Disney’s Silver Age #1: Cinderella

The fruitful Golden Age of Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s and 40s is a period of critical success unrivalled by most studios. In the space between 1937 and 1942 they released five powerhouses in a row in Snow White and the Seven DwarfsPinocchioFantasia, Dumboand BambiEach of those movies are iconic in their own right and instrumental in the development of animation as a feature-length art-form. It seems clear that there was nothing internally that would have stopped this unprecedented run of creativity. But alas World War II happened and it disrupted the company on many levels. The company lost animators from the company who directly joined the war effort while the company itself devoted considerable attention to creating propaganda films to aid the war-effort (part of the studio was even used for antiaircraft troops). To top it all off, the box office results for all of Hollywood was hit hard as most people did not have nearly as much time to spend at the movies as they used to, while the European box office which was an extremely important market naturally was nonexistent.

During this time the production of animated feature films nearly ground to a halt. The company resorted to pulling together travelogues (Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros), anthology films (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), the aforementioned military requisitioned propaganda films, and unfortunate diversions into racism (Song of the South) to tie the studio over until it got back on its feet. WW II had such a big impact on the studio that it took them until 1950 – five years after the war ended – for the Disney company to be on sure enough footing to fully return to feature length animation.

Fortunately the intervening years did little to make the folks at Disney lose their touch as they successfully ushered in what would eventually be called the “Silver Age” of Disney covering all the movies from Cinderella all the way to The Jungle Book – the last animated movie Walt Disney actively worked on. Between the animated films, the studio’s successful forays into live-action, and the development of Disneyland in California it was easily one of the best times for the Walt Disney Company. And as we shall discuss shortly, the key to it starting off well was Cinderella.


 

Cinderella finds the Disney company establishing what would be a time-honored strategy whenever they needed to reestablish their animation dominance: the princess movie (other examples: The Little Mermaid launching the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and the tandem works of The Princess and the Frog and Tangled kick-starting the current Disney Revival). Cinderella functioned as an announcement that the Disney of the Golden Age was well and truly back, and in that goal they succeeded. However given the 44 Disney films that have come in the 68 years since Cinderella opened, it is starting to show its age and isn’t quite as magical as I may remember.

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© 1950 Disney

Now before this gets out of hand let me establish this first and foremost: Cinderella still remains a good Disney movie. The sequences that have endured like the fairy godmother scene are truly emblematic of Disney magic and are as good as anything the company has ever produced. Unfortunately this is also a movie that feels like it has a razor thin plot that is stretched to its absolute limit (which, need I remind you, is a movie that runs 74 minutes).

The movie begins on a strong note. After the reassuring presence of the classic Disney shot of a book of Cinderella being opened the movie dives into an effective prologue in which we learn all the major essentials of the story: Cinderella was a beloved daughter of a rich and successful father. When he dies suddenly his wife, and Cinderella’s stepmother, basically gaslights the young girl until she basically becomes the maid of the household. These are all details we know well, but each image used in this prologue is perfectly composed and structured so that the relational and power dynamics of this household are made perfectly clear without a word of dialogue being spoken. This allows  the movie to simply place us straight into Cinderella’s current life as the unpaid maid of the household. Her introduction, in which she is woken by birds and mice while singing the iconic “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is as stereotypically a Disney scene as you could imagine, but in the best possible way. The scene evokes Snow White’s introduction and like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instantly places us on Cinderella’s side.

And it is fortunate that this opening ten minutes packs in so much to establish not just who Cinderella is but why we should actively root for her because it is after this opening scene that Cinderella’s problems begin to emerge. After she wakes up the movie literally spends the next half an hour or so showing her doing nothing more than household chores. And seeing as this is the second princess movie in a row that devotes a significant amount of time to showing the protagonist doing “women’s” work, it is safe to say that this is entirely revealing of the filmmaker’s (and Walt Disney’s) view of a woman’s role in society. Granted, it is safe to say most of society at that time had that retrograde view, but it doesn’t make it any less jarring to modern eyes as feeding animals, scrubbing floors, and preparing breakfast take precedence over any character development.

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© 1950 Disney

Now because seeing Cinderella do some chores for thirty minutes also creates less than compelling footage the filmmakers wisely fill this time by playing up the comic antics of Gus and Jaq who are the two main mice who befriend Cinderella and their rivalry with their chief antagonist, the appropriately named household cat Lucifer. The movie spends two extended sequences in the opening half-hour in humorous and thrilling literal cat-and-mouse chases to fill out the runtime as the two sides constantly try to outwit each other. Of the two, only the second sequence where the mice try to gather materials around the house to finish Cinderella’s dress is tangentially consequential to the plot. But both of these sequences are ultimately diversionary and while they are entertaining, they also do not feel entirely original. They evoke and sometimes mimic the exact same dynamics of the Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry shorts (which need I remind you close to 50 had been made by the time Cinderella got released). To see Disney basically borrow a formula from another company so blatantly is a shocking blow to the myth of their storytelling prowess.

