Cinderella: “The sweetest story ever told”
In 1950, Walt Disney Productions released their first full-length animated film after the end of the war—a gamble, and one that, had it failed, might have meant the end of Disney
(“Cinderella,” Disney Archives: “Cinderella” Movie History). Fortunately for the company,
Cinderella was a success. Unlike Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which was based on the Brothers Grimm variant, “Schneewittchen,” the Cinderella film was based on the variant produced by Charles Perrault in 1697: “Cinderella: or, The Little Glass Slipper” (Tatar 77). Like the slipper in Perrault’s title, these two Cinderella stories have much in common, despite the two hundred and fifty-three years that separate them; it is evident that it was Perrault’s tale that
Disney had in front of them when they created their Cinderella. Because of this, it is this variant, with its fairy godmother, pumpkins, and midnight curfew, with which we are most familiar, rather than those variants with magical trees, fish, or golden slippers. And with these familiar elements come more: characters, whose presence is so constant and similar that we do not so much as think about them.
Despite these similarities in plot structures and characters, Disney’s variant differs from the very beginning. Perrault presents us with a gentleman who marries for a second time, without explanation as to why, and whose only other appearance in the tale is when we are told that
Cinderella cannot tell him that her stepmother is mistreating her, as he “would have only scolded her since he was totally under the control of his wife” (Zipes 450). While in Disney, Cinderella’s father is likewise given equally little visibility—he is allotted two frames of screen time and perhaps two and a half sentences of description—the narration at the beginning is careful to present his character, short-lived as it may be, as one with whom the viewer may sympathise. He is a “kind and devoted father” who gives “his beloved child every luxury and comfort”; he remarries because he feels that Cinderella is in need of a mother’s care (Cinderella). For two men who appear only briefly in their respective stories, we are given very different views of them. Perrault’s gentleman is a character for whom the reader must feel some degree of contempt, or at least pity. He exists, but as a non-entity; he is a man under his wife’s thumb, incapable of doing so much as stopping the mistreatment of his own flesh and blood—or of even seeing it. His own daughter recognises his impotence and does not even bother to go to him for help. The father in Disney’s Cinderella, on the other hand, is someone who we might imagine doing anything for his daughter. Unfortunately for Cinderella, he dies. It seems unlikely that
Disney would have been comfortable with following Perrault’s lead on the absent, neglectful father; choosing to kill the father allows him to be absent without requiring him to be a negative light in Cinderella’s life.
That negative role is sufficiently filled by the figures of Cinderella’s stepmother and two stepsisters. Perrault’s stepmother, like the father, plays a relatively minor role; she is described as the “haughtiest and proudest woman in the world,” but it is only after she is married to
Cinderella’s father that her ire against her stepdaughter begins to show (Zipes 449). We know little other about her, other than that it is because of this stepmother that Cinderella is forced to work so hard. After this beginning introduction, the stepmother vanishes from the story. The stepsisters figure more prominently, which is unsurprising as it is more likely that they would have been close to Cinderella’s age, and therefore potential rivals, particularly as her beauty would have made them pale in comparison.
Disney’s Lady Tremaine and her daughters Drizella and Anastasia, by the fact that they exist within the framework of a 72-minute film rather than a very short tale, are present throughout more of the story, and are depicted much more forcefully. The introductory narration characterises Lady Tremaine as “cold, cruel, and bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty,” a description that leaves little room for any redeeming qualities (Cinderella). Her one— possibly—positive attribute is her concern for her daughters’ interests, but even that is largely negated by her treatment of her stepdaughter. Film is, of course, a largely visual medium, and the depiction of Lady Tremaine contributes greatly to the viewer’s understanding of her as a character. She is a tall, thin woman, her face very angular; her colours are greys and purples, the colours of shadows, in which she often resides and from which her eyes often glow, very much like a cat’s. It is rare that she is not in control of herself; one of the few moments in which she is not occurs during a music lesson she gives her daughters, when they show their ineptitude at any musical ability whatsoever, and Cinderella chooses that moment to interrupt. Lady Tremaine’s violent reaction—bringing her hands crashing down on the piano keys and nearly shouting at
Cinderella—for such a mild infraction suggests that she is upset less at Cinderella’s actions and more at her own daughters’ lack of ability by comparison, much as Perrault’s stepmother is unable to bear Cinderella because her proximity brings out the flaws in the stepdaughters.
The stepdaughters in Perrault’s “Cinderella” are described as having “the same temperament and the exact same appearance” as their mother, which as far as the latter goes, tells us nothing (Zipes 449). As far as the former, it tells us that the stepdaughters are not particularly pleasant people, though we are told that the younger daughter is less cruel than her sister. This really means very little, however, as it does not keep her from treating her stepsister poorly.
