Folk-tales are stories that belong to the oral tradition of a culture. They often express culture-specific but also cross-cultural themes and morals. Many of them, called fairy-tales, combine scenes of regular, day-to-day country life with fantastical elements and magic. In an oral tradition, the details of a tale are not fixed, allowing each narrator to fill them in themselves. This gave a powerful role to the narrator, as here explained by Zipes:
“The tale teller was highly regarded within a community. A magic folk tale did not only concern the miraculous turn of events in the story, but also the magic play of words by the teller as performer. (…) Telling a magic folk tale was and is not unlike performing a magic trick.”1
Different versions of the same tale can therefore reveal something about the narrator or the time and circumstances in which that particular version was told. The goal of this essay is to analyze the use of classic fairy-tales by early filmmaker Georges Méliès, and to compare his 1899 treatment of ‘Cinderella’ to the animated Walt Disney version of 1950. Their re-telling of this classic fairy-tale reflects their individual goals and motivations for film-making and the state of the medium of film at the time.
‘Cinderella’ is a European folk tale with at its main root the story of ‘Rhodopsis’, recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in the 1st century BC2. Its protagonist is a Greek slave girl and courtesan who loses a sandal while bathing. The sandal is found by the Egyptian king, who searches out the owner and falls in love with her. Five centuries before Strabo, Herodotus writes about the real-life Rhodopsis3, making no mention of the sandal but describing her as a famous courtesan who was freed of slavery, which makes it plausible that stories were told by the people of her rags-to-riches life.
The Aarne-Thompson system, a classification method for folklorists created in the 20th century, classifies Cinderella-like tales under type 510A, ‘The persecuted heroine’4. Variations of the theme pop up throughout history in different corners of the world – Indonesia, Russia and Vietnam all have their own very distinct versions. A notable version is ‘Ye Xian’, a 9th century Chinese folk-tale that is the first recording of something resembling a ‘Cinderella’ tale as we would recognize it – with a mistreated heroine who marries a prince through magical means5.
In Europe, the most famous recordings of the Cinderella story are those of Charles Perrault in 16976, and the brothers Grimm in 18127. Perrault’s book, written with the Parisian aristocracy in mind, is a mixture of original tales with folkloric elements and re-envisioned folk tales – so-called literary fairy-tales. A 18th century English translation formed the basis of what became known in England as ‘Mother Goose tales’. To his version of Cinderella (‘Cendrillon’), Perrault adds the fairy godmother, the enchanted mice and pumpkin and the glass slippers. The fairy godmother is presented as a harsh second moral to the story – Perrault notes somewhat sarcastically that although grace and good behavior may get you far, one needs good connections to really advance in life.
In 1864, Gustave Doré published an edition of Perrault’s fairy-tales, enriched with 36 engravings8. This sparked new interest in Perrault’s stories. In the late 19th century, fairy-tales were often used as the story-line in vaudeville performances and the related French theatrical genre of the ‘Féerie’. The Féerie was known for its lavish scenery and spectacular stage effects. It originated from the court ballet, but after the French Revolution it found a new audience in the bourgeoisie9. The fairy-tale proved to be an ideal narrative to carry the weight of the dramatic and spectacular performances. Because the tales were often well-known and drew from simple, familiar themes that were easy for the audience to understand, the play didn’t have to linger too much on the narrative. This way, classic fairy-tales became a sort of ‘narrative glue’ to keep the many vaudevillian elements like jokes and songs together.