Another issue are the principal villains of this story who are all decidedly one-note in their performance (granted, ALL of the characters are quite one-note). The stepmother Lady Tremaine is so blatantly villainous even though it is never explained why she is so cruel to Cinderella in the first place (other than the unfortunate fairy tale trope that stepmothers are obviously evil). Meanwhile her daughters Drizella and Anastasia are such obvious objects of derision that they are only portrayed as repulsive to the point that it seems like obvious cruelty on the part of the filmmakers. It is clear that part of what makes them villainous is their “ugly” looks and lack of talent (in addition to their general spoilt nature) that it is hard not to feel unintentional pity for them. Their chief crime is following along their mother’s plan, whose chief villainous trait seems to be assigning more chores to Cinderella.

These issues are compounded by the fact that unlike the Golden Age Disney movies, the setting up to this point is decidedly domestic and thus not nearly as interesting to look at. Even when Snow White is doing chores, she is at least doing so after she stumbles upon a mysterious cabin in the middle of an enchanted looking forest and is aided by woodland creatures after running away for her life. Her menial tasks are at least surrounded by an undoubtedly interesting locale and she is at least in peril. Unfortunately Cinderella is surrounded by wallpaper and domesticity for the entire first half of the movie while having to contend with a mean (if abusive) family. The stakes are so low at this point as to almost be nonexistent.

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© 1950 Disney

All this to say that it is more than a welcome relief when the fairy godmother finally makes her appearance as she helps Cinderella get ready for the royal ball in which she hopes to meet and entice the suitably named Prince Charming. Her bubbly personality and her scene-stealing song “Bibbidy-bobbidy-boo” instantly livens up proceedings and kicks off the strongest section of this movie. The song alone highlights everything that makes Disney unrivalled as an animation studio. The song is bubbly, infectious, and evocative of so-called “Disney magic” and as simple as the song is, it clearly has had the legs to become an iconic earworm of a song. And every magical transformation that takes place, from the pumpkin turning into a carriage all the way to the mice turning into horses (to the real horse’s comical chagrin) are delightful visual flourishes brimming with charm and humour. And the final reveal of Cinderella’s dress is every bit as breathtaking as the movie wants it to be as she gets what is undoubtedly the best princess dress in the Disney canon.

With the acquisition of her dress the movie also shifts locales to the castle of Prince Charming which is a much more magical setting for the fairy tale. And it is during this banquet that the best scene of this movie happens when Cinderella and Prince Charming finally meet and run off to spend the rest of the evening together. The sheer unbelievability of their instant meet-cute is offset by their magical dance number together. Set to the beautiful “So This is Love” the movie is a balletic moment evocative of the most romantic Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire numbers as they dance under the moonlight through the castle grounds together. My only complaint is that this scene runs too short and I would have easily traded a cat-mouse chase sequence for a longer extended dance between the romantic couple. Like in Snow White, the relationship is completely unrealistic but this one scene helps sell their love as something plausible.

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© 1950 Disney

This sets up the third act of the movie, where Cinderella has to flee before the spell wears off and the prince sends servants to find out who she is because he is in love. Naturally because there is still about ten minutes more to kill, the movie has to stretch out the buildup between the inevitable happily ever after as much as possible. It does this in several ways. First it relies on the “idiot plot” by having Cinderella flagrantly and carelessly give the game away to her stepmother that she is the one the prince is looking for. This of course gets her locked in her room and the key taken away which set up yet another cat-and-mouse chase sequence. So many obstacles are thrown in the path between Cinderella and her happiness in this final scene that it is exasperatingly comical. When she finally succeeds, I was relieved as much for this scene finally being over as I was overjoyed that Cinderella had finally gotten her man.

And so this leaves the movie in an odd conundrum for me. There are obviously moments in this movie that have iconically been burned into our memory not because Disney has shoved those scenes down our throat repeatedly but because they are truly great cinema. But it is also obvious just how much filler there is in this movie which perhaps was inevitable when adapting a fairy tale that could be told to a child in ten minutes. It’s place in the Disney canon is perhaps due to what the movie represents in the life of the company as the movie that ushered in one of the company’s most fruitful periods both from a financial and creative standpoint. Cinderella proved that Disney’s “war” period was merely a blip of circumstance. And more importantly, Cinderella told the world in 1950 that Disney was back.

Rating: ★★★½

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8 thoughts on “Disney’s Silver Age #1: Cinderella

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