USA 1949, 75 mins
Directors: Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi

+ intro by season curator, Justin Johnson (Thursday 6 July only)

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

The 1950s were bookended by Disney princesses, Cinderella (1949) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Cinderella saved the Disney animation tradition, or a semblance of it. It re-established Disney as the world’s leading cartoon brand; small wonder later Mouse managements would use princesses to renew the line, with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and The Princess and the Frog two decades later. Sleeping Beauty’s failure, on the other hand, ended Walt’s dreams of besting his younger self, the immortal, unreachable Walt who’d made Snow White a World War ago.

The Walt of Snow White was obsessed with making the perfect cartoon, to the point of pathology. One animator quoted by historian Michael Barrier described Walt at that time, ‘like a madman, hair hanging down, perspiring… Christ, he was involved.’ But Walt was burned by frustrations and flops, including his beloved Fantasia (1940). By Cinderella, cartoons were making way for other toys. For much of Cinderella’s production, Walt wasn’t even in America. Rather he was at Bristol harbour in England, overseeing Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll on the first wholly live-action Disney feature, Treasure Island. During that time, Cinderella’s three directors mailed him memos, scripts and storyboards across the Atlantic.

Live-action was pervading Disney in other ways. The London release of Cinderella was double-billed with Seal Island (1948), the first of Disney’s ‘True-Life Adventures’ nature films. Cinderella itself was largely pre-shot in live-action, not just as motion-reference for the animators, but as an economic way of defining cutting, staging and (in practice) viewpoints. The wholly cartoon scenes, as anyone could guess, were the cat and mice conflicts, mainly animated by Ward Kimball.

Cinderella’s literal staging makes its live-action language overt, even as the cartoon effects can feel a trifle thin by Disney’s prior standards (for example, when Cinderella is multiply reflected in a cloud of bubbles). More striking are the frequent touches of noir. When Cinderella enters the Stepmother’s bedroom, she’s framed by bars of shadow. There’s more ostentatious chiaroscuro after her dress is destroyed by her spiteful sisters. Seen from above, Cinderella runs into the dwarfing dark of a hall, her figure illumined in one opening door, then another. The dress-tearing itself is a set of violent cuts, the rending implicit as Hitchcock might have liked.

For all these touches, many reviewers found the human scenes unbearably bland. Cinderella herself was variously called a blond nonentity, an American bobbysoxer and Snow White’s doughy sister. Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has bemoaned the live-action approach: ‘In trying to achieve a sense of symbolism by using an average young American woman as the model, [the Disney animators] lost even more of the inherent symbolism of the original story than they did with Snow White.’ But the Cinderella character, drawn by Marc Davis and Eric Larson, actually stands up rather well for Disneyfied womanhood: she’s mischievous, lightly ironic and a valued ally to the animals, not a passive idol like Snow White.

Sadly, her Prince is a stiff, and the film fatally stalls during their ball encounter, though there’s a surprising stress on Cinderella’s female gaze in the staging and soundtrack (she leads the romantic number, ‘So This Is Love’). The meeting is accompanied by ravishing night-blue art direction, spearheaded by Mary Blair. Its failure to save the scene should have been a warning to Sleeping Beauty, which often feels like nothing but design.

But Cinderella is really the adventure of the mice Gus and Jaq, both voiced by sound effects legend Jimmy MacDonald, who provided Mickey’s falsetto after Walt. For me, nothing matches the greedy Gus’s efforts to carry one more piece of cheese from the barnyard; at last he successfully braces the morsel against his teeth and totters away, straight into the leering cat Lucifer. The monster’s golden moment is a game of Find the Lady, as Gus cowers under teacups. The cat picks up the right cup, puts it down, realises what he’s done, and pulls a happy-sappy pose of tongue-wagging, paw-waving delight, which flows perfectly from the dancing rhythm. The snag: the floor-level antics suck the human world down the mousehole.

Cinderella, a lesser film than any of Disney’s early masterpieces, is still one of the best four or five cartoon features that the studio would make in the next forty years. (Sleeping Beauty had treble Cinderella’s budget, and perhaps half its charisma, momentum and fun.) As an elegantly tamed Snow White, Cinderella’s cover-version takes you back to the original. What if Snow White’s true successors, such as Pinocchio or Fantasia, had been as popular? Would Walt have stayed married to animation, not dallying with live-action and Mickey parks? Where could his dreams have led? It’s like asking where would today’s animation be had The Simpsons flopped, or Toy Story.
Extract from Andrew Osmond, 100 Animated Feature Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. ©Andrew Osmond

Director: Jack Hannah
USA 1950
6 mins

Directors: Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi
©: Walt Disney Productions
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Presented by: Walt Disney
Production Supervisor: Ben Sharpsteen
Story: William Peed, Erdman Penner, Ted Sears, Winston Hibler, Homer Brightman, Harry Reeves, Kenneth Anderson, Joe Rinaldi
From the original classic by: Charles Perrault
Special Processes: Ub Iwerks
Directing Animators: Eric Larson, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, John Lansberry, Wolfgang Reitherman, Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, Les Clark, Norm Ferguson
Character Animators: Don Lusk, Phil Duncan, Hugh Fraser, Hal King, Fred Moore, Harvey Toombs, Judge Whitaker, Cliff Nordberg, Marvin Woodward, Hal Ambro, George Nicholas, Ken O’Brien
Effects Animator: George Rowley, Josh Meador, Jack Boyd
Layout: Mac Stewart, A. Kendall O’Connor, Tom Codrick, Hugh Hennesy, Lance Nolley, Charles Philippi, Don Griffith, Thor Putnam
Colour and Styling: Mary Blair, John Hench, Claude Coats, Don Da Gradi
Backgrounds: Brice Mack, Art Riley, Ralph Hulett, Ray Huffine, Dick Anthony, Merle Cox, Thelma Witmer
Film Editor: Donald Halliday
Colour by: Technicolor
Songs by: Mack David, Jerry Livingston, Al Hoffman
Musical Direction: Oliver Wallace, Paul Smith
Orchestration: Joseph Dubin
Music Editor: Al Teeter
Sound Director: C.O. Slyfield
Sound Recording: Harold J. Steck, Robert O. Cook
Sound System: RCA Sound System
With the talents of:
Ilene Woods (voice of Cinderella)
Helene Stanley (model for Cinderella and Anastasia)
Eleanor Audley (voice of Lady Tremaine)
Luis Van Rooten (voice of King/Grand Duke)
Verna Felton (voice of Fairy Godmother)
Don Barclay (voice of doorman)
Claire Du Brey (model for Fairy Godmother)
Rhoda Williams (voice of Drizella)
James MacDonald (voice of Bruno/Gus/Jaques)

USA 1949©
75 mins

With thanks to The Walt Disney Company

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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