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.

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