Just about the most popular and well-known fairy tale. Lately, there has been an explosion, led by Disney, of modernizing the tale (often involving music) of an oppressed young woman becoming the star despite “step-sisters” getting in the way. There’s A Cinderella Story starring Hillary Duff, and Another Cinderella Story with Selena Gomez. Going back, there’s a twist to the tale, first as a book, then adapted to film starring Anne Hatahaway, Ella Enchanted (I enjoy the last song to the movie most since it’s Elton John). Rodgers and Hammerstein created a musical, entitled Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and that has been performed countless times (recently revived on Broadway) and there are a couple movie versions; one starring Julie Andrews and another from the 90s starring Brandy. Cinderella even appears in Into The Woods.
I do not have a strong enough desire to delve that deeply into the tale and so I’ll focus on Disney’s 1950 animated classic and their 2015 live-action remake. And because I absolutely love Ever After, it will go with its sisters.
Disney’s version is a form of the traditional tale. After a completely forgettable opening song that I never remember, the story book opens and the narrator begins “Once Upon a Time.” The titular character gains a cruel stepmother who was jealous of her kind nature and forces Cinderella to become a servant upon her father’s death. Yet Cinderella has remained optimistic and dreams of a happier future, prompting “A Dream is a Wish.” She has friends in the birds and mice of the home and they help with her chores (keeping with the theme of helpful animals from Snow White).
The castle is visible from Cinderella’s room, where the king tells his Grand Duke that the prince has avoided his responsibilities long enough and it’s time for him to marry and settle down; he wants grandchildren. Since the prince is returning home (we never find out from where or why he was away or how long) it’s the prime opportunity to throw a ball, where a boy and girl can meet in the right conditions, prompting a proposal out of the son. Asserting that it “can’t possibly fail” the king orders all eligible maids invited.
Cinderella delivers the invitation to her stepmother and stepsisters (in this version, they are Lady Tremaine, Anastasia, and Drizella). She expresses a desire to attend the ball and Lady Tremaine agrees if she finishes all her chores. Of course, they give her so much to do, she does not have time to alter her mother’s old dress. Instead, during “Cindrelly” the mice and birds complete the alterations, making use of old articles from Anastasia and Drizella. Her stepfamily take their frustration out on the dress the night of the ball and Cinderella cries in the garden. Her fairy godmother appears and “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” she turns a pumpkin into a carriage, four white mice into horses, and transforms Cinderella’s tattered dress into a sparkling ball gown, complete with glass slippers with the warning that the magic will wear off at midnight. Cinderella entrances all at the ball, most keenly the prince; they share the only dance, then stroll about the castle pondering “So This is Love.” Just as they’re about the kiss, the clock chimes twelve and Cinderella rushes away, leaving a glass slipper in the stairs. The Grand Duke sends guards after her, but she evades them.
The news comes the next morning that the prince will marry whomever the glass slipper fits (the king does use this to his advantage, pointing out that it could fit any number of girls) and Lady Tremaine notices the daze that Cinderella is in and rationalizes that she was the mystery maiden. With glowing eyes (creepy), she locks Cinderella in the attic. When the Grand Duke is at the home with the slipper, Cinderella’s animal friends free her. Tremaine causes the slipper to be smashed, but Cinderella has the other slipper. There’s a wedding “and they lived happily ever after.”
In 2015, Disney re-made their tale with an all-star live action cast, featuring Lily James (Lady Rose from Downton Abbey) as Cinderella; Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother; Richard Madden (apparently a main character from Game of Thrones, I think. Still need to watch that!) as Prince Kit; Stellan Skarsgard (Bootstrap Bill Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean) as the Grand Duke; Sophie McShera (Daisy, also from Downton Abbey) as stepsister Drisella; Holliday Grainger was Anastasia; Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter) briefly appeared as Cinderella’s mother, and the narration was provided by Helena Bonham Carter, who was also the Fairy Godmother. Kenneth Branagh directed (he directed the first Thor movie, but he’ll still always be Gilderoy Lockhart).
