Sunday, April 16, 2006

Poor Cinderella (1934)

Poor Cinderella (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1934) 
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: Seymour Kneitel; Roland Crandall; William Henning
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

"I'm just a poor Cinderella
Nobody loves me it seems
And like a poor Cinderella
I find my romance in dreams.

For that's where I meet my Prince Charming
When I'm with him, cares stay away
I'm just a poor Cinderella
But I'll be a princess someday!"

I've said it before about animated films: it's not always about the funny. Some people would have you believe that all "cartoons" have to be comedies, or have to be populated only by wacky talking animals, or, hell, that all animated films are supposed to be known only as "cartoons". Before I introduced those inane people to Stan Brakhage and the Hubleys, amongst others, I would tell them, "No!", "No!", and triple "No!" Animated films, by virtue of their having only the limits of the imagination of the animator holding them back, can portray anything, can be about anything, and can show anything. They can, given the right budget and/or talent, show anything that a traditional film can portray, and then some. They can show every emotion imaginable. They can show things that can't be shown, or are amazingly hard to show, via normal film. However, more often than not due to the major studios insistence on such things, they are or are meant to be funny.

Max Fleischer made animated films, and far more often than not, they are considered cartoons, and also far more often than not, they are considered funny. But, if funny business is what makes an animated film a "cartoon", just what exactly is Poor Cinderella? The first color animated film by the Fleischer Studios, Poor Cinderella also has the distinction of being the only Betty Boop cartoon in color, and also is the first film in Max's attempt to duplicate Disney's popular Silly Symphonies, in a series Fleischer named Color Classics

Poor Cinderella is also, despite the rich heritage and reputation of the wonderful Ms. Boop, not all that funny. I've heard the film described as a fairy-tale spoof and/or parody, but this film is really almost a straightforward retelling of the classic poor girl/Prince Charming romance, and there is hardly a real laugh in the picture. I, myself, am a fan of early Boop (though not so much the later “clean-and-sober” Pudgy and Grampy films. I like my Boops to be manic and crazy, and filled with the likes of Bimbo and Koko the Clown, bouncily scored to wild jazz, and everything ruled by the antics of rubbery, stretchy cretins. And I don't like the words "spoof" or "parody" being tossed around all willy-nilly, when the picture is so mild in outcome.

But, to reject Poor Cinderella on its diminished merits as a funny picture is to do the film an injustice. For funny was not the real point of the Max Fleischer Color Classics. Matching, or at least momentarily keeping up with Disney in their race to syrupy sweetness (and maximum butts in seats) was the point. And to do this, Max Fleischer went BIG! ORNATE! COLORFUL! Well, as colorful as he was allowed to be, given that the first few films in the series were stuck with the 2-strip Cinecolor, severely limiting the palette of colors that could be used onscreen. Big, ornate, and colorful: Poor Cinderella is all that and more, with incredibly sharp detail in nearly every scene, from buildings, to street shots, to the cobblestone lining the streets, to the props in every room in Cinderella's home, to the chandeliers and staircases that fill the grand ballroom of Prince Charming's palace. Everything is huge, and each scene is almost embarrassingly plump with eye-gouging richness.

Much of this is due to Max Fleischer's secret weapon (and invention), the turntable camera. Personally, you can keep that much more touted multi-plane camera of Disney's (actually, I like it equally, but I'm on Max's team today). For pure animated gimmickry, the thing for me is the turntable camera system, which is basically where the cels are films horizontally in front of a turntable on which three-dimensional sets are built, and then the table is turned a smidgen in conjunction with the animation with every click of the camera. Not normal backgrounds, mind you, but actual miniature sets: buildings, trees, mountains, machines, props; all built to scale, and all used in the background, and eventually, the foreground to give the Color Classics, and the other Fleischer series, a feel and visual depth uniquely their own. The films are actually a mix of live-action and animation when you really think about it, and this includes the Popeye films and the Betty Boops. This also includes Poor Cinderella, and as merely something upon which to marvel on a visual level, without even taking into consideration story or humor, the film is worthwhile.

But, this is where the hitch lies. The film is also, outside of the extravagant visuals, somewhat staid and boring. Though there are many different versions of Cinderella around, this one sticks to the basic facts: girl enslaved nearly to death; evil, ugly stepsisters; royal ball; fairy godmother; back by midnight; dancing with Prince Charming; time flies; midnight; change back, leave glass slipper; search for girl; and marriage to the Prince. There is nothing out of the ordinary except for the expected magical elements. Though mice, lizards, horses, and a pumpkin do sing just before and, in the horses' case, during their metamorphoses (their song-and-dance segment is my favorite act in the film), these are expected since the film is a musical. And, sadly, there is no "Fractured Fairy Tale" attempt to jimmy up the works (except for a weird but fine cameo by a Rudy Vallee-style crooner at the ball), which even a mild swing at would have livened the film up to more than bearable standards.

While I think Betty, even with her hair dyed red for the step into Cinecolor, is always a peach-and-a-half, I have problems with the other human characters in the film. Prince Charming is a weak-chinned disaster as a character, and I never believe that he and Betty are members of the same species, let alone are being filmed on the same turntable sets. They look exceedingly mismatched as a couple, and I wish that he and the other humans in the film would have been designed as if they bore some resemblance to Betty's body type (not her shape, I mean her basic physical construction). 

The only characters that work even halfway for me are the Olive Oyl-bodied stepsisters, but they should look physically weird and/or repulsive, so this is a sort of "gimme”. Not even the Fairy Godmother, who should be the most memorable character in the film outside of Boop, is drawn with any real presence, and she is forgotten the instant that the coach drives off to the ball. The main problem here is that they go to such great lengths to breathe incredible life in Betty Boop, that any other humans come off as lesser and inferior beings, even a magical Fairy Godmother.

What does work is the music, a film-long connection song that Boop and the animals break into every minute or so, moving the plot of the movie along. Likewise, a beautifully realized clock sequence showing Betty hard at work fulfilling her stepsisters' every pre-ball whim, and linked to the music intricately. And, if there were one shot in the film that I had to select as a sterling example of animation, it is a shot of Betty looking into her mirror as she sings her Poor Cinderella theme (lyrics at the top of this article) sweetly and longingly, and as she sings, she wraps a tattered shawl about her shoulders and body like a cloak. The cloth is so detailed in line and wrinkle, and so tightly draped around Betty, that it adds immense vitality to the scene; it not only sells just how rich and deep Betty is as a character, it also sells how poor and sad the character is that Betty is playing. A remarkable scene. And, oh! Those tracking shots with the sets and 3D feel! It is this very touch that makes every Fleischer film, no matter the story quality, an interesting view.

Now, if only Koko and Bimbo were in the mix to really liven the film up. If only the orchestra at the Royal Ball were conducted by Cab Calloway. If only the singing pumpkin had a bigger part. If only the film were at least about 30% funny.

It's not all about the funny. But it could have helped turn a visually great but ho-hum film into a real winner. Poor Poor Cinderella...



And in case you haven’t seen it:

[This article was updated with new photos on 12/26/15.]

1 comment:

fabio said...

I really love this cartoon and fully share your opinions about the characthers, I love the music and can't help singing all the songs through the cartoon as my daughter does (she is almost 3 and learning english with cartoons songs - we are italian) your blog is very interesting and detailed, compliments!