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Tag Archives: Fairy Tales

Revisiting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow_White_1937_posterThe last time I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I must have been around eleven years old. I had just watched the 1978 Les Miserables with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins and, along with my cousin and siblings, found it a stressful experience. None of us knew a thing about the story, so when Javert stood there for what seemed an impossibly long time, pointing a gun at Jean Valjean’s head (with one stressful note of music held for an impossibly long time) we really were concerned. After Les Miserables, we wanted to watch something a little more restful.

But after watching She and reading about how the costumes in that film might have inspired the animators of the Evil Queen in Snow White, I wanted to see it again. Here are my seven main thoughts on the film.

1) It’s like a symphonic poem. I had forgotten how much music is in this film. Not only do characters break into song every five minutes or so, but the musical score (composed by Paul Smith and Leigh Harline) almost never ceases to play. There are multiple examples of “mickey-mousing,” which means using the music to accompany or punctuate a character or animal’s movement or expression. When music is played in time to the steps of the dwarfs, that is mickey-mousing.

But it’s not irritating, but adds considerably to the charm of the film. This is largely because everything in the film seems to be part of the music. The particular sing-song way Snow White talks, the way characters often speak in rhymes, the various noises that animals make, even the noises that characters make (the snoring, the squeaks of shoes, the indelible sound of Doc clearing his throat or Grumpy’s “Humph”), the different timbre of character’s voices. Every sound and every word seems part of one consistent musical whole, making the narrative less important.

I’d also forgotten just how catchy and numerous all the songs are. I spent days singing “With a Smile and a Song” and “I’m Wishing.” Frank Churchill (not Jane Austen’s Frank Churchill) wrote the music for the songs and Larry Morey wrote the lyrics.

Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs2) Along with the music, the movements of characters are highly stylized. Nobody walks the way Snow White does; she practically floats. The queen has a way of sweeping her cloak artistically and makes grand gestures with her arms. Hands are particularly fascinating to watch in this film. I’m struggling to find a word to describe it all. Poetic, balletic, operatic? Realism is not the dominant goal of this film. It’s a musical storybook.

3) That forest Snow White runs through at the beginning used to frighten the living daylights out of me. Watching it now, it looks rather German expressionist to me. In fact, I noticed a lot of things this time that never occurred to me previously. Like the cross cutting at the end between the queen offering Snow White the apple and the dwarfs racing to the rescue. I was just reading a book about the silent era that was discussing D.W. Griffith’s famous use of cross cutting in his films, most famously in Birth of a Nation (Diary of a Movie Maniac also makes this observation).

4) Does the magic mirror make house calls? The Evil Queen uses her magic to call him forth and I wonder if there are other homes that he visits.

5) The attitude of Snow White is extremely 1930s. She actually apologizes for being frightened and breaking down in tears. She is a survivor. She just keeps moving forward, bravely ready to face whatever comes next. Snow White is generally considered a rather un-empowered princess, but I think this is partly a product of the Depression. During the Depression, no one was particularly empowered (not even men) and the main thing was to keep moving forward and not complain. Her apology to the animals and then her cheerful “With a Smile and a Song” as she looks for a home in the woods strikes me as typical of the era.

Disney has progressed from “With a Smile and a Song” and keeping on without complaint to “Let It Go,” where Elsa’s practically shaking her fist and shouting, “I’m an individual!” It’s interesting how times change.

Evil_Queen_(Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs_1937)As a side note, I was trying to fit the Dwarf’s apparent wealth with a Depression mentality, but if you think about it: their diamonds and rubies don’t actually make them rich. They don’t have any way to sell or use their gems. They even sing a line about how they don’t know why they dig. They lock their gems in a shed with a key hanging right by the door. Their real treasure is Snow White.

6) In The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, the author mentions in her introduction that Walt Disney wanted his animators to make the prince look like Douglas Fairbanks. As she notes, however, it’s not obvious that they succeeded.

7) Is it just me or does the prince’s castle look like the celestial heavens? Does that make him death? Not sure I like that interpretation.

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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Movies

 

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Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre: 1982-1987

916rb5eKHuL._SL1500_I love fairy tales and although I was too young to watch Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theatre when it originally aired on television (in fact, I wasn’t even alive), it was nevertheless a part of my childhood because my aunt had taped a few and we used to watch them frequently, especially “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “The Princess and the Pea.” For me, those versions of the stories were the stories.