The opening provides further backstory; we actually see Ella’s mother. It’s from her that Ella learned to “have courage and be kind” and to see the world as it could be, with magic, including believing in fairy godmothers. As “the most happiest of families” tragedy was bound to strike. Ella’s mother sickens and dies. Years later, her father remarries the widowed wife of a friend, Lady Tremaine. Anastasia and Drisella are horrible from the start, but Tremaine seems to attempt to be pleasant, supposedly desiring to restore life and laughter to the house by throwing parties. Yet she “temporarily” moves (read: banishes) Ella to the attic when the young woman is kind enough to offer her larger room to her bickering stepsisters. When Ella’s father dies unexpectedly on a trip, Tremaine dismisses the rest of the household and gives Ella more chores to “distract from her grief.” She is the one to coin “Cinderella” and has Ella remove her place setting at the table.
This prompts a distraught Ella to ride into the woods where she meets Kit, a kind “apprentice” at the palace. Kit is in fact the prince, hunting a stag. They circle their horses and actually have a conversation with each other. When Ella remarks that her family treats her “as well as they are able,” Kit replies with sympathy. Ella, ever sweet, tells him that others have it worse; Kit insists that her treatment is still not her doing. They both express an interest in seeing each other again. (Wow, he has blue eyes)
It is obvious Kit is taken with Ella (or a mysterious girl, as she never tells him her name). She gets him thinking on topics. The servant girl from the forest echoes his private sentiment that we must all simply “have courage and be kind,” and that “just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.” The Grand Duke I’m sure would consider it dangerous thinking. The King is ill and dying, putting the kingdom in peril and they are both encouraging Kit to marry, in tandem as tradition and to strengthen the kingdom. They will hold a ball, but Kit requests that invitations go to all maidens, noble and common. His captain points out that it’s Kit’s way of seeing his “good, honest country girl”.
Of course, Ella’s stepfamily still refuses to include her in their preparations. She still refurbishes her mother’s dress. Tremaine starts the tearing and spits that she “will not have her daughters associated with you.” Ella is a ragged servant girl and that is what she will remain. Ella’s once again in tears and this time, she has lost her belief. She apologizes to her mother that she doesn’t have courage any more. Yet, she’s still kind to the old beggar woman who requests some milk. The beggar woman transforms into a fairy godmother (in a very poofy white gown). A pumpkin is still transformed into a carriage and this incarnation has kept Cinderella’s animal friends (not my favorite animatronic animals) so four mice become four white horses, a goose becomes the driver, and two lizards become footmen (I kept expecting to hear “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”). A touch of magic conceals her identity from her stepmother.
Another grand entrance and Ella realizes that Kit is indeed the prince (he makes the argument that a prince is an “apprentice” monarch); they share a beautiful waltz. Afterwards, the couple sneaks off for a private conversation. Tremaine overhears the Grand Duke telling the captain that he has already promised the prince to Princess Shaleena. When midnight does strike, Ella must leave and the stairs claim another glass slipper, and she still manages to evade the Grand Duke.
The king sadly dies shortly after the ball. But he encourages his son on his death bed to find the mystery princess; he is to marry for love, not advantage, and to become his own man. Kit curls up against his father one last time, prompting tears on my part. After an appropriate mourning period (per the narration) the announcement is made that the new king will search for the woman who fits the glass slipper. He bargains with the Grand Duke that if she is not found, he will marry Princess Shaleena, but no effort will be spared in searching.
In the meantime, Lady Tremaine finds Ella’s matching glass slipper and confronts her. She proposes that she will support Ella’s claim to the prince, in exchange for marrying Anastasia and Drisella off to wealthy lords, and Tremaine will “manage that boy,” thus ruling the kingdom. Ella refuses; she couldn’t save her father from Tremaine, but she will protect the kingdom and the prince from her. Tremaine smashes the slipper and locks Ella in the attic. She then goes to the Grand Duke and reveals the identity of the mystery princess. In exchange for keeping the secret, she will be made countess, once again making advantageous marriages for her daughters, and as for the servant girl; the Grand Duke can do what he likes with her, she’s nothing to Tremaine.
