November 10, 2008

Disney Canon #12: Cinderella (1950)

Note: the participants are sleepier than usual.

ADAM Beth, why don’t you start, because… well, I don’t know. I was going to say, “because you’re a gay redhead with a flair for scrubbing.”

BETH It’s true. But I don’t have a lot to say about it.

ADAM I got sleepy by the end, but it was no comment on the film.

BROOM I was sleepy at the beginning, and now I’m more awake, but that’s not a comment on the film either.

ADAM While it was more dated than I had ever realized, it’s still very good-natured.

BETH I hadn’t realized how many animal hijinks there would be.

BROOM This is a seventy-minute movie, and of those minutes, about thirty were cat and mouse bullshit.

BETH I think maybe more.

ADAM At the beginning, I counted: there were nineteen solid minutes of just animals.

BROOM That’s right. The stepmother didn’t wake up and set the story in motion until twenty minutes into the movie. Everything prior to that was just hijinks.

BETH I thought they did a nice job making the daughters look really ugly. I don’t think we’ve seen anyone that ugly in a Disney movie yet.

ADAM Certainly no females.

BROOM You thought the undesirable from Sleepy Hollow was more desirable than these girls?


BROOM The dancing girl.

BETH Oh. Definitely.

ADAM What about Ichabod himself?

BETH He rivaled these girls in appeal.

ADAM What about Casey?

BETH Casey was pretty ugly, but in a different way.

BROOM That reminds me, since I’ve been pointing out these Irish types: the fairy godmother here seems also to be Irish, but in a positive way for the first time.

BETH That’s true; she looked like she could be a relative of mine.

BROOM She had the little chin.

ADAM She was like – who’s the dotty aunt in Bewitched?

BETH She is like that woman. I don’t remember her name.

ADAM But she’s not quite as dotty as that.

BROOM But the honking, Casey-style horrible lower-class caricature was also present here; the guy holding the slipper at the end was one of those. He had the big flapping Tweedledee lips.

ADAM So was Bruno when he was a human.

BROOM He was thrilled to be a human. To be upgraded by one status level, from the class of horse to the class of servant.

ADAM No, Bruno, the dog, who became the footman. The horse was the coachman.

BROOM Oh, right. Well, they each got the same promotion. Anyway, I think the main thing to talk about here is that so much of the movie is mice running around. That stuff plays well to kids. I think.

BETH Maybe, but seeing it now I remembered that as a kid, I was always waiting for it to get back to her and her dress.

ADAM Yes, the one thing I remember vividly from seeing this as a child is the beautiful pink dress garlanded with those beautiful pink bows.

BROOM So the dress was an object of fascination for both of you?

BETH and ADAM Yes.

ADAM And could there be a lusher, more exhilarating moment in the history of cinema than when the sparkles clothe her and she emerges in that wedding gown?

BROOM To me, the sweet spot in the movie was always the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” scene; specifically when the pumpkin walks out and transforms.

BETH I figured you would like that.

ADAM I always thought, “Get past this! Who cares?”

BROOM When you were a kid, you didn’t care about the pumpkin? Just the dress?

BETH I would feel like, “No! Come on! Don’t forget about the dress!”

BROOM Well, they explicitly play that frustration for the character. And it worked on you.

BETH Yes it did!

ADAM When I was Person Of The Week in preschool, we had to make life-size drawings of ourselves on shelf paper and answer biographical questions, and my brother said that he wanted to be a dump-truck driver, and I said I wanted to be a dressmaker.

BROOM Because of that scene?

ADAM No. Just because it seemed so wonderful.

BROOM Well, you each got your wish, in a way.

ADAM And as a small child, when I would draw girls in fabulous dresses, they were always triangular, like her dress.

BROOM How much of that interest stems back to this movie?

ADAM I don’t know. But thinking about it just got me excited and woke me up. Even now.

BROOM So which were the dull parts for you as a kid?

ADAM and BETH Everything else.

BETH It was just waiting around until the dress parts.

BROOM As a kid I was more willing to watch the slapstick than I am now. The parts I wasn’t interested in were them dancing at the ball…

BETH Well, that was pretty dull.

BROOM Or anything talky with the daughters. Althought the moment when the mother sees the other slipper and gasps, as if to say, “I’m ruined!” – that was satisfying to me as a child.

ADAM All the moments of horrible cruelty are satisfying, too.

BETH Maybe now, but I didn’t care when I was little.

ADAM I don’t recall if they were satisfying at the time, but they’re now intensely satisfying.

