatombe) can interact with and potentially inspire the Grimms with Charles Perrault's versions of some of these stories. Cinderella in particular comes up a couple of times.

Rating: Three out of five hunting Headeys.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Greystoked | Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)

Noel and I are joined by Tim from the CinemaSpection podcast to discuss Johnny Sheffield's last film as Boy. In many ways, Tarzan and the Huntress is a return to form for the series; we explore whether or not that's a good thing.

Friday, May 10, 2019

'Casting Off | Crusoe (2008)

After a long, unintended hiatus, 'Casting Off is back with a quick episode where David and I talk about the 2008 TV series Crusoe starring Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Sam Neill, and Sean Bean.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | 7 Men from Now (1956)

Pax and I have enjoyed the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott collaborations we've seen (especially Ride Lonesome, which we reviewed on the show), so for this episode we talk about 7 Men from Now, the very first Boetticher/Scott team-up. I also share a 2019 Western I watched, Ivan Kavanagh's Never Grow Old starring John Cusack and Emile Hirsch. And Pax wraps up Hex, the post-apocalyptic Jonah Hex comic he's been reading.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | Give That Kaiju Some Work!

Inspired by the upcoming Godzilla movie, I invited Chad Young, Jeff Somogyi, and Evan Hanson to help me recast giant monsters and giant robots in other genres. The conversation occasionally runs off-topic like a giant lizard in downtown Tokyo, rampaging through eBay, stadium seating, summer camp counseling, and Blue Apron chase variants, but ultimately we're able to create a kaiju musical, film noir, roller coaster, and a season of Real Housewives: Terror Tooth.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Three Little Girls in Blue (1946)

Who's in it?: Vera-Ellen (Wonder Man, The Kid from Brooklyn, White Christmas) and a bunch of other people.

What's it about?:Three sisters leave their New England farm to try to snag rich husbands in turn-of-the-century Atlantic City.

How is it?: Exploring the Danny Kaye filmography this year has led to my wanting to also explore Vera-Ellen's career. I've always been amazed at her dancing in White Christmas and was super pleased to see her feet put to great use in Kaye's Wonder Man and The Kid from Brooklyn. I want more.

Kaye isn't in Three Little Girls in Blue, so it's all on Vera-Ellen and the women who play her sisters: June Haver and Vivian Blaine. They're great. Haver is the oldest sister, June, who comes up with the idea to use some inheritance money to pretend to be wealthy socialites and attract rich men. Unfortunately, the inheritance isn't as large as the women hoped, so only June can afford the pretense. The other two have to play her employees. Liz (Blaine) pretends to be June's social secretary while Myra (Vera-Ellen) plays a maid.

I don't have a lot of patience for gold-digging as a plot, but the sisters are sweet and charming, as are their prospective beaux. George Montgomery and Frank Latimore play a couple of bachelors who compete over June, which is another plot I never care for, because it makes it seem like the woman has no choice in the matter and is simply a prize to be won. But Three Little Girls adds more layer to that story than most films do by revealing that June does have a preference between her suitors. She just can't make her preference known because she's not sure how serious either man is. If she picks one and he turns out to be just talk, then she risks losing the other. This is explicit in the movie, so rather than being annoyed at June for encouraging the competition, I'm empathetic with her dilemma (even though I'm not crazy about the gold-digging scheme to begin with).

Things are complicated when Liz starts to fall for one of the guys, but Myra refreshingly becomes attracted to a bellhop. So even in this super mercenary plot there's a strong reminder that love and money are two different things (a point the film makes in other ways, too).

Outside the romantic politics, the songs are mostly really good (with a dull exception or two) and I was excited to learn that Frank Sinatra's "You Make Me Feel So Young" originated here. Most importantly, Vera-Ellen gets a solo dance number. It's a creepy one during "You Make Me Feel So Young" where she's dressed in a little girl outfit (think Shirley Temple with her miniskirt, frilled panties, and giant bonnet), so there's that, but it's still Vera-Ellen dancing up a storm, so there's that.

Rating: Three out of five finagling farm girls.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Dragonfly Ripple | Avengers: Endgame (2019)

An epic movie deserves an epic episode. For only the second time in Dragonfly Ripple history, the entire Dragonfly Ripple and Jetpack Tiger crew assemble to talk over Avengers: Endgame. Did everyone enjoy it? What were the favorite moments? Who cried the most? The answers are here along with SPOILERS galore!


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