You really can’t do much with the story of Cinderella, can you? At their core they’re all the same story about a girl who, through the power of fancy footware, nabs Prince Charming. What about if you added songs? I’ve watched every major iteration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, from the 1950s debut with Julie Andrews all the way to the 1990s take with musicians Brandy and Whitney Houston. But, for me, my heart to 1965’s television version. This was played ad nauseam in my house and it’s been a priceless collector’s item before Shout Factory recently reprinted the movie on DVD. As an adult, I can notice the campy quality of the film, as well as the amount of classic film talent on display!
Cinderella (Lesley Ann Warren in her film debut) wants to go to the Prince’s (Stuart Damon) ball. However, her stepmother (Jo Van Fleet) refuses. But, with the help of her Fairy Godmother (Celeste Holm), Cinderella might be able to have her dreams come true!
Presenting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a ratings juggernaut as evidenced by how pivotal all three versions were at the time of release. The original 1957 version was an expensive undertaking – $376,000 in 1957 dollars! – and garnered more than 107 million households…in 1957! Eight years later, and with the added benefit of video recording for future airings, the show was redone with the cast above. Filmed at CBS Television City in Hollywood, the film’s airing became the highest-rated non-sports special on CBS until 2009!
There’s certainly a mystical quality, ripped right out of the pages of a fairy-tale book with this version, partially because the sets are so apparent. With the added benefit (or curse) of adulthood, it’s easy to lampoon the small sets where fifteen people look crammed into the castle’s forecourt, or that the entire set-up looks like a cheaper version of Fantasyland with everyone dressed like they’re off to go to a Ren Faire, but I don’t care. The sheer exuberance of the cast, the seriousness with which they take the material, and the fact that they’re singing live, helps you ignore what must have been, in 1965, a very expensive production.
I’ve examined my appreciation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work in other reviews, but my favorite score will always be Cinderella. This version includes an additional song, not performed in either past or future television adaptation, “Loneliness of Evening” sung by the Prince at the beginning, and from there it’s one classic song after another. Every song on this is a gem. My personal favorites are “My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible, It’s Possible,” “Ten Minutes Ago,” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” although I love even smaller songs like “The Prince is Giving a Ball” and “Stepsisters’ Lament.” Much of this is because, not only are the songs catchy and sprightly as can be, but they all sound like they share a common theme. They all belong here, with no song feeling misplaced. It is quite easy to tell whose got serious singing experience, or, in plain English, who the best singers are. I’m not saying anyone’s squawking through their performance, but Lesley Ann Warren, just 18 and in her first production, struggles to hit high notes and stays in her head voice for most of the songs. Stuart Damon full-bodied performances are the best, and Ginger Rogers and Walter Pidgeon stand their awkwardly, reciting one line of spoken dialogue during one of the reprises for “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful..”
Although, nothing, not the traipsing on cheap sets or poor singing, would damn the movie worse than poor actors and everyone here is phenomenal; their performances have aged beautifully. Warren may lack the singing experience of her betters, but much of that seems due to her age and inexperience in general. I can only imaging the nerves of tackling an undertaking like this at the tender age of 18. Her inexperience illuminates a fresh, vulnerable performance. Gone is the staunch uprightness of Cinderella, a Teflon princess, and instead we see a young girl – which Warren was – wondering if her dreams mean anything to anyone. It helps that her Fairy Godmother is Celeste Holm, whose decades of experience compliment Warren’s inexperience. Holm’s no bull attitude makes her Cinderella’s pillar of strength. Jo Van Fleet plays Cinderella’s stepmother, while Carousel star Barbara Ruick and Pat Carroll (the voice of Ursula herself to you Little Mermaid fans) star as Esmeralda and Prunella, the stepsisters. The latter two are a great source of comic relief, with Ruick’s obsessive eye batting and Carroll’s creaking knee. Praise should also go out to Stuart Damon as the Prince. Normally, especially in Disney’s take on Cinderella, the Prince comes off cold, due to a nonexistent personality. The character doesn’t have much depth, but Damon’s performance gives him a personality. You believe he wants to marry for love, even if the only location he can seem to find is the middle distance.
That’s not to say I don’t love Walter Pidgeon and Ginger Rogers as the Prince’s Kingly and Queenly parents, but they’re the biggest names in the cast with the smallest parts. They’re cameos in empire waists (or pantaloons for Pidgeon). They aren’t given any songs, and there’s one stilted dance sequence which is pitiful. It’s Ginger Rogers, for Pete’s sake! Maybe Rogers didn’t want to do a big dance, but a twirl around the room? I certainly appreciate their being in this as an adult, but that adult perspective demands more from them.
A hokey set and the waste of accomplished actors does nothing towards diminishing my love for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I’ve watched all three interpretations, and although the Julie Andrews version is good – is there ever anything bad to say about something starring Andrews? – this version remains close to my heart.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.