Title: The Glass Slipper
Cinematic release: 1955
Starring: Leslie Caron and Michael Wilding
Written by: Helen Deutsch
Directed by: Charles Walters
Only available on VHS. Available on eBay at time of posting at £15.75 + £11.49 P&P [Edit: YOU CAN NOW BUY THIS ON DVD, OMG! THE FUTURE IS ACES! The British DVD is £27.50, but you can also get it at £17.50 from France!]
It may seem a bit ludicrous to review a film you can’t even buy on a format most people would watch, these days, but that’s kind of why I feel it’s important to include these glimpses into the past, reminding us of treasures that ought to be a part of our heritage, whether the big distributors think they should be or not. And anyway, how does one create a demand for the production of great old films in DVD format if nobody talks about them? I’m glad I have my old VHS tape, but I would buy this on DVD, and I’d exhort others to do so, too.
The Glass Slipper is an absolute classic. It is still my favourite Cinderella story film – over Ever After; over Pretty Woman; and certainly over Disney’s Cinderella, released just five years earlier than The Glass Slipper itself. It melds qualities dreamlike and suitably fairytale with a tone of wry subversion that respects and updates the source material in equal measure.
The plot does not deviate greatly from the traditional tale, but its exploration is more subtle, with more of a care for psychological realism than most. Ella is the daughter of a rich man who remarried after her mother died, before passing on himself. Her stepmother and step-sisters use her as a servant, refusing her equal standing and treatment on the premise that she is bad-tempered and dirty, even though she is only bad-tempered and dirty because they use her so ill. The narrator explains. ‘She was not precisely an amiable child… It was the old story of the rejected becoming all the more rejected because they had behaved badly because they had been rejected – one of those, err, circles… And there it was again. The heat of tears burning behind the eyes… a few more years and she will stop fighting back’.
Oh, does that ever ring true. Not that I was neglected by my parents, but I was bullied because I didn’t behave in the ways considered ‘normal’, and so I became bad-tempered, and was bullied all the more for being bad-tempered and ‘anti-social’. After a while it does kick the fight out of you. It becomes clear that shouting and fighting and speaking up for yourself does no good, and so you become quiet and ‘docile’. It’s a theme any child could identify with – everything that doesn’t go your way seems unfair as a child, but I identify with it all the more in retrospect. Somethings are genuinely unfair, but one’s complaints are taken for childish peevishness, and ignored. So it starts to seem hopeless. Why continue to cry out if your voice is never heard?
That’s when depression hits. Whether the initial fire is extinguished or directed inwards, all external action comes to feel fruitless. If the world is deaf enough, unresponsive enough, eventually even the strongest spirits collapse, stop trying to change it. In a sense, it’s almost worse to be strong-willed in such a case, for if you stick stubbornly to your principles and what you believe is fair you can’t bring yourself to adapt to the world and enjoy it for what it is. You perceive only the bleakness of what is wrong, and the impossibility of setting it right.
It’s a complex motif, simply expressed, which a person of any race, gender, background, sexuality etc. etc. can identify with, but I do feel it would be wrong to neglect the implicit feminist critique in this archetypal tale of female aspiration in the face of limitations placed on women both by society as a whole, and by other women who have internalised society’s rules and oppressive habits. I cannot help but be reminded of this theme, following my reading, today, of this interesting reflection on the way boisterousness and ‘bad behaviour’ is treated when exhibited by men as opposed to women, as exemplified in the recent kerfuffle prompted by Christopher Priest’s comments on the Clarke Award. I wasn’t convinced by yuki_onna’s argument at first. I’ve seen men shout offensive remarks at one another on the Internet, after all, they hardly go uncriticised. And it’s not as though no woman’s critical comments are considered by some to be of worth even if they also receive harsh objections… but as she went on, I realised she’s right. If I have seen men threatened with rape for daring to voice their opinion it has happened so rarely that it left no impression. And I can’t help but recognise in myself the caveat after caveat I attach to even the most mildly worded critique on the net if I think it is likely to be at all controversial. This is not because I’m naturally timid – my parents took me to a child psychologist because of fighting at school (incidentally, the psychologist judged me completely healthy, at that stage of my life – I fought because I was provoked). In the past I have been described as ‘scary’, because of my forthrightness of opinion and boisterous attitude. I don’t think anyone would say that now, and there’s a very good reason for that: I’ve been worn down. I am tired. I don’t want to be called scary for voicing my opinion without lowering my eyes and apologising first. Behaviour that is normal and accepted in boys and men is pathologised and ostracised in girls and women (even if medical professionals can tell the difference, nowadays, the rest of the world has some catching up to do).