So the Grand Duke purposefully makes Tremaine house last in the search and once the slipper refuses to fit either Anastasia or Drisella, he wants to make a quick getaway. But Ella’s animal friends manage to open her tower window so her singing (Lavender Blue – I have no idea why this song features so heavily in the movie; though it is a pretty rendition) reaches the soldiers. Kit is disguised amongst their ranks and demands to see the last girl. HIs trusted captain brings Ella before him where she finally admits that her name is Cinderella; she is not a princess, she does not have a dowry, or even knows if the shoe will fit. But if it does, will the king take her as she is, “an honest country girl who loves you?” Kit replies of course, but only if she will take him as he is, “an apprentice still learning his trade.” When the movie closes on their wedding, narration tells us that Kit and Ella were the fairest and kindest rulers of the kingdom, remembering to see the world as it could be, believing in courage, and kindness, and occasionally, magic.
Ever After is a 1998 historical dramatic retelling of the Cinderella tale, starring Drew Barrymore as Danielle and Anjelica Houston as her stepmother. The story is set in 16th century France and includes special historical guest Leonardo da Vinci. The film opens with the Brothers Grimm invited to see “Your Majesty,” (the old woman is never named) who finds their collection of folk tales charming, but she would like to set the record straight on the “Little Cinders Girl,” who was in fact her great-great-grandmother, Danielle de Barbarac.
Her tale begins with eight-year-old Danielle happily gaining a new mother and two new sisters; the Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent,Marguerite, and Jacqueline. Her own mother has been dead for some time, the servants commenting that Auguste de Barbarac raised the girl on his own However, he must travel shortly after his marriage and tragically suffers a heart attack and dies in the drive.
Ten years pass, according to our narrator, before another man enters Danielle’s life. The King and Queen of France are discussing the arranged marriage of their son, Henry to the princess of Spain. But when they go to wake their son to join their discussion, they find he has run away, again. To continue with his flight, he must appropriate Danielle’s father’s horse, startling her during her chores. He’s cloaked, so she does not see until he dismounts that the thief she’s pelting with apples in her monarch. For her silence, a bag of gold coins. Danielle uses these to buy back an old servant, Maurice, the husband of one of the two women left. To do so, she must dress as a noblewoman (I assume she borrows gowns from her stepsisters), a great risk at this time period as such an act is punishable by death.
Henry runs into Leonardo da Vinci during his flight and is honor-bound to retrieve a painting a band of gypsies have stolen. Of course, it’s the Mona Lisa. This delay allows the royal guards to catch up with Henry, though they must stop at Danielle’s home first, to return the horse. The Baroness, while unaware of the earlier episode between Henry and Danielle (the apple throwing), wastes no time pushing Marguerite in front of the prince. After being pleasant to the self-serving woman, Henry arrives back at the palace in time to catch Danielle (dressed as a courtier and thus unrecognizable) arguing over freeing her servant. She is well spoken, impassioned, and obviously educated, prompting him to ask for her name. She gives him “Comtess Nicole de Lancret” (borrowing from her mother, whom she apparently resembles). They have quite a conversation and Danielle unknowingly echoes his parents’ words, that as a prince, he has been born to privilege and with that comes certain obligations. In her case, he has a duty to his country and the people in it, including the hard-working peasants.
In the King’s and Queen’s case, Henry has a duty to marry for political gain, never mind love or the fact that he doesn’t want the crown. King Francis compromises with his son; they will throw a masked ball “in honor of Senior da Vinci,” at which time, Henry will announce his engagement. Henry has until then to find a love match, or King Francis will announce the engagement to the Spanish princess. Queen Marie cautions that “divorce is only something they do in England (historical note: this is a call out to Henry VIII who famously divorced two of his wives: if you have any further questions on this matter, I will happily discuss!)