BROOM This is the first movie I saw in a theater – a pretty girly movie, but I turned out okay – and apparently I was scared by the stepmother. The only place that could have been was when her eyes narrow and she decides to lock up Cinderella.

ADAM But the stepmother isn’t evil in a witchy way; she’s evil in a sort of cruel and haughty way that’s different from Ursula or the evil Queen. I think they did a good job of giving her a refined, ladylike cruelty.

BROOM She was like Joan Crawford. Her hair is nicely designed. And her chin, too. I think the scariness of her character is that it’s almost completely unspoken. The movie mostly holds at bay the underlying fact that Cinderella is totally alone in the world, has nothing to live for, and is only getting by in life through her baseless good cheer – that her stepmother is really just this side of killing her. And in moments like the one where she decides it would be best to lock up Cinderella, that suddenly comes to the surface. But as a kid, actually, I don’t think I was susceptible to interpersonal tension as a source of scariness. I don’t think I empathized with characters enough. Whereas seeing mice go in one hole and come out another hole – that holds a kid’s interest. So this movie, which I found very annoying tonight, would probably still seem fine to six-year-olds.

ADAM I have a vivid memory of the blue beads and the pink sash. Truly, that’s all I remember. Did you remember what the prince looked like, let alone what his voice sounded like?

BETH Of course not.

ADAM It’s totally irrelevant.

BROOM You only see him in close-up once, in the spinning shot while they’re dancing. He looks like a high school football star.

ADAM [hero voice]: But his voice!

BROOM His voice wasn’t nearly that deep or manly!

ADAM I had forgotten that he did not do the slipper searching himself.

BETH Me too. I had forgotten about those doofuses.

ADAM Do you know, in the real Charles Perrault story, how the stepsisters try to deceive the prince?

BETH I don’t know, no.

ADAM They cut off their own toes and heels, respectively, to fit in the shoe. And nobody notices, but as they are on their way to the palace to be married to the prince, their blood, which falls on the snow, screams that they are impostors. Probably that can happen in the Perrault version because it’s a slipper of fur, not of glass. It was vair in French and then it was confused with verre.

BROOM That makes more sense, because a glass slipper would be unwearable.

ADAM And also, the blood would be quite visible.

BROOM So this movie seemed to take place in France. That’s a first for the series. They didn’t do much with it, but their chateau looked a little bit French.

ADAM And the names were French-y.

BROOM That’s right. Their last name is Tremaine. So, anyway, this is it; this is what Disney movies are going to be like from now on. The girl who dreams of a better life…

ADAM Who is saved from danger entirely by her own gentleness and prettiness.

BROOM Actually, I’m wrong; they’re not really going to be this way, are they. This is something that was dormant and they resurrected it for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. And this in turn seemed to be an intentional reversion to the pre-war movies, an effort to make one “just like Snow White.”

ADAM Was “Cinderella” a cultural trope before this movie came out? I feel like this defines a whole half-century of retrograde ideas about gender.

BROOM Specify.

ADAM You know, the whole “Princess Syndrome.”

BROOM Well Snow White was a princess too, so maybe we should try to name the elements in Cinderella but not in Snow White that make Cinderella more “princess-y.”

ADAM Dresses!

BETH It is the dresses. And castles. I guess there are castles in Snow White too.

BROOM But that was a symbolic castle, at the end, whereas this was more materialistic. But this movie also made fun of that kind of materialism. I mean, Cinderella’s dress you’re supposed to enjoy sincerely, but King Teddy Roosevelt’s castle, with the enormous doors and enormous paintings, is sort of a joke. You’re not meant to lust for it. Really the only object of specific material desire in the movie is that dress.

ADAM And the tiara. I mean, let’s be clear: the whole outfit. And her hair. I just loved her hair; it’s like a confection.

BETH The first dress looks like a cake, and the second dress looks like a wedding cake.

ADAM I suppose the idea of talking to birds is new; but no, Snow White talks to birds, doesn’t she.

BROOM She talks to them but they’re not fully anthropomorphized; they don’t talk back to her.

ADAM They don’t assist her in her household chores.

BROOM Uh, yes they do, in the famous sequence, “Whistle While You Work.”

ADAM Oh, you’re right.

BETH They’re actually more effective at helping her than Cinderella’s friends.

BROOM I thought it was odd that the mice were characterized as idiots. They can talk but they don’t have fully-formed brains.

ADAM Well, the one in the red shirt could.

BROOM Jaq? Jar-Jar Mouse?

BETH He was smart. They just couldn’t pronounce things correctly.