Incidentally, I’m not just going off on one, honest. Although the film treats the subject gently and with unintrusive grace, the feminist critique is undoubtedly intended. One of the most wonderful aspects of the film is the ‘fairy godmother’, Mrs Tuquet. She is a woman who has been ostracised by society herself for reading books, which Ella’s stepmother says led her to go from ‘bad to worse’. Although her behaviour is a bit strange, she seems nonetheless intelligent and kind. For example, when they first meet, she comforts Ella by gently defusing her anger at the way she has been treated, reducing the insulting corruption of her name to a mere word – showing Ella how to hear it only as sounds, sounds which can be musical or funny independently of their intended meaning: ‘”Cinderella”,’ she says, ‘I like it very much. There are other words I like very much, like “windowsill” and “elbow”… el-bow… and I like “apple-dumpling”, too – it’s a comical word’. My early attempts at self-preservation followed very much this path: if society won’t accept you, accept that you are strange and take pleasure in the freedom that can be found in being defined as different. Once you’re labelled as different it is hard to impose upon you the rules that apply to those who are still within reach of the cherished title of ‘normal’.
Mrs Tuquet seems content in her ways, and yet though she has been content to adopt the reclusive, excentric lifestyle for herself she wants both happiness and acceptance for Ella. Her interventions in Ella’s life are not simply the traditional ‘makeover’ role of the fairy-godmother, revealing the beautiful, normal-looking girl under the ashes. When she asks Ella why she goes about as she does, and Ella petulantly declares that she doesn’t care what people think of her, Mrs Tuquet responds ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s no excuse for scaring people’. Of course, Ella is beautiful (one could hardly disguise Leslie Caron’s dancer’s physique), and she will receive a beautiful gown and a brush up and she will be acclaimed as a great beauty at the ball – this is a Cinderella story, after all – but the film makes a valiant effort to draw the fine line between beauty in confidence and conformity in beauty. Again, I identify strongly with both Ella and Mrs Tuquet, here. My mother and sister never understood my insistence in wearing baggy T-shirts, shunning make-up, refusing to brush my hair, and so forth; and the more they tried to force me to conform, the wilder I became. Of course, I was completely right to wear only what made me feel comfortable, but not brushing my hair and failing to use deodorant were not, upon reflection, all that valuable a form of protest.
Another fun aspect of Mrs Tuquet is that it’s never quite clear just how much of a fairy-godmother she is. She appears to be an ordinary woman, and she’s certainly never referred to as a fairy. She is known about the village as a sort of harmless thief. She steals things, but she always gives them back. The shenanigans she construes to enable Ella’s attendance of the ball appear to be a combination of theivery (stealing the dress) and calling in of favours (persuading the coachmen to do an extra run for Ella)… and yet, at the end, as she walks off, Mrs Tuquet simply fades away. I’m usually somewhat bored by the ‘is it or isn’t it’ style plot, but in this case, I approve. The suggestion is pretty strong that Mrs Tuquet is in some sense magical, yet nothing she does to help Ella amounts to something impossible for a real woman to do. In this way, Ella is not robbed by her achievement. The prince falls in love with the dirty, spirited, rude girl, and Mrs Tuquet merely facilitates their coming together, providing the opportunity for their love to flourish, and prompting Ella towards a more mature outlook that will enable her to forge her own place in the world, rather than simply handing her illusory baubles with which to attract a man.
I also like that the film openly explores the emptiness of Cinderella’s ambitions and dreams as expressed in the traditional tale. Ella has been told a prophecy, that one day she will live in the palace, but when Mrs Tuquet asks her what she will do in the palace she hasn’t a clue. And later, when she fantasises about it, even her daydream descends into a sort of boredom. I remember being puzzled by this scene as a child. The vision of the palace seemed artificially stale and empty I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get from it. I now realise, of course, that that was the point: a nebulous dream of having wealth bestowed abruptly upon one is artificial and empty, baring no concept of what in such a life would bring happiness. And once Mrs Tuquet’s questions have gently nudged her towards such a realisation, Ella’s mischievous curiosity causes her own day-dream to come tumbling down:
This is one of three dream-ballet sequences, all bar the last of which somewhat puzzled me as a child. I understood that they were dreams or fantasies (I think), but the sudden interjection of ballet into a live-action piece was striking, despite my ready acceptance of random singing and dancing in musicals and the odder flights of fancy one met with in the average Disney film of the period (pink elephants on parade, anyone?). I’m not sure this was to the film’s detriment. I found such sequences fascinating fodder for the imagination, although I don’t think I ever really understood the middle sequence as a child.
In this dream Ella believes the man she met in the woods is the son of the cook in the palace of the duke (he is, of course, the prince himself!), and her fantasy is easily converted and happily filled with thoughts of being not only a cook’s wife, but a valuable part of the kitchen staff. Far from disappointed that the prophecy might mean that she would merely work at the palace, Ella’s dream is enlivened now that she can see a role for herself within that world.
But the real prize is the final sequence, where Ella has finally discovered the truth of the prince’s identity and believes that he is promised to marry a foreign princess (a rumour started by her own enigmatic presence at the ball). The passion expressed by the lead performers elevates this ballet sequence from mere dance to true art:
I was swept up by the romance of this film as a child. For me, it was the correct Cinderella. I am ever so glad to see that it has stood the test of time. If only it were available on DVD.
[Edit: and now it is!]