News of the ball that has been opened to all eligible maids of the kingdom has reached the Baroness (through a spy in the royal guard) and she begins scheming to pair Marguerite with Prince Henry. She shows her daughters Danielle’s dowry, a gorgeous gown of her mother’s; Rodmilla intends for Marguerite to wear it instead. Jacqueline protests, arguing they should include Danielle; she is the only family member to treat her stepsister decently. The Baroness is offended by Danielle’s manner, particularly after “all she’s done for her” and Marguerite is the one to coin the name “Cinderella.” Rodmilla dismisses Jacqueline’s suggestion, but changes her tune when Danielle enters.
Over the course of the film, Henry spends time publicly with Marguerite (their scheming is unfortunately working), yet he also runs into “Nicole” several times. He takes her to the Franciscan Monastery to visit their library. They are embroiled in an adventure on their return, resulting in spending the evening with a band of gypsies. The next morning Henry informs his parents that he wishes to build a university with a vast library where anyone can study; oh, and he wants to invite the gypsies to the wedding. On the other end of the spectrum, the Baroness rudely wakens Danielle. demanding breakfast. “You have two hands, make it yourself.” This spurs Rodmilla to give Danielle’s dress to Marguerite (not that she needed much urging). Danielle is furious and when Marguerite mocks the fact that Danielle’s mother is dead; she retaliates with a richly deserved punch to Marguerite’s face. In the end, Danielle has to choose between her copy of Utopia from her father, or her mother’s shoes. She hands over the shoes, but Marguerite still drops the book in the fire. Rodmilla orders Danielle whipped (occurs off-screen) and we see Jacqueline tending to her stepsister after.
Rodmilla and Marguerite meet with Queen Marie and Rodmilla figures out that Danielle has been playing the comtess and seeing Henry. She spins the queen the lie that Nicole de Lancret is engaged to a Belgian. Meanwhile, Henry and “Nicole” meet alone again. Danielle tries to tell the truth, but it’s hard when the prince is declaring his love and seems so happy to have found freedom and purpose in his life; before, he had wanted to escape his gilded cage, but “Nicole” has opened his eyes to how he can care for his people and his country. Back at the house, Rodmilla confronts Danielle about her lie and about the dress she’s hidden. Danielle refuses to tell and angrily declares “I would rather die than see my mother’s on that cow!”
She’s locked in the cellar and the servants manage to get word to de Vinci to get her out. She wears her mother’s dress to the ball and arrives just as the prince was ready to announce his engagement. Rodmilla spoils their happiness, revealing Nicole as Danielle, a servant. Henry rejects her and she flees the ball in tears (leaving behind a shoe when she falls at one point). Da Vinci talks some sense into Henry and seeing how miserable the Spanish princess is during their wedding, the prince calls it off. Unfortunately Danielle has already been sold to another master; a leering landowner, Pierre le Peu. The snake would enjoy breaking Danielle, but her father taught his daughter how to use a sword. She threatens to slit her captor from navel to nose unless he releases her. She’s met outside by Henry, begging her forgiveness and proposing.
Baroness de Ghent and her daughters are called to appear in court, where Rodmilla is confronted with the fact that she lied to the queen. The monarchs first choice of punishment is to strip her of her title and ship her and Marguerite (Jacqueline is spared), to America; unless someone will speak for them. A freshly crowned Danielle appears and will speak for them, for Rodmilla is the only mother she has ever known; it is her wish that her family be treated with the same courtesy that they have treated her. Thus, Rodmilla and Marguerite are sent to be laundresses.
Henry and Danielle’s “happily ever after” features Da Vinci’s newest painting La Scapigliata (Head of a Woman) as a portrait of Danielle, a belated wedding present. Henry remarks that it looks nothing like his wife, to which Danielle rebukes “you, sire, are supposed to be charming.” We come back to the “present” where the old woman informs the Brothers Grimm that the portrait hung in the university until the French Revolution, but the most important point is that these people lived.
