The Persistence of Disney, Part 12: Cinderella (1950)

| September 25, 2016

After nearly a decade of sidelining his artistic yearnings in favor of World War II and frustrating limits of his budget, Walt Disney celebrated the birth of the new decade with his first narrative feature in eight years.  It was not just a return to the form that he helped to create but it was a return to the simply-told fairy tale genre that he always had in his sights.  Cinderella was about as basic a story as one could tell, and seemingly the most universal.  As with Snow White, this movie appealed to a fantasy elements that were unquestionably popular at the time, but that were so “of the moment” (in spite of the common advertising claim of it being ‘timeless’) that its elemental message would become questionable in the wake of a massive culture shift in the decades to come.  The women’s movement and the rise of feminism would prove the antithesis for the rather limited message being given here.

Given the current cultural climate, one is compelled to ask: what is the value of Cinderella?  Where does its message really land when you get to the end of the story?  There has been a lot of talk about the film being anti-feminist, that this is the story of a young woman who is abused and works through her difficult situation until her prince shows up to make her life perfect.  Is that really true?  Is the movie selling young girls on a wish-fulfillment that relegates their destiny to the idea that getting married is and should be the ultimate goal?  Is it limiting their choices?  All of these arguments are valid and in some cases I outright agree with them.  This is always a difficult task, dealing with a film of another time, another set of values that are outdated and out of fashion.  Approaching Cinderella with a 21st century mindset is a little like approaching Gone With the Wind.  You can see it as entertainment but you have to traverse a minefield of ideas and attitudes that are particularly un-P.C.

The 1950s were not a great time for forward-thinking women.  During World War II a great number of American women had gone to work in factories to help with the war effort, it was a lumbering step backward to exit the war years and now be expected to get married, have children and stand in the shadow of The Man of The House.  In a fairy tale sense that fuels the story of Cinderella, which is based around the rather insane idea that a young girl will be pulled out of hard domestic servitude to marry a wealthy prince and effectively never have to work a day in her life.  The goal is to be married, that’s the trajectory of the young women in this film.  The King wants a grandchild and makes a call to every woman in the kingdom to come and meet the prince.  The prince, in a meat-market sort of set-up, gets to pick whichever woman he wants.  I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what is wrong with that scenario.  The prince meets various women at the ball and he picks Cinderella out of the crowd.  He’s been tasked with picking a wife like he might pick a puppy.

To stand back and look at this scenario is to be baffled by its insanity, but if there is any positive measure that can be gleaned from it, it may be the idea that at least Cinderella has, in a way, earned her way to a better life, unlike other Disney princesses who just sort of have it handed to them.   She’s worked for years under the yoke of a stepmother who worked her day and night and now she has earned the right fall in love and get married.  Is that any less insane?  Her fate may not be any less “marriage fueled” but when she gets married at the end there’s a feeling that it comes after having been tried and tested for so long by those who cared nothing about her.

Even with that you can’t ignore the emptiness with which the two leads come together.  Cinderella and Prince Charming get married at the end but it is difficult to overlook the fact that their marriage is based on function.  She’s pretty, he’s handsome, they dance, so . . . wedding bells!  There isn’t much meat on this relationship.  In fact, I don’t even remember if the prince has a line in this movie.  He’s just sort of there.  They talk (allegedly), and they get to know one another (allegedly).  Yet, even with all that, he apparently never caught her name.  Actually we don’t know because their time together is seen in a montage over music so we can’t hear what they are saying to one another.

Here it is important to remember the logic of cartoon romance.  In the mid-20th century, love and romance were not full blooded relationships in which two people connected in a real way.  They were just functions of the plot, often played as a gag or played for emotional overtones.  It was the union that represented the climax of the film but what they were to each other beyond their romantic orientation often remained in the viewer’s imagination.  Think of Snow White and Cinderella, the union was based on function, not logic.

I realize that I’m carping over a movie that is supposed to be a joyous fairy tale for young girls, but in assaying the form and function of the “Disney Princess “ dynamic as this series  moves along it is important to deconstruct the underlying purpose of each.  Why was this film so popular upon release but then so contentious as we’ve crossed over into the 21st century?  Are we supposed to examine this story logically?  Yes and no.  Disney films in the early years were not based on logic but played their characters for dramatic effect.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we follow a lonely young girl that seems alone in the world.  Friends are hard to come by and so the yearning for something different is always part of their forward thinking.  Neither Cinderella nor The Wizard of Oz or in fact any of the early Disney pictures were airtight as far as logic was concerned but they were always better at conveying a certain level of emotion.  How we feel about Cinderella’s plight is more possibly important than examining how she logically gets to the final scene.

