Seriously guys, where am I supposed to begin? Lasting impact on popular culture? Check. A landmark film in both animation and story? Check. New generations discovering and falling in love with the film every day? Check. A strong presence in Disney theme parks and merchandise? Double check. This was one of the films that defined not only the Disney Studios, but the Disney Company as a whole.
But before we get into this legendary film, I want to clear something up that has been driving me crazy for a number of years. It has to do with the Disney Princess Line. It’s a small thing, and it won’t take long but I need to get it off my chest before we dive in: Cinderella’s ball gown is portrayed as blue in every appearance she has in Disney Princess Brand Products. Let’s clear this up right now; in the film, her ball gown is clearly, obviously, most definitely not blue. It’s silver that could be mistaken as blue, but the two shades are very different. Personally, I think the film silver is much more flattering on her, but I digress that I am not in charge of the Disney Princess Line. End rant.
Now we all know the state the Disney Animation Studios were in by the time 1950 had rolled around. The war had taken its toll on the studios and it still had not recovered from the commercial failures of their ambitious (and pricey!) films like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. There was talk that Roy Disney was trying to persuade Walt to shut down Disney Animation. What was a dreaming visionary like Walt to do? Cut his losses and get out of the business that made him a household name?
Or put all of the money that he had left in a film that returned in many ways to what he knew had worked for him before in his mega-blockbuster hit, Snow White? History tells us that he went with the latter. So once again, we have a film with a lovely young lady as the title character. Not only does she communicate with animals like her fair skinned and black haired predecessor, she also has quite a few troubles stemming from a rather wicked stepmother. And hey, both of their Princes get about the same amount of screen time.
The voice talent in this film sports a few familiar Disney vocal chords. Betty Lou Gerson is the lady who provides the soothing narration to start off the film; her most famous role for the studio, though, would come later when she provided the voice for none other than Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians. Verna Felton appears for the first time in a feature film since Dumbo, this time as a character who is actually liked by audience, the Fairy Godmother. This film also marks the first appearance of my all time favorite Disney voice, Eleanor Audley, as the wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine.
Oh, Eleanor. Your voice was so distinctive and elegant that it was impossible to mistake it with anyone else’s. While Betty Lou Gerson and Verna Felton proved to be versatile voice actresses, it would be very difficult to cast Eleanor Audley in a role that wasn’t a villain. She was the voice behind two of the most iconic and powerful Disney villains, Lady Tremaine and Maleficent, as well as providing the voice to Madame Leota in The Haunted Mansion.
Probably Lady Tremaine’s most famous scene was her initial introduction. I love how we only get snippets Audley’s voice at first until Cinderella actually descends into the den of the beast so to speak. One thing that was missing in Snow White was any kind of interaction between Snow White and the Queen before she transformed into the Old Peddler Woman, so the audience never saw them as step mother and step daughter, only predator and prey. Not so in Cinderella.
Cinderella’s face is so resolute and calm, suggesting that she knows exactly what’s coming because it’s happened countless times before. The audience sees the scene from Cinderella’s point of view, with us only being able to hear Lady Tremaine’s voice until Cinderella comes close enough to see her, calmly stroking Lucifer. The stepmother is still in bed in her nightclothes, which normally would suggest vulnerability. Having the stepmother be in a position normally associated with vulnerability lets the audience know in a subtle way just how much power she possesses.
Of course the scene would not have nearly as much power as it does were it not for Audley’s vocal performance. She starts off so soft and playful, like we expect a mother to sound. But this is interspersed with harsh two word commands that radiate nothing but cruelty and sadism. This scene sets the stakes for what our heroine is up against and practically has the audience shouting at the screen, “Run away, Cinderella! Just run away!”
Ilene Woods (who only recently passed away this past July at the age of 81) provided the voice of Cinderella herself. It’s a very soft, almost sensitive voice that still has undertones of strength so it does suit the character well. Especially impressive is how seamlessly her speaking voice goes to her singing voice, and no where in the film is this film is that more prevalent than with the film’s initial performance of its anthem, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” I must confess that this is a song I find myself singing at times without even thinking about it. What can I say, it’s an inspiring song for when you’re down.
Cinderella’s “acting” as far as animation goes is superb. For multiple scenes she manages to adopt a stoic calm reserve on her face so that she can keep her pride in front of her stepfamily. Like when she insists that she is eligible to attend the ball and manages to keep her disappointment from showing when she informs her stepmother and stepsisters that she won’t be attending the ball. Most people write off Cinderella for wanting nothing more than to attend a ball, but I have to say that she doesn’t receive enough credit because she truly is a strong character.