One can easily see how this could also be interesting for use in early film. The absence of sound other then live music meant that the early film had to rely on a narrative easily understandable through visuals alone. As Zipes notes, in the early ‘cinema of attractions’ tricks and special effects were important elements around which a film was build:
“Early filmmakers took great joy and pride in the discovery of the appropriate forms, shapes, movements, and constructions that would best give expression to the genius of their invention. Fairy tales were incidental to their work.”10
Méliès was heavily influenced by the Féerie genre. He used a mixture of conventional stage techniques and new cinematic tricks to achieve the effects in his films. Kovács also reflects on the pride in craftsmanship of the early filmmakers:
“Méliès prided himself on the fact that his scenes were invented and that he used theatrical forms and techniques”11
Zipes classifies 30 of Méliès films as fairy-tales:
“There are about thirty or more that can be called fairy-tale films in a strict sense, that is, films based on Perrault’s tales, melodrama féeries, vaudeville féeries, literary fairy-tales, and original screenplays that he wrote.”12
The influences of the Féerie genre are immediately apparent in Méliès 1899 film ‘Cendrillon’13. It was his first film with multiple scenes, or ‘tableaux’. Several elaborate sets are used and the scene changes five times. Three of those scene transitions are maybe the first known dissolves; made by rewinding the film a little so the beginning of the second scene is filmed over the end of the first. The visual style was modeled after the engravings of Doré, who influenced Méliès stylistically in many of his films. The mis-en-scene resembles a theatrical stage and the short film features many spectacles and special effects. In fact, it seems almost a summation of all different kinds of effects Méliès had used to date, both theatrical and cinematographic. The elaborate ending tableau, a typical Féerie element, is revealed by sliding scenery, just as this would happen in a theater.
The way the story is handled tells us a lot about what was deemed the more important element of the film. Not wasting any time on the back-story, we immediately see Cinderella, clad in rags, begging her sisters to let her go to the ball. They refuse and leave Cinderella crying. Not even 20 seconds in, already the fairy-godmother appears in the large black hearth, replacing the cooking-pot. The well-known Cinderella story thus gives Méliès the opportunity to immediately focus on the most interesting part of the story from an attractions perspective – the enchantments. Cinderella releases three mice, who the fairy first turns bigger and then into lackeys. Subsequently a pumpkin is transformed in a coach and Cinderella’s rags in a new gown. It is quite a liberal use of the stop-action technique; stopping the film, replacing the appropriate elements, and starting the film again.
Many sequences are added to the Perrault inspired storyline to create the opportunity for more special effects. Cinderella’s transformation back to rags is accompanied by manifestations of father time and the fairy-godmother. When she returns home, a whole dream-like sequence is added where Cinderella is taunted by huge clocks that appear and disappear again. Several events make no sense for the narrative – Cinderella is changed back by the fairy in eye-sight of the prince and court, making the shoe quite superfluous as it is not required to find her anymore. Showing the transformation on-screen is evidently deemed more important. In Méliès fairy-tale films, the narrative is not the main focus. It merely provides a convenient way of logically connecting attractions.14
In contrast with Méliès, the 1950’s animated Disney version of Cinderella15 puts a lot of effort in the back-story. Stepmother and sisters are strongly established as the villains, and a lot of time is devoted to show Cinderella as kind-hearted and a friend to animals. However, that does not necessarily mean that Disney’s version is more driven by narrative. In the pursuit of adapting a basically short story to a feature length film, Disney makes many interesting choices as to which sequences to drag out in elaborate song-and-dance routines. Most of them seem to be inspired by the desire to achieve an affective response in the viewer. But in a sense, the fairy tale also simply serves to tie the songs together – which is actually not so different from the Féerie genre.
One particular scene, where the animals make a dress for Cinderella, is much longer then the narrative importance of the dress – it gets ripped to pieces by the jealous stepsisters in seconds – justifies. Like Méliès, Disney devoted a lot of time and attention to the enchantment scene and the dancing at the ball. But instead of focusing on the elaborate dressed guests and splendid environment, the focus of the shots is on the attraction between the prince and Cinderella.
The fitting of the shoe, which with Méliès happens quite quickly between the attractions heavy dream sequence and the elaborate dance sequence of the wedding, is in Disney’s version the apotheosis of the story. First, we get the drawn out threat of the stepmother, who discovers Cinderella’s secret and locks her in her room. Her walking up the stairs is shown almost in real-time, filmed from the perspective of the mice and with dark shadows looming around her. Then follows a race against the clock – focusing on the antics of the animals conspiring to free Cinderella while the shoe-fitting of the stepsisters takes place in the background, only functioning as motivation. It culminates in the finale where the glass shoe is dropped just before Cinderella can put it on, after which she resolves everything by producing the other one. The following wedding is almost an afterthought.
