Fireside Tales: Shades of Cinderella

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Like most American girls of the past couple generations, I drew my first image of Cinderella from Disney's 1950 animated movie. I never actually saw the movie as a child (ah, those strange pre-VCR days!), but two different picture book adaptations and a soundtrack album made a pretty indelible impression. Especially that soundtrack, which doubled as the score of my earliest efforts at choreography. There are probably few sights as simultaneously amusing and frightening as an eight-year-old in pink ballet slippers blithely careening into the living room furniture to the strains of "So This Is Love"!

Fortunately for the world, Sir Frederick Ashton was among those who did a far better job in that regard. And it was his work, performed by the Royal Ballet to Sergei Prokofiev's score, that turned up on the telly one day and gave me one of my first inklings that the "same" story can come in many flavors. I'm not sure how I avoided the typical modern child's reaction of "That's not the real Cinderella"; most likely my love affair with ballet wouldn't allow me to make such a condemning judgment.

As the years have passed, I have encountered dozens of Cinderellas. They fall into my lap with a fraction of the effort required to trace the roots and branches of other tales. Whatever one may think of it--and feminist writers in particular have quite a lot to say about it--clearly the Cinderella motif is a central one in our culture.
Folklore exploration is never more fun than when it turns up a connection between two familiar stories that previously seemed unrelated. So when I ran across the old English variant "Cap o' Rushes", I read with growing delight of the old king with three daughters who demands of each that she tell him how much she loves him. The youngest daughter is banished when she replies that she loves him "as meat loves salt" (great love indeed in the days before refrigeration!), and goes through the sort of trials typical of many Cinderellas on her way to winning the love of the king of France.
Up until then, though, I was saying to myself, "This is King Lear!" Shakespeare's Cordelia--perhaps influenced by the same tale, though the main storyline of the play comes from another source--loves her father "according to my bond, no more nor less", is similarly misunderstood and disowned, and is immediately taken to wife by the King of France, who prizes her honesty. She later endures different trials for different reasons...but for that moment, Cinderella and Cordelia meet in an unexpected mirror.
The conventions of movie storytelling tend to demand a more "realistic" approach to any tale, even the most ancient. Filmmakers have introduced elements of "realism" into the Cinderella tradition in a number of different ways, with varying degrees of success. In the 1976 British movie-musical The Slipper and the Rose, the familiar story elements--the ball, love at first sight, and the successful hunt for the slipper's owner--are accomplished by the film's halfway mark. "Happily ever after" has a few more obstacles in its way, though, not least a King and Queen so opposed to their son's marriage to a commoner that they resort to blackmail and deceit to be rid of her! Pretty serious stuff for a supposed "children's movie" (and a musical at that; they're supposed to be all fluff and froth, don'cha know?), and part of why it is sometimes unjustly condemned as a gloomy, desperate mess. (Then again, Britain also produced the long-running sci-fi series Dr. Who as "children's television", in the pre-Nickelodeon days when most American kidvid creators were patronizing and pablumizing for all they were worth.)
The Slipper and the Rose is also the first version I remember in which the Prince has much of a personality--a rare thing among fairy-tale princes in general. (And we worry about what messages little girls are taking from their fairy-tale role's the boys who are presented as prizes instead of people!) A few years later I encountered another, better-known musical version by Rodgers & Hammerstein, in its 1964 incarnation starring a then-unknown Lesley-Ann Warren. It was a few more years before I found out that was a somewhat revised remake of a 1957 production starring Julie Andrews, the text and score of which are still presented in stage productions (including one in which I understudied Cinderella in 1994). Both versions are appealing enough, but it would be 40 years after the original before a second TV revision would give newcomer Paolo Montalban a Prince worth playing. Here at last is a worthy match for our heroine, enchantingly portrayed by teen star Brandy. Among other changes, this Disney-produced Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella also gives the young couple an extra chance to make a first impression, when the Prince's adventures in peasant disguise lead to a chance meeting in the marketplace. (Inspired, no doubt, by Princess Jasmine in Aladdin; never let it be said Disney doesn't know how to borrow from itself!) No heavy class conflicts here, though; in fact, to hear the media tell it, this production's defining characteristic is its multiracial cast. True enough, in its way; maybe someday they'll also figure out that the point of color-blind casting is that it shouldn't be a big deal. But the production itself gets that right.
The most recent mass-media incarnation of Cinderella is also one of my favorite movies of 1998. (The other being The Mask of Zorro; since my interests include historical costuming and playing with swords, it's an amusing coincidence that each features a heroine who gets into a major physical fight in her chemise and corset!) Ever After first caught my attention with a breathtaking theatrical trailer underscored by Loreena McKennitt's "The Mummer's Dance" (a few bars of which provide the musical accompaniment for this page). And it delighted my little don't-dumb-down-my-fairy-tales heart that the role to break Drew Barrymore's sweet-but-flaky streak was Cinderella! I was skeptical about its being placed squarely in a realistic historical setting, with nary an enchanted pumpkin in sight; but it's not a bit lacking in magic for all that. Barrymore's Danielle de Barbarac is a heroine above feminist reproach (and while some complain that she is anachronistically so, there are ample Renaissance sources that disagree.) And she is surrounded by supporting characters above and beyond their stereotypes, from gorgeous but irredeemably spoiled elder stepsister Marguerite (Megan Dodds) to a twinkle-eyed Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), who makes an endearing and *ahem* inventive pinch-hitter for the fairy godmother. Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), like Chamberlain and Montalban before him (and surpassing them, imho), is far more than a charming cardboard cutout--though he has more than a little growing up to do before he earns his "happily ever after". A bonus for Renaissance buffs: it's also not bad as a fictionalized version of the romance of Henry II of France and his lifelong mistress, Diane de Poitiers. (Except, of course, that in real life Henry married equally feisty Catherine de Medici.)
I'd be remiss without adding a few words on a "modern-day Cinderella story". In her article, "Ashes, Blood and the Slipper of Glass", Terri Windling tells us that "the knight-on-the-white-charger who swoops into our lives and relieves us of the need to determine our own fate is a creature of modern Hollywood films, not of traditional folktales. What has the prostitute heroine of Pretty Woman done to win her prince or transform her life? Precisely nothing -- except to be beautiful, and in the right place at the right time." Though I agree in large measure with Ms. Windling's assessment of the modern world's watered-down notion of fairy tales, in this case she has missed what to me is the center of the film's appeal: like Cap O' Rushes and Cordelia before her, Vivian (Julia Roberts) speaks the truth, often to those who don't necessarily want to hear it. She's uncomfortable with the "high-class" role she's been hired to play, and it's less than a day before she confides in a sympathetic boutique clerk that she's "not really his niece". (The woman's kindly "They never are, dear" is only moderately reassuring!) And in the end it is her "prince" who is transformed by her straightforward values, becoming a partner worthy of a woman who has ceased to believe she deserves her fate as a "bum magnet". Has Ms. Windling considered, I wonder, how things would have turned out if Vivian's cynical roommate Kit (the perennially delightful Laura San Giacomo) had been the one to take the job? She too is beautiful, and in the exact same place at the exact same time; but I suspect that tale would end with Kit taking her $3,000 and returning to her seedy apartment, with nobody's life transformed.