Re-watching Disney’s original animated movie, I don’t have anything specific against it beyond the typical comeback that you don’t fall in love with someone in an evening. At least this time the couple spoke to each other. Being an adult compared to a child, I see the king’s actions not as innocently. As a child: aww, he wants grandkids to play with; as an adult: you really shouldn’t be forcing your son into a marriage. It’s as bad as when stories attempt to marry the princess off just so she can produce heirs. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are just plain horrible. But it does have a cute little message about dreaming and hoping; except we don’t all have fairy godmothers to grant those wishes immediately.
I love that the live action remake included more backstory, for both Ella and Tremaine. I wouldn’t say we gain much sympathy for the woman, because she’s still cruel to a young woman who had nothing to do with the events that made her bitter. It’s tragic that the light and love of her life died and tragic still that her second marriage, which she understandably made to survive in the world, ended in death. But when Ella demands an answer from Lady Tremaine on why the woman is so cruel, in light of the girl being nothing but kind to her and no one deserves to be treated the way she was, all Tremaine can respond is that Ella is “young, and innocent, and good…” essentially boiling down to the excuse that she was jealous.
Cate Blanchett plays evil beautifully; the stepmother in the animated version is older, possibly attractive at one point, but those years are past. In the live-action, she still possess poise and grace and comes across with just enough gentility in public that her motivations are not questioned. She and the Grand Duke are well-matched; claiming that their actions and words are in the best interest of their charges, but really, it’s all self-serving. They come to an arrangement about Ella easily and even mutually chuckle at the fact that Tremaine is threatening the Grand Duke.
Ever After has Rodmilla explain to Danielle that her own mother was hard on her, making her strive for excellence; that is how she became a Baroness (and the mother to potentially the future queen). Immediately followed by her telling Danielle she looks so much like her father, and that’s why she’s well suited for hard labor. She later coolly remarks (the way that Anjelica Houston is so good at) to Danielle, when she begs if her stepmother ever loved her even in the smallest amount, “how can one love a pebble in their shoe?” Here, even more so than in the 2015 Disney production, the Baroness is jealous of how close her second husband was to his own daughter. Rodmilla admits to Danielle (still flippantly), she hardly knew her new husband before he died, how could she have had time to love him?
Both movies also flesh out the prince and their families. We actually have names! Kit is a very charming prince, someone I would honestly want to meet. He never treats Ella as a damsel in distress, beyond “rescuing” her from her runaway horse. Kit genuinely cares about his kingdom, mentioning that the war was hard on everyone in the kingdom; a trait I believe he picked up from his father. He accepts his role as future monarch. He is a more vibrant counterpart compared to his animated original. In a different characterization Henry does seem spoilt in the beginning of Ever After but that makes it a more interesting arc. He is educated and asks da Vinci for advice in progressive thinking. Henry displays some of his indulged princely airs at the ball, when he dismisses Danielle and later when he informs da Vinci “I will not yield!” But he’s humble when he asks for her hand.
And our princesses are far better role models in the live action films. Danielle rescues herself from le Peu. She has the idea to buy back her servant (truly more of a friend); she speaks directly to the prince and makes him see the truth, she defies her stepmother to keep her mother’s dress safe. In the end, she could even let the king and queen send her horrid family members to America, instead, she grants them some small measure of mercy. Ella is intelligent as well, proving her knowledge of French to her stepfamily (and confusing ditzy Anastasia and Drisella). She speaks quickly to the king as she’s leaving the ball, intrepidly informing the monarch of his son’s love. Her words leaves an impression with the king, which is why he urges Kit to find her and marry her, for love. These women truly show that hard work (which is dirtier than portrayed in animation) will be rewarded.
I adore the costumes in both the live-action films. The ballgown from the 2015 Disney re-make is simply gorgeous. That skirt is enormous and I’m certain that it was not easy to walk or dance in all those layers, but it had the right amount of sparkle. Ever After had a profound impact on me, setting the romance in a historical period, which historical clothes, and showing me a “modern” heroine in those times. (On a personal note: that’s the kind of heroine I am planning for my own fantasy series), making it my favorite version if I was forced to choose.
Questions? Comments? What’s your favorite version of Cinderella? Let me know!
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