Before the Singing Mice

March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

Cinderella in the Silent Film Era

I finally watched Hugo last night. It was as fabulous as I had hoped, even in the slightly forced but inevitable orphan-child-finds-a-family scenes. And of course, I could see what the reviewers out there had been talking about–that Scorsese had essentially crafted a love letter to the early days of film, when imagination could be sparked by a clever film cut, or an elaborate tableau. Being familiar with the book, I had been aware that the biography of George Melies, the pioneer of early film, featured largely in the film, and I was pleased to find that most of the film’s claims about Melies are actually true. He did, in fact, give up making films, and did, after all, work in near poverty in a toy shop in the Montparnasse station before being “re-discovered” by several researchers and journalists interested in his work. While no biographies I can find make any mention of a scrappy orphan boy being the key to Melies’s reemergence into public life, and Melies actually lived with his granddaughter (Madeline), and not a goddaughter (the fictitious Isabelle), the essence of Melies’s withdrawal from and eventual return to the world of filmaking in the early 20th Century remains as magical as a fairy tale, and as real as one could hope.

Also, it got me thinking.

What with the spate of fairy tale offerings due out from the major film houses this year, I’ve been hearing–or rather, reading, thanks to WordPress’s genius “terms people have used to find your site” tool–one question repeated often:

Why the new obsession with fairy tale films?

Now, why anyone would type that in as a search an expect a “well, Davey, here’s what you need to know” answer to pop up immediately is beyond me, but with that said…

Well, Davey (or whatever your name is), here’s what you need to know:

1. This obsession is hardly new. Dating back to our man Melies, filmmakers have turned to familiar tales as vehicles to put their work out there, especially, I’d claim, in the silent era. Think about it: if your actors can’t speak, and you’re relying on physical actions and whatever special effects you can create by snipping film and building suggestive sets, then one way to make sure your audience “gets” what you’re putting out there is by using a familiar tale.

Melies made approximately 500 films in his lifetime, and some of the most successful worldwide (other than the infamous “Trip to the Moon”) were his fairy tale films–“Cinderella” (1899) and the fabulously creepy “Bluebeard” (1901), for example. “Cinderella” was one of his first commercially successful films, not just in Europe, but here in the US as well, and I would venture to claim that much of that success was due to the fact that audiences could so easily connect to the story.

2. Yes, there is a rather obvious genre of film that advertises itself as “fairy tale,” but if you look closely at enough films—and enough fairy tales—you might notice that fairy tale themes and references are scattered across genres, and that many stories that have their roots in folklore are actually the groundwork for most common plots in films that we see today—whether we, or the filmmakers, realize it or not. But maybe that’s a whole other post…

So, sticking to my first point, I’ll contextualize this a little more for you. Now, we all know “Cinderella,” right? Many of us perhaps because of Disney’s blonde-pompadoured princess in 1950, but long before that, the tale of the little cinder girl was fertile ground for many aspiring filmmakers at the dawn of the era–including a young Walt Disney himself–before the singing mice and the nonsensical phrase “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo” were added in.

Here, for your enjoyment, are some examples:

First, an earlier cartoon from Walt Disney, while he was still making Laugh-O-Gram shorts with his partner Ub Iwerks. You’ll notice, I’m sure, that this is a little less polished than Walt’s later forays into animation…or, for that matter, the other films I’m about to share with you. But for the sake of context, and because Walt’s so often thought of as the only fairy tale filmmaker who matters, let’s get him over with, then trouble that assumption by moving on to more pleasant things.

Now Melies, whose first “Cinderella” film (every filmmaker featured in this post went on to make longer versions later in their careers) predates Disney’s by 23 years (and kicks its butt, as far as I’m concerned):

If you’ve seen Hugo, or are otherwise familiar with Melies’s work, than the early film tricks come as no surprise to you. For anyone reading this post who hasn’t yet been introduced to Melies’s work, I’m sure you’ll ardently concur when I say that this shit is freaking SWEET. We are talking 1899 here, people. Look what this man could do.

This next one is from 1922–surprisingly, the same year as Disney and Iwerks’ film. I say surprising, because it is, for my money, far superior, not only in skill and aesthetics, but as far as its treatments of the narrative. It’s an animation by Lotte Reiniger, a German paper artist and filmmaker who made dozens of fairy tale films in her lifetime using only cut paper silhouettes.

Gorgeous, right? And if you take a look at Reiniger’s filmography (the one on Wikipedia only lists those films she directed, which doesn’t include all of those she animated), you’ll see even more proof that the “obsession” with fairy tales is hardly a new phenomenon.

Now, in his essay “Breaking the Disney Spell,” Jack Zipes claims that no early filmmaker devoted themselves so ardently to the fairy tale as Disney did. Zipes goes on to talk about how Disney identified his own life story as a kind of fairy tale, a self-figuration that found its way into many of his films. This isn’t a vote in favor of Disney’s treatment of fairy tales, by either Zipes or myself–for Zipes then goes on to discuss how Disney’s notion of himself as the hero contributed to a sort of “cult of the personality,” which can be illustrated by the fact that Disney often didn’t credit his animators in his films–only himself. And Zipes also points out that in many animated films of Disney’s era, the tricks of the animator become more important than the narration, in an effort to “make audiences awestruck and to celebrate the animator as demigod.” The tale becomes a mere vehicle, rather than a story being imparted and expanded upon. Disney wasn’t interested in the darker themes of the stories, or even, perhaps, in the stories themselves–whereas with Melies and Reiniger, I can see at least a fascination with how the effect (quick cuts, snips with scissors) help to tell the story, rather than glorify the art alone. I cannot say the same for a cat washing the dishes, but maybe that’s just me…

So you see, the very history of film owes itself to fairy tales. And when you see a trailer for two different Snow Whites or two different Sleeping Beauties, take a step back and remember how many references you’ve ever heard to Cinderella in your life. This is nothing new, my internet-querying friends. What you’re just noticing is yet another chapter in the long story of fairy tales, how they’re used and told and told again.

Oh, and one more parting gift–I didn’t say that Walt Disney was the first to use the singing mice, was I?

Surprise, Max Fleischer beat Disney to that by 16 years.


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