Cinderella’s plight is that of a young girl who is stuck at home, mired in overbearing complacency of domestic servitude.  She was the daughter of a loving widower father; a wealthy Baron who felt that his daughter needed a mother’s love.  So, for whatever reason, he married the widowed aristocrat Lady Tremaine who had two plain-looking daughters of her own, Drizella and Anastasia.  When the father died, the stepmother put Cinderella to work – hard work – so much work in fact that she was effectively a slave.  What I always responded to in Cinderella’s plight was the fact that despite her difficult situation, there’s something unbreakable in her personality.  She works day and night doing difficult chores and is often ordered to do them over again just at the whim of her stepmother.  Yet, she never frets.  Something in her heart holds tight to the fact that this isn’t ever-lasting.

As I said before, Cinderella has a much more difficult life, while Snow White just seems to be . . . around.  Sure Snow is pursued by a jealous queen who twice tries to kill her, but the day in and day out struggle of Cinderella grabs at the heart.  We want her to succeed.  We want her to overcome the abusive harridan that controls her life.  We want to see her happy.  You can say that about Snow White but only to the degree that she’s in the lead.  Nothing that she really does ever earns her the hand of the prince outside of the fact that she’s a nice girl.  Here we feel Cinderella’s plight, especially in a heartbreaking moment when she is promised a trip to the ball and arrives in a newly made gown, but has it ripped apart by her stepsisters.  It’s actually a devastating moment.

Yet, while Cinderella is given some meat to her story, the prince himself is kind of given a sideline in this story.  He stands mostly as functionary.  Sure he falls in love with Cinderella but we never really get any time with him.  That’s too bad because I learn that originally he had a much bigger part.  There was a scene toward the end when he reunites with Cinderella and recognizes her and there was to be some reconciliation to the fact that he married a commoner who wears rags.  From what I could research apparently it would have cleared up a lot of gaping holes that exist at the end of the story.

As it stands, neither character is, truth be told, bold in personality.  Disney’s lead characters rarely ever were.  Looking back over his first five animated films I find that most of the heroic leads (Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi) were very light on personality.  Things happened to them rather than their actions motivating the plot.  The more interesting roles are often given to the villains who bend others to their will through magical manipulation.  What struck me in revisiting Cinderella is that the villain here has no magical powers.  It is interesting that Lady Tremaine exudes her will over our heroine just by force of will.  It’s interesting that the power comes not from magic wands but just from her station of having control over someone else’s life.  That’s an interesting dynamic.  This type of Disney character is rare and I’ve always found far more interesting.  There are only a handful of Disney villains who don’t have any magic – Captain Hook, Cruella de Ville, Madame Medusa, Gaston, Claude Frollo – so their manipulation comes from human flaws, even though it sometimes takes magical means to overcome them.

I haven’t even mentioned the magical elements of this film.  As I watched it the other night I was so focused on the human element that the magic stuff seemed to pass me by.  Is that a positive in a fairy tale?  Possibly in this case it may be because I noticed that the magical elements of Cinderella seem to drop in out of nowhere.  The fairy godmother drops into the story at the moment of Cinderella’s deepest despair to make her presentable for the ball but you have to wonder, where has she been all this time?  Why didn’t she show up before?  It left me wondering if this story might have functioned just as well without it.  Cinderella might have found a way to go to the ball and look presentable without magical manipulation.  That might have been an interesting angle, have Cinderella figure a way out of her situation using her ingenuity rather than the engine of a magic wand.

Plus, the magic in Cinderella drops in out of nowhere, almost as a dues ex machine and almost feels separate from the narrative.  Compare this to Snow White where the magical elements are far more organic.  As I say, Cinderella might have been much more interesting without it.  But, of course, losing the magical element might have robbed us of some of the brighter moments in the film, the fantasy elements, and the idea that at our moment of lowest despair, something magical will come along and help us out of a jam.  It’s fantasy, total fantasy and not an invalid one.  As much as I carp and analyze this film I must admit that there are moments when I felt much more for Cinderella than I did for most other Disney heroines.  She keeps a smile in place despite her difficult situation and she makes friends among the mice that surround her.  She shows them the kindness that is not shown to her by her stepmother or stepsisters.  And in the end, they help her out when she is locked away at the moment that the archduke drops by with the lost glass slipper.  Her kindness is rewarded.  Maybe that’s a message that can be gleaned from this very flawed and outdated film, that kindness is a much bigger and bolder weapon than manipulation.  Manipulation is easy but kindness takes time and patience and work, something that gets her the fairy tale ending she always wanted.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.