BROOM “We is coming, Cinderelly!”

ADAM Cinderella also has a little bit more bitterness than Snow White ever has. She’s sarcastic towards the bells at the beginning. “Oh, you mean old thing! I hear you!”

BROOM Oh yeah – the same bells that at the end, I now see, ring for her wedding.

ADAM And she makes a sarcastic comment about the sisters’ music lesson. She’s a little bit tart. But when she says “the prince!” she gets this vacant look in her face, which is very disturbing.

BROOM But the prince isn’t really a focus of this movie. It’s not about wanting men at all. It’s about a better life. It’s about your dreams coming true. And your dreams might happen to feature a dress.

ADAM You’re right. It’s not really about being saved by a man, it’s being saved by money. And royalty.

BROOM It’s the basic Harry Potter dream: you’re nobody, but maybe in some secret way you’re the queen, and everyone will know it someday. She doesn’t actually put into words the idea that she wants everyone to know it. That’s the strange thing – she never really says “I wish I could rise above all this.”

BETH Well, what do you think she was dreaming about in the first scene? Probably the castle she could see from her window.

ADAM Or a boy.


BROOM She doesn’t know he’s the prince; she just has a really nice prom experience.

ADAM When was Ken released? Around the same time, right?

BETH The first Barbie was released in 1958, and I don’t think Ken came along for a little while after that.

ADAM Oh, I thought Barbie was released in the 40s.

BROOM So was this movie an influence on Barbie?

BETH I don’t think so. She looks a little like the first Barbie.

BROOM She’s not quite as sexed up as Barbie.

ADAM Barbie was based on some German sex toy.

BETH Well, that’s just how things started to look later in the 50s.

BROOM In my vague impression of Cinderella, I had imagined her to be more sexualized than she is. They really make it all about her face; her body is just something to hang a dress on.

ADAM Her body is slim, but not curvy.

BROOM And she doesn’t move in a particularly sensual way; she doesn’t sway at all – she skitters around like a mouse. Unlike Katrina Van Tassel from last time, when I said “Cinderella’s going to look like that” – but she was to be lusted after, whereas Cinderella is the protagonist. But, really, the protagonist is the cat. You spend more time watching the cat than watching Cinderella.

ADAM I didn’t realize that the fairy godmother is only on stage for about two minutes. Even though she’s such a classic character.

BROOM That scene is the best scene in the movie by a long shot. Not just because of the dress or the pumpkin, but because it has atmosphere and something exciting is happening. Though I actually thought that the staging wasn’t bad in some of the other human scenes. I mean, it was stupid, but it could be fun. Like when the King is “swimming” across his marble table.

ADAM The King and the Grand Duke are amusing enough. I hadn’t remembered them at all.

BROOM And it was clear that the daughters and the mother were heavily rotoscoped, but their acting was pretty good. But the mice were just terrible mice. I didn’t like the way they looked and their stupid Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks voices were awful.

ADAM They sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and she sounded like Judy Garland.

BETH She did sound like Judy Garland.

BROOM The mother?

ADAM No, Cinderella.

BROOM Hm. And a whole song in those high-pitched voices! I guess at the time it was truly a novelty.

ADAM That’s the second most famous song from this movie. Could you have sung any of those songs, other than “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo?”

BROOM I could have sung “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

ADAM Speaking of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”: to hear a full chorus singing those nonsense words was pretty unintentionally funny.

BROOM Oh, I think it was supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be fun that this was just gobbledygook. It’s a very short song. I would not have been able to sing “So This Is Love.” In fact, when they were calling for “The waltz! The waltz!” I thought, “what’s the melody of the waltz going to be?” And I completely didn’t recognize it when it started. You know, I usually zone out for those sorts of sequences, but I thought it was reasonably pretty.

BETH The love scene?


ADAM Could you have sung the “Nightingale” song?

BROOM That she sings with her own bubble reflections. No, and I can’t sing it now either.

BETH I kind of liked that sequence.

BROOM This movie didn’t have any blowing leaves, but it did have bubbles rising out of an old oaken bucket, which is another popular image for Disney.

ADAM From Fantasia.

BROOM And Snow White. And probably all the other movies too, if we’d been watching for it. [ed. Definitely in Dumbo!] So as I was saying: This movie is a throwback, and then The Little Mermaid is a throwback specifically to this – the kingdom in Little Mermaid is essentially the same castle, the same prince, the same stuff – but I don’t think we’re going to see any princes until then. Are we?