Their preoccupation with mirrors and clothing tells us that they are vain creatures, something that is mirrored in their animated film counterparts. Drizella and Anastasia are always dressed well, but Cinderella in her rags, like Perrault’s heroine, is always easily more beautiful than either without ever trying to be so. The stepsisters’ behaviour is vulgar and uncultured; clearly, whatever their mother has endeavoured to teach them about how to be ladies has not taken hold, whereas Cinderella seems to simply possess an inherent quality. It is this, perhaps, that the song that plays over the opening credits endeavours to express:
Cinderella You’re a sunset in a frame Though you’re dressed in rags, You wear an air of queenly grace Anyone can see a throne would be your proper place. (Cinderella)
Cinderella has a certain something about her, a lift to her chin, a set to her shoulders, that her stepsisters do not and never will possess. In Perrault, this suggests only beauty, that Cinderella is simply possessed of a more beautiful face, a more delicate ankle, a more slender waist, than her stepsisters. In Disney, however, the implication is that Drizella and Anastasia, though they may be from a good family and have apparently equal rank with Cinderella, they will never have her breeding, for her good breeding shows in the way she walks and the way she talks, and their lack of refinement shows every time they open their mouths and in the inelegant way they walk. Their galumphing about causes a great deal of amusement for the viewer, who cannot help but compare them unfavourably to Cinderella’s understated beauty and poise.
The viewer (or reader) is not the only one who views Cinderella in a flattering light in comparison to her stepsisters—indeed, in comparison to any other young lady. The king’s son in
Perrault’s variant chooses to hold a ball and “to invite all the people of quality,” including the two stepsisters (Zipes 450). When Cinderella arrives at the ball, the king’s son goes forward to meet her and lead her into the hall—it is uncertain if this is an unusual act for him, or if it is something that he would do for any visiting royalty. He thinks that Cinderella is a princess, and so it would be impolite for him not to extend all courtesies towards her, which seems to include being given the place of honour. At the same time, however, it is a deception; she is not, in fact, a princess, merely the daughter of a gentleman whose fairy godmother has outfitted her with trappings for a night that make it appear as though she might be nobility. It is with her that the prince is fascinated, and it is her whose identity he wishes to know. Was it considered an impropriety to ask for an introduction if one did not know someone? It would seem as though it would be more impolite to dance with someone without knowing their name, particularly when one encounters them for a second night in a row. The prince does not ask for an introduction, but neither does anyone else; it is as though no one wants to admit that they do not know who she is.
They wonder, they murmur to each other about how lovely she is, but at least in Perrault’s tale, no one is bothered to find out, at least not until she flees on the second night and leaves a part of her apparel behind.
The prince’s reaction to Cinderella’s disappearance is related through a third party in
Perrault’s tale. Cinderella hears that he picked up her dropped slipper and has “done nothing but gaze upon it…the rest of the evening” from her stepsisters—more, that he is no doubt in love with her, as her stepsisters believe him to be in love with the girl who wore the slipper (Zipes
453). We unfortunately are not privy to the prince’s thoughts. Perrault, unlike the Brothers
Grimm, never indicates that the balls are held for the purpose of finding the prince a wife; his falling in love is just fortunate happenchance. After issuing his proclamation, the prince vanishes from sight, other than a brief reappearance in order to recognise Cinderella and see that she is even more beautiful than before, as it would be difficult to marry her without his reappearing. He is not present at the critical moment when the slipper fits Cinderella’s foot. Though it is his love that provides the impetus and ultimate reason for Cinderella’s removal from her stepmother’s house, his is not the physical action that does so.
Unlike Perrault’s balls, thrown for reasons of social standing, the ball in Disney’s
Cinderella is given for two reasons—a public motive, and a private one. Publicly, the prince is returning home, and the king throws him a ball to celebrate his return. But privately, the king is growing old, and wishes “to hear the pitter-patter of little feet again”—in other words, he wants his son to find a wife and start delivering grandchildren (Cinderella). Disney’s prince clearly has no desire to be at the ball; he yawns, bored with the endless receiving line and the countless numbers of young ladies eager to meet their prince, with the dream that he might fall in love with them. It is not until Cinderella makes her appearance, lost and confused in the strange new world of the palace, that he suddenly livens up and becomes something more of a person and less of a mannequin. From the moment he goes up to her until the moment she departs, everything they do is personal and intimate. He catches her hand, a movement that is peculiarly personal, as they have not been introduced, and she is an unaccompanied female, alone, distanced from the other guests at the ball. They dance a waltz, which, unlike line or country dances, is a dance for two, requiring the two dancers to stay in close proximity, and to keep in constant contact with each other—his hand on her waist, their hands clasped. Indeed, the prince and Cinderella’s familiarity is such—for complete strangers!—that one of Cinderella’s stepsisters even remarks upon it. And then they dance off into the gardens, and proceed to wander and continue dance while singing.
We certainly see more of Disney’s prince here than Perrault’s—we know Perrault’s prince danced with Cinderella, and paid her a great many compliments, and gave her oranges and citrons, but Disney’s prince adds another layer to that by being capable of singing. He may be a man of few words, but he can certainly sing of his love. The prince continues in his vein of familiarity with Cinderella by, at the end of the song, leaning in for a kiss, presumably one of true love. He is clearly crestfallen by her insistence that she must leave, and his surprise is evident when she claims that she has not met the prince. What must he think of her? Presumably it would be fairly evident to most people in the kingdom who the prince was simply by his attire.
Her failure to recognise this might signal to him that she is not like most people.
Like his predecessor, the prince fails to catch his love’s name. If the prince lived in today’s world, he would have put Cinderella’s number in his mobile and promised to text her, and days would have gone by while she waited for his message. Fortunately for Cinderella, she lives in a time before mobiles and texting, and the prince is the kind of man she has been dreaming about. Not only does he not know her name, but he is determined that it shall not matter, and promptly goes about searching the entire kingdom for the one young lady whose foot fits the shoe. Also like his predecessor, Prince Charming vanishes after the ball until the very end of the film. We hear, through a conversation between the