Sixty years on: Has Cinderella on film got trapped in The Valley of the Dolls?

I rather enjoyed the new live action Disney Cinderella. We’re reviewing it on Front Row on Monday Mar 23rd. But the issues raised here still stand.

Imagine Cinderella as a anti social tomboy with cropped black hair who acts well, just a bit too weird..actually unlikeable. Imagine that when she’s transformed for the ball, her dark exotic beauty means the palace guests all think she’s an Egyptian princess; like, actually, North African. Now imagine the fairy god mother is the mad old village tramp lady that everyone avoids. This isn’t PC gone mad. MGM actually made this film The Glass Slipper in 1955 with one of its brightest new stars, the young Leslie Caron. That was five years after the Disney animated version.

Since childhood Ella has been boasting to everyone about how one day she’ll live in the palace. Compared to her beautiful, elegant feminine stepsisters this girl is well, frankly emotionally disturbed. You can see why in this 1950s retro Europa, the village all feel it’s quite generous of Step mother Elsa Lanchester to have agreed to keep this weird creepy child at all, even as a servant.

MGM’s The Glass Slipper was made to capitalize on Leslie Caron’s early film success. There’s a lot of ballet in it, but the trailer misleads. What intrigues is its strikingly modern heroine. A lonely neglected orphan who’s put up an amazing hard front. She doesn’t try to be liked. She gurns and stomps around. It’s quite uncomfortable to watch at times, giving the film an unexpectedly real emotional power despite the super pretty sets and dancing. Her waist is not the point. You’re embarrassed by some of the thing she does and says. And when she goes to the ball, aided by her old tramp lady – the only friend she has – transformed by the power of a beautiful gown – everyone thinks she’s an Egyptian princess.

Compare that to the sickly sweet, ditzy girls of Frozen or the headlines being made by film critics over the new superblonde wasp-waisted Cinderella. Every time a new Disney princess film comes, out, and they’re churning them out at the moment, I am surprised by how dated its heroines can seem, compared to films make 20 to 60 years ago.

The romances have changed too, though perhaps in more complex ways. Modern princes tend to be the same age as their princesses which perhaps is more comfortable viewing. Early 20s. Caron’s Prince Charming is a grey-haired Michael Wilding. Richard Chamberlain was about 40 when he charmed Gemma Craven’s Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose, though it doesn’t jar; credit to Craven’s sweet but not sickly performance. And Richard Chamberlain responds to the campness all around by playing his part superstraight. It’s totally charming. There’s a lack of adulthood about the modern films combined with a really concerning off-the-shoulder sexiness. Listen to the voice characterisations in these old films and some of the cartoons, such as the 1950s Disney Sleeping Beauty. There’s a physical maturity to the voices, which conveyed adulthood and adult relationships.

When writer and comedian Meryl O’ Rourke and I got talking about our mutual loathing for Frozen for The Big Issue last month, she pointed out how Disney films, perhaps just practically focused on monetizing that Disney Princesses demographic to the max, show heroines who barely look more than teenagers themselves. 8 year old girls given an 8 year old’s idea of a being a grownup. They are not shown adult role models.

What the hell, they’re only kids’ films right? Does it matter? I think it does. Mulan was on TV on International Women’s Day. I’d like to think the scheduler at Channel 5 did it deliberately. Meryl observed every song in it is about mocking and challenging female and male gendered roles. Three men drag up to help Mulan get into the Palace for the climax of the film. The guards mistake them for “concubines. UGLY concubines.” Mulan then jumps one and starts strangling him. Do you think Disney would ever make such a film post Frozen? I was similarly stunned at the Casablanca-comparable depths when I re-watched Lady And The Tramp a couple of weeks earlier with its rowing lovers and Tramp’s womanizing past. (He is a dog, after all?)

It’s relevant that The Glass Slipper didn’t make back its production costs on release. Though considering when it was made, it’s a fascinating outlier for feminist revisionings of old fairytales. The Feminine Mystique wouldn’t be published for 9 years. It was written by Helen Deutsch, whose first screenplay was for National Velvet and who wrote such rollicking adventures as Kim and King Solomon’s Mines. Her first film for Leslie Caron was Lili – an original screenplay, which we can also credit for inspiring John Waters’ early pre-film career as a pupeeter. She wrote it after seeing rushes of Caron in An American In Paris. It earned Deutsch an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. As the new Frozen Fever short and Disney’s live action Cinderella open in the cinemas, it’s a shame she isn’t around to give us her view on the landscape of modern fairytales and female characters onscreen.

Incidentally once you’ve noticed the giant Japanese cartoon style eyes of the female characters in Frozen Fever compared to the men, it’s impossible to forget.  With one early review in Vox claiming the 1950 animated Cinderella character had more energy and assertiveness than the new Cinderella,  it seems only too appropriate that Helen Deutsch’s last screenplay was for the Valium-era Valley of the Dolls.

Further reading

Front Row review of Cinderella (March 23rd 2015)

Frozen? That’s not feminism (Big Issue column)

Letterboxd review of Cinderella

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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