ADAM There’s a prince in Sleeping Beauty.

BROOM Oh, of course, Sleeping Beauty. That’s the last shot at it for a long time.

ADAM Anyway, I really liked this movie. I thought everything in it was gently humorous. Well, I didn’t really like it, but I liked it. It was cheerful, and maybe not especially well drawn, but it had a pleasant liveliness to the drawing. It was totally bearable. Though there were moments when Cinderella seemed a little too much like someone from a 1950s soap commercial; the anachronism of it jarred me a little, but otherwise I enjoyed it.

BROOM I found the mice very difficult to take. I think if you excised all the animal material, you’d have a pleasant 25 minute movie. This was just tedious.

BETH I think it was solid kids’ entertainment, and it felt more contemporary as kids’ entertainment than any of the previous Disney movies. I can imagine kids still watching this. And I guess Dumbo too.

ADAM To me it felt about as contemporary as “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.”

BROOM But didn’t this feel more condescending and more specific to a child audience than any of the others? This is the first one where I felt like mom and dad were checking their watches while the kids enjoyed it.

ADAM Dumbo still had jokes that went over my head as a child.

BETH That’s what I mean: this is more like a kid’s movie that you’d see now.

BROOM I just felt disappointed.

ADAM That this central pillar of our culture is so thin.

BROOM Yes, it felt thin, and it felt a little cynical on the part of the studio. It didn’t feel like it had anything behind it except for “kids will go to this,” albeit done with a reasonable amount of good cheer.

ADAM But I will say, as a coda, that Cinderella is culturally probably the most influential of all Disney movies, in terms of setting up an archetype for the culture at large.

BROOM And yet she’s such a cipher. She doesn’t have any character.

ADAM That’s the whole point!

BETH She has a castle. It’s the center of Disneyworld!

ADAM Just the idea of “a Cinderella story,” this ideal of mid-century womanhood, is much more influential than, like, Pocahontas. I think it’s interesting to ponder that. And I think it’s all about that one image of the swirling dress.

BROOM But it’s very much the same setup as Snow White. It just has that element of material lust in it.

BETH Glamour.

BROOM Do you think that in 1937, Snow White’s image was also a sort of glamorous, desirable image?

ADAM No. She’s self-consciously girlish.

BROOM Yeah, she’s an innocent, and real dames would have blown her off. Whereas in 1950, our various grandmothers might well have wanted to look like Cinderella.

ADAM Our various mothers.

BROOM Our mothers weren’t born yet. And yours wasn’t old enough to want it.

ADAM My mother was two, which is, I think, just when those messages fall on you most uncritically.


ADAM Well, nowadays. Okay, four.

BROOM I did have one more thing I wanted to say about the mice and cats running around: kids have more tolerance for that than adults do, in part because kids relate to that. I related to those kinds of things as a kid because the divide between the animal world and the story world is kind of the same as the divide between kid-world and grownup-world. While you’re watching the cat and mouse games, meanwhile, Cinderella is bringing the sisters their breakfast; that’s what’s really going on the story, but we care about these cats on the floor, which the grownups don’t even notice. And then ultimately it’s like one of these movies where Kid Power saves the day for the grownups. In the end, the mice have to be the heroes. Nobody’s been paying attention to the mice but us, and then suddenly it’s the Ewoks who have to save the day.

ADAM Do the Ewoks save the day?

BROOM At the end of Return of the Jedi, yes they do. Because who notices the Ewoks? So here, it would never even occur to the evil stepmother – it’s so far below her disdain – that mice would crawl into her pocket, steal her key, and carry it up the stairs. And that’s how victory is achieved, because kid-world wins out. Okay, I said it.

— [the Times review is read] —

BROOM I want to register my surprise and dismay that Bosley Crowther says that the mice are the best thing in the movie.

BETH I know; you didn’t like the mice. We get it.

BROOM But he was correct about the pumpkin. So you’re saying that you didn’t mind the mice, you enjoyed the mice.

BETH I didn’t enjoy the mice.

ADAM I didn’t enjoy the mice, but I didn’t hate them.

BETH They kind of reminded me of the mice in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

ADAM They kind of reminded me of when you’re in fourth grade and the only person more unpopular than you is some really, really unpopular kid, and you don’t hate him, but you don’t really want him hanging around you. You know?

BROOM Yes. Well, I hated him, because I wanted to maintain my distance.

ADAM Because he reminded you of yourself.

BROOM That’s right. These mice didn’t remind me of myself though. Okay. GO OBAMA. [Ed. He won.]


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