‘Cinderella’ was the first feature length film the Disney studio’s created after 1942’s Bambi, as WW2 and low box office returns made it difficult for the company to stay afloat. To save costs, approximately 90% of the film was made from a live-action template with rotoscoping. The story of Cinderella was certainly very suitable for Disney’s goals. With a few alterations, it is a very kid-friendly story, with clear good and evil sides and a sweet and likable protagonist. It gives ample opportunity for creating affective responses of various kinds in the viewer. It doesn’t focus on the narrative per se, but instead glues moments of emotion, often expressed in song, together with it.
One of the biggest differences between Méliès and Disney was that Méliès wanted to do everything himself, saying that he was at one and the same time an intellectual and a manual worker, while Disney did the intellectual part but often commissioned the manual work. Méliès seems to use the story line of classic fairy-tales to tie tricks and special effects together, while Disney focuses on more abstract emotional moments.
As Zipes explains:
“Although it would be an exaggeration to state that most fairy-tale cartoons up until 1933 had paid very little attention to the storyline and contents of the tale, it is clear that the emphasis had always been on producing as many jokes and gags for their own sake, whether they fit the story or not, and on showing off the technical skills of the artists and cameramen.” 16
Disney doesn’t actually alter this style much, adding other emotional moments to the funny ones and tying them together with a familiar story, a resolution of conflict set in a neat and ordered world, a fantastical utopia for the viewer17. Thus, the creator chooses the story because it fits that what they want to show, not the other way around, and changes it where necessary. As fairy-tales are often simple, easily adaptable and non copyrighted stories, they lent themselves really well for this approach. Méliès notes himself:
“As for the script, the ‘fable’, the ‘tale’ in itself, I worked this out at the very end; and I can therefore state that, done thus, the script was without any importance, since my only aim was to use it as an ‘excuse for mise-en-scène’, for tricks or for tableaux with a pleasing effect.”18
1Zipes, J. “Towards a Theory of the Fairy-Tale Film: The Case of Pinocchio.” The Lion and the Unicorn 20.1 (1996): 1-24.
2Climo, S. “The Egyptian Cinderella.” Crowell, (1989).
3Waterfield, R., & Dewald, C. “Herodotus: The Histories.” Herodotus:(translation) (1998)
4 Aarne, Antti, & Thompson. “The Types of the Folklore.” (1961).
5Windling, T. “Cinderella: ashes, blood, and the slipper of glass.” Journal of Mythic Arts, Endicott Studio (2006).
6Perrault, C. “Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralitez.” (1697)
7Grimm, J. “Kinder-und Hausmärchen.” München: Engel oJ (1812).
8Le Men, S. “Mother Goose Illustrated: From Perrault to Doré.” Poetics Today (1992): 17-39.
9Martin, Roxane, & Jamati. “La féerie romantique sur les scènes parisiennes: 1791-1864.” Champion, (2007).
10 Zipes, J. Happily ever after: Fairy tales, children, and the culture industry. Routledge, (1997).
11 Kovács, K. S. “Georges Méliès and the” Féerie”.” Cinema Journal, (1976):1-13.
12 Zipes, J. The enchanted screen: the unknown history of fairy-tale films. Routledge. (2011)
13 Méliès, G. “Cendrillon” (1899)
14 Gunning, Tom. “‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions.” Velvet Light Trap 32.6 (1993).
15Disney, W. “Cinderella” (1950)
16 Zipes, J. “De-Disneyfying Disney: Notes on the Development of the Fairy-Tale Film.”(2010)
17 Zipes, Jack. “Breaking the Disney spell.” From mouse to mermaid: The politics of film, gender, and culture (1995): 21-42.
18 Quoted in Gaudreault, A. “Theatricality, Narrativity, and Trickality: Reevaluating the Cinema of Georges Méliès.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 15(3), (1987) 110-119.