Now, I’ve begun working my way through the entire series. As a child, I didn’t appreciate it much, but now I am rather staggered at the cast Shelley Duvall was able to recruit: Vanessa Redgrave, Liza Minnelli, Christopher Reeves, Mick Jagger, Robin Williams, Gregory Hines, Vincent Price, Carrie Fisher, Teri Garr, Jeff Bridges, Lee Remick, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, Helen Mirren, Barbara Hershey, Billy Crystal, Jeff Goldblum, Burgess Meredith, Leonard Nimoy, Susan Sarandon, Eve Arden, Matthew Broderick…the list goes on. Guest directors include Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola.

The story goes that Shelley Duvall was reading a book of fairy tales while filming Popeye and had the idea to turn them into a live-action anthology series, which she would host and occasionally star in. She received encouragement from Robin Williams, who then starred in the series’ first story, “The Tale of the Frog Prince,” which he did with Teri Garr as the (very) spoiled princess.

The series itself has so far proved rather endearing, apart from my nostalgic memories. It looks nothing like a slick modern show, which is a large part if its charm – magical, occasionally kludgy, idiosyncratic, often tongue-in-cheek but not always, with a unique twist for each story. It has it’s own unique warmth, like a televised play. And the way the stories are written, they can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

The story I saw most frequently was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” starring Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth McGovern, Vincent Price, and Rex Smith (who I always think of as Frederick from the 1983 film of “Pirates of Penzance” with Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury). Vanessa Redgrave is clearly having a ball as the wicked queen who is enthralled with her own beauty and likes to detail every single perfect nuance of her features to her bored mirror, played with inimitable snark by Vincent Price. Elizabeth McGovern is a sweet Snow White and Rex Smith plays the prince, who mostly sits around and sings, waiting for his princess to arrives…which she eventually does, albeit a little bit dead at the time.

“The Little Mermaid” (which can be viewed here) is actually is closer to the original Hans Christian Anderson story than the Disney film, though the special effects look primitive (if imaginative) and I was a bit surprised to find Helen Mirren as the little mermaid’s rival for the prince’s affections. “The Three Little Pigs” stars Billy Crystal as the hippy (but wise) little pig  who builds with brick (and plays the oboe) and Jeff Goldblum as the wolf trying to “bring home the bacon” to his nagging wife.

Tim Burton directed “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp,” with James Earl Jones as two genies (the bombastic genie of the lamp and the soft-spoken genie of the ring) and Leonard Nimoy is a wizard trying to steal the lamp. Liza Minnelli, looking and sounding exactly like her mother, appears as a bedraggled princess in “The Princess and the Pea.” Carrie Fisher is Thumbelina, dodging amorous frogs and moles. Jennifer Beal and Matthew Broderick (and Eve Arden as the stepmother) appear in “Cinderella.”

That’s all I’ve seen so far. Fortunately, the entire Faerie Tale series can be found on youtube. Next up is “Rapunzel” with Jeff Bridges, “Sleeping Beauty” with Bernadette Peters and Christopher Reeves and Christopher Lee in “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers.”

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Movies

 

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The March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)

marchoftheHave you ever watched a movie and been absolutely sure that somewhere you watched it before? That is how I felt when I watched The March of the Wood Soldiers on Thanksgiving. I have no tangible memory of ever having seen it, but as I watched it I couldn’t shake the sense that it all felt faintly familiar. Perhaps sometime when I was a very young child?

“Babes in Toyland” was a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert, designed as a Christmas show containing various characters and songs related to nursery rhymes and fairy tales. In the early 1930s, Hal Roach – producer of many of Laurel and Hardy’s films – had the idea of adapting the operetta to film and putting Laurel and Hardy in the film as supporting players. Oliver Hardy and especially Stan Laurel were not thrilled with the idea of being merely side characters, so the script was rewritten, largely by Laurel, to give them a more prominent part. The result is the classic Thanksgiving/Christmas/Holiday film The March of the Wooden Soldiers.

