Cinderella (1899) A Silent Film Review

One of the world’s most famous fairytales is brought to the screen by Georges Méliès and both fancy costumes and special effects follow. There are also some unique details such as a clock-based nightmare sequence.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

And you thought your shoes were uncomfortable…

Movie trends come and go but new adaptations of Cinderella are something we can depend on year in and year out. They can be faithful to the famous Charles Perrault version of the story, they can strive for “realism,” or they can be updated to the modern world.

The fairy godmother appears. Unfortunately, only a few seconds of this film’s color has survived.

Georges Méliès had been enchanting audiences with his special effects since 1896 (though he also made more realistic pictures and torn-from-the-headlines news reenactments) and had already dipped his toes into folklore with the now-lost 1897 version of The Grasshopper and the Ant, as well as Pygmalion and Galatea in 1898.

His Cinderella starts with its heroine being left behind while her stepfamily leaves for the royal ball but never fear, help is on the way in the form of a fairy godmother. Before you can say bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, Cinderella’s rags are a lovely gown and rats have been transformed into footmen for her coach, which itself had been a pumpkin.

One coach coming right up.

Méliès uses substitution splices for the effects here and they are still on the rough side with no additional special effects like the puffs of smoke that would become his trademark. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of this adaptation is that Méliès poured his genius as an illusionist into plot elements not usually found in Cinderella films.

Cinderella arrives at the ball and the prince immediately falls in love with her but then the clock strikes the appointed hour, her clothes are once again rags and she flees, leaving behind that glass slipper. Once home, she is tormented by visions of cruel clocks dancing and mocking her.

Behold the mocking clock ladies.

This sequence displays a lot more sophistication and attention to detail compared to the ball preparation scene; it’s easy to see where Méliès’ heart and attention were. Where one evil clock would do, Méliès offers a variety. First, Father Time appears in a puff of smoke at the ball with a giant clockface over his head. Then the grandfather clock in Cinderella’s home chases her while dancers holding clocks rock back and forth to taunt her. The dancers briefly turn into giant clocks themselves before combining into one enormous clock with Father Time kicking his legs back and forth.

Whether unique to Méliès or lifted from one of many Cinderella stage productions, this emphasis on Cinderella’s frustration at her thwarted hopes adds some welcome depth to a character that tends to be bland and saccharine. Many film versions rely on simple tears to convey Cinderella’s state of mind but Méliès’ symbolism is much more effective. Nerve-racking clocks, this time manned by evil gnomes, were used again in the 1914 version of Cinderella starring Mary Pickford.

More timepiece horror.

The whole sequence takes up a full minute of the modern runtime or 1/5 of the total motion picture. Another minute-and-a-half is spent on the concluding wedding procession with the freshly-shod Cinderella being escorted into the royal palace by her prince while dancers in short pants and ballerinas rejoice. And, naturally, it all concludes with a tableau of the happy couple and their court, another Méliès trademark.

Méliès’ film, like almost every cinematic Cinderella that followed, was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the tale, which includes elements we now consider essential: a fairy godmother and a glass slipper as a means of identification. However, Perrault was neither the first nor the last writer to tackle Cinderella and there are international versions that span the globe and stretch back hundreds and even thousands of years.

The happy vignette with bonus giant swan.

Depending on the version, the mystical helper was not a fairy godmother but sometimes a tree, a cow, a fish and Cinderella’s identifying object was not always a glass shoe or even a shoe at all. Further, whether its loss was accidental or intentional or whether it was ever lost was by no means settled. In the Finnish version of the tale, the prince smears various parts of the door with tar, which catch the heroine’s ring, circlet and slippers. (The prince is a bit tar-happy, later luring the villains into a bath of boiling tar and drowning them in it.) The Malay/Indonesian folktale Bawang Merah Bawang Putih has its heroine identified by a magical swing that responds only to her voice.

The prince has his slipper.

But the accidental loss of the glass slipper is what has stuck in the imaginations of western audiences. When I was a child, I was extremely interested in the origins of fairy tales and read material on the topic voraciously. One of the “facts” that always seemed to be included is that the impractical glass slipper (pantoufle de verre) was a typo and Perrault actually meant a fur slipper (pantoufle de vair). Or Perrault was delighted by his own pun and went with it. Or Perrault thought fur would have adult implications and went with a more innocent term. Or glass was the term with adult implications and Perrault was downright Freudian in his swapping of adjectives.

The slipper returned.

Now, a great many sources will tell you that Perrault originally meant glass (sometimes a glass slipper is just a glass slipper) and I agree with this given the cultural context of glass when he was writing the tale.

Charles Perrault published his version of Cinderella in 1697 and at the time, Europe had gone gaga for glass. English glass seller George Ravenscroft had started adding lead oxide to glass in 1674, making it clearer and able to be manufactured on an industrial scale. This led to a boom in English glassmaking, made even bigger when Ravenscroft’s patent protection ran out in 1696.

Cinderella back in her finery.

Fine, clear glass was easier to obtain than ever before and while many designs were simple to emphasize that clarity, there were more elaborate designs that, if you kind of squint, would be pretty stunning as high-heeled shoes. If Perrault always intended to use glass, he would have been part of a long line of authors incorporated hot technology into their works. (Kind of like how everything was “E-Something” in the 90s and “i-Something” in the 2000s. Nowadays, the hot word seems to be “tactical,” which is pretty disturbing but I digress.)

Much of the writing on Cinderella’s shoes fixates on the impracticality of such footwear but versions with gold slippers seem to pass by with nary a question. (If you want to argue that gold slippers might have been embroidered with gold threads, I shall respond that the glass slippers might have been encrusted with glass beads.) In any case, I am not sure that we should be looking for gritty realism in a story that features lizards being turned into footmen.

One footman coming right up!

The Méliès version of the tale hits all the expected beats (“No ball for you!” + fairy godmother + lost and found slipper) but the decision to focus on Cinderella’s fear of clocks is unique and adds a nightmarish element to a story that, in its present version at least, tends to be rather sweet and safe. Interestingly enough, there is no particular effort to emphasize the slipper but then again, it’s possible that the lost hand-colored sections colored it a glassy blue to make it more obvious.

Fans of Méliès will enjoy seeing his work progress to the more elaborate fantasies that we most associate him with today. All in all, the movies were getting better, Méliès was growing more ambitious and the dancing clocks hold up beautifully.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema box set.

As was usual with the films of Méliès, Cinderella originally boasted beautiful hand-applied color but only a small fraction of the color version survives. If you are interested in seeing Méliès fairy tales in their full glory, Flicker Alley has released a DVD/Bluray set of his surviving color fantasies.


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    1. olivernutherwun

      Fritzi also mentions a version with a helpful fish (!), which reminded me that the Chinese version is usually (nowadays) cited as the oldest version (and the footbinding aspect of Chinese culture explains the focus on what has to be a unique to one person foot size!). What I’ve never understood is how the Chinese tale got to western Europe as early as it did.

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