The only time she truly loses it is when the stepsisters destroy her dress. This is going to sound dorky but I felt my heart speed up a little during this scene because I knew what was coming. I hated to watch this scene as a kid and usually that means I hate to watch it as an adult. The stepmother is so evilly manipulative, knowing just what to say to set her daughters off. But what follows the most heart breaking moment in the film is one of the most touching scenes in Disney film history.
The scene I am referring to is the scene where the Fairy Godmother appears before Cinderella, giving the film its required dose of Disney magic. It’s my very favorite scene in the film and it contains Walt’s most favorite piece of animation of all time. I love that the scene begins so somber with everyone looking sad for Cinderella, but there is that wonderful background reprisal of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” playing which Cinderella talks back to. It’s almost like “the voices” are trying to tell Cinderella not to give up even though it seems like everything is at its lowest. She can’t even see the lovely sparkles surrounding her until they form into her Fairy Godmother lightly stroking her head.
In sharp contrast to Eleanor Audley’s cruel and sadistic stepmother is Verna Felton’s warm and kind Fairy Godmother. She arrives right when Cinderella needs her the most. She’s delightfully quirky and she always knows the right things to say and do. Basically, she’s the figure we all hope will appear when we’re at our very lowest.
I love the animation of the magic surrounding the pumpkin’s transformation. The audience truly believes that a pumpkin can indeed do double time as a beautiful coach. All of the transformation animation is spectacular. In fact, the shot where Cinderella’s rags changes into that gorgeous silver gown and delightfully feminine and iconic glass slippers was Walt’s favorite animation from any of the films that he did.
Watching the film as an adult I see now that there are a fair few shots that focus on Cinderella’s feet. I know that most sources state that the subplot with the mice was added to expand the story to feature length, but it’s hard not to notice that the mice and Lucifer story offers several opportunities for there to be shots of Cinderella’s lower half, specifically her tiny feet encased in her black flat shoes. The scenes are shown from the point of view of a mouse where the most they see of a person at eye level are their legs. As pretty a face that Cinderella has, the most important of her body parts in the film are her dainty feet. After all, the film’s most important plot development centers around them and her shoes, so it’s important to establish them as characters in and of themselves early on. One of the key shots of the film’s climax is the one through the perspective of the Duke’s monocle when he watches those same delicate, small feet run down the stairs.
The scenes with the mice and Lucifer are probably the most famous work that Ward Kimball did. Lucifer was in fact based on his own cat at the suggestion of Walt Disney himself (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042332/trivia). The part where the mice take off their hearts solemnly for Jaq before he heads out to face Lucifer made me laugh. The other highpoint with Lucifer and the mice comes along when Jaq and Gus are getting some trimmings for Cinderella’s gown. The way Jaq pops a button onto Lucifer’s nose and it leaves an impression is pure Kimball. A really small moment that I loved was when Cinderella was telling her friends about how wonderful the ball and Jaq inadvertently puts his arm around Gus before remembering himself.
As a little girl, my favorite scene out of this movie was the one of the mice constructing Cinderella’s pink gown. And it still ranks up there now as an adult. It’s incredibly creative how they envisioned mice and birds manufacturing a dress. Though now there are other scenes that I appreciate more at twenty-five than I did twenty years ago.
Some of my favorite scenes out of the film actually revolve around the King and the Duke. I remember the shot of the King pushing the boy and girl bookends together very vividly as a kid and it’s still a nice way of further illustrating what’s going on in the scene. I must say that for a guy that age and that weight, the King is pretty spry. The bit where he penguin crawls down the long table and bounces on the bed like a trampoline is great. The Duke playing with his monocle like a yoyo at the ball is a really nice moment too.
The ball scene is great from top to bottom. The bits with the King and the Duke are really funny; it’s amazing how far this man is willing to go to create romantic atmosphere for his son. I also love that we don’t hear a spoken word from either the Prince or Cinderella until the scenes end. Their emotions are entirely expressed through “So This Is Love,” one of the all time greatest Disney love songs. It was this scene that made many a young girl fantasize about going to a ball and dancing with a handsome prince.
Cinderella is also a film that has one of the more suspenseful climaxes from any Disney film. I know that might seem hard to believe, but the sequence with Cinderella locked in the tower with only her mice friends to help her. We see the entire scene from the perspective of the floor and suddenly a few stairs that seem like a short jaunt to us becomes a veritable Everest to a mouse. And just when you think that they’re going to make, in comes that darn cat. The mice that had been so fearful of Lucifer throughout the film charge in guns a blazing to do battle with the horrible cat.