The scene is set by Mother Goose, who sings a song and introduces the principle people of Toyland while turning the pages of a book. There is Little Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), who takes care of her sheep and lives with her mother in a shoe along with her many siblings. Also living in the shoe are two boarders, Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy), who work for the Toymaker. Little Bo Peep is in love with Tom-Tom (Felix Knight), the piper’s son, but Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) is also an unwelcome suitor who presses her to marry him. If not, he’ll evict her family from the shoe, who are behind in their rent. Stannie and Ollie vow to come to their rescue, initially with somewhat less than impressive results. But finally flummoxed, Barnaby attacks Toyland with his gang of bogeymen and Ollie and Stannie must come to the rescue with an imaginative use of the Toymakers stock, most particularly an army of large wooden soldiers,

Bo Peep and Mr. Barnaby

Bo Peep and Mr. Barnaby…it’s the hat that makes him look like a Puritan

I have seen very few Laurel and Hardy films and I’ve read that The March of the Wooden Soldiers is atypical for them, with somewhat softer comedy which arises more naturally from the story. They are not entirely bumbling. They do have their issues where Laurel messes up Hardy’s plans, but they also manage to effectively execute a few others (with minor mishaps along the way) and save Toyland. The film, purely as a musical, would have been a bit slow, but with Lauren and Hardy it comes alive. Though that is not to take away from the rest of the film. I enjoyed the few songs that the film contains (a fraction of the songs Victor Herbert wrote for his operetta) and Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby is superb. Looking like a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and a New England Puritan, Silas Barnaby skulks his way through the film and persecutes poor little Bo Peep and Tom-Tom Pipe, though Stannie and Ollie come in for more than their fair share of attention from him due to their efforts to save Bo Peep.

Toyland is certainly a unique land. A combination of nursery rhyme and fairy tale elements, there is also an element of the grotesque…rather like German Expressionism meets fairy tales. There are gargoyle-like figures on the door of Toyland and some of the inhabitants are definitely more on the picturesque side. There are the three little pigs, Santa Claus makes an appearance to check on his order at the toyshop, Mary Quite Contrary tends her garden, the cat and the cello (it’s supposed to be a fiddle, but it looks like a cello) and the mouse romp through the land. The mouse is played by a monkey in a mouse suit. He gets up to all sorts of mischief and even helps fight off the bogeymen by chucking firecrackers at them from a small blimp, until his blimp is burst and he must parachute down. Old King Cole is the monarch of Toyland, which seems odd, since the land of this merry old soul seems to be governed by Puritan laws, like ducking in their small lake, and every time we see him he is cheerily enforcing the law.

Bo Peep and Tom-Tom Piper

Bo Peep and Tom-Tom Piper

Toyland is also separated from Bogeyland by a small river, which people cross using a raft, and looks like a river Styx in miniature, complete with crocodiles. Bogeymen pour into Toyland from a well in the ground like disgorging demons, though I did wonder what was with the apparent grass skirts the bogeymen were wearing. Is this meant to be racist commentary? Some people have observed the apparent paradigm of good Germanic (very white) town persecuted by evil moneylender who wants to ravish the blonde woman and recruits apparently degenerate bogeymen to destroy Toyland. I can see where they are coming from, though I did not initially interpret Silas Barnaby as an anti-Semitic portrayal because I thought he looked like a Puritan. Is this reading too much into the story? It does make one uneasy. It’s certainly not the only paradigm at play in the film, which is such a unique confluence of influences from German Expressionism, fairy tales, Greek mythology even, Puritanism, comedy. But it’s hard not to think that this inherent racism is also present.

There are so many references to different nursery rhymes that it had me mentally running through all the rhymes I could remember. It’s a bit embarrassing how much I’ve forgotten and makes me want to go back and look them up and made me even more curious as to the source of these rhymes: “Rock-a-by Baby,” “Tom Thumb,” “Simple Simon,” “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” Who thought of these?

march2The walking wooden soldiers were accomplished using stop motion animation, which was fun to see in action and interaction with the characters (they are also played by humans at times). Though there are not many of Victor Herbert’s songs in the film, his music is nearly constantly in the background and adds to the atmosphere. And even when people are not singing they talk in almost a sing-songy voice as though they are speaking rhymes, except Laurel and Hardy. It makes for a kind of poetic, unreal experience overall that is delightful.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Movies

 

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