Luckily, the dog finally gets the piece of the cat that he’s been vying for and saves the day. This whole sequence the audience is wondering if Cinderella will make it down the stairs in time before the Duke leaves, so when you suddenly hear Ilene Woods’ voice calling, “Your grace!” just about everyone is breathing out a sigh of relief. Of course, Lady Tremaine has to mess up our brief feeling of relief when she trips the attendant carrying the glass slipper. I have to say, though, watching Cinderella pull out the other slipper and seeing Lady Tremaine’s shocked face is so incredibly satisfying.
This was the first time in a very long time that I have watched Cinderella all the way through. Mostly because I never remembered it being a favorite, even though there were plenty of aspects of it that I enjoyed. I’m glad though that I watched it all the way through, because I gained a new appreciation for it. I understand now why exactly this film is practically Disney’s signature film.
I’ve mentioned before that transformation and the underdog story are two themes that frequently find themselves at the heart of Disney animated films. Cinderella is the rare case of both featuring prominently in the story. She is very much an underdog that the audience roots for in whatever scene she’s in and the main turning point of the film is when she is transformed from a servant into an eligible and beautiful young woman fit to be a princess.
I think this film embodies not just the story of a girl rising above servitude; this film is the story about anyone who’s ever had to overcome some tough odds. The term “Cinderella Story” has come to mean anyone who has risen above hard circumstances and become better and brighter people because of it. One person that I think fits this description perfectly is Walt Disney. He was attached to this story because it was his story as well. He was transformed from a farm boy into an American icon simply because he never stopped dreaming.
Cinderella was a huge financial success for the studio because a lot of people related to the story it told. And the Disney Company has never forgotten Cinderella. If you look at the Disney Princess Merchandise, she is always featured the most prominently. The symbol for the Magic Kingdom down in Florida, the most visited theme park on the planet, is Cinderella Castle (I’m going to go ahead and clear something else up; it’s not Cinderella’s Castle, she doesn’t own it. It’s Cinderella Castle because it was named after her… yes, I know I’m a dork). There’s even a restaurant within the castle called Cinderella’s Royal Table. Inside the castle pathway to Fantasyland is the most gorgeous mosaic depicting the story of Cinderella. Next time you’re in there, by the way, take a closer look at Anastasia and Drizella in the mosaic depicting Cinderella triumphantly trying on the glass slipper. The tiles making up Drizella’s face are a light green tone, suggesting that she is green with envy. The tiles on Anastasia’s face are a light red tone indicating her jealousy.
No trip to Fantasyland is complete without a ride on Cinderella’s Golden Carousel; Cinderella’s horse, by the way, has a golden ribbon on its tail. Probably one of my favorite little details in all of Disney World is the Cinderella Fountain adjacent to Tinker Bell’s Treasures. If you crouch down low, the sculpture of Cinderella suddenly looks like she’s wearing a crown that detailed in the background ornament. One of the most popular activities in all of Disney World is for little princesses to visit the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique, where their Fairy Godmothers in Training transform them into princesses ready for a ball. It’s impossible for me to say how many little girls I’ve seen running through the parks decked out in that iconic silver gown.
It’s not just little girls wanting to play dress up though. Princesses come in all ages, if the amount of weddings that happen at the Disney theme parks is any indication. The Wedding Pavilion at Disney World has the most perfect view of Cinderella Castle where couples tie the knot. If that’s not enough for the princess in question, they also have the option of getting married in front of the castle itself. Their walk down the aisle can even be a ride in Cinderella’s Coach.
This film is also special for a reason that only big time animation buffs will pay attention to: this is the first film that all of the Nine Old Men worked on together. Before, it was like a scavenger hunt through the title credits seeing which of them worked on what film. For Cinderella, though, every last one of them had a hand in the film. If you happen to own the Platinum Edition of Cinderella on DVD, then you also own my all time favorite Disney DVD bonus feature, which was the Nine Old Men tribute. In a way, Cinderella was the Nine Old Men’s story as much as it was Walt’s; it was here that these men truly hit their stride and became the animation giants that we still admire today.
But what makes Cinderella truly timeless is our ability to relate to it. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives in which it seems that everything is going wrong and all that we had to keep us going was a dream. We might not have the silver ball gown or the coach in the shape of a pumpkin, but we’re all Cinderella in some way and how we achieve our dreams is up to us, since Fairy Godmothers tend to be a rarity this day and age. But whatever you do, don’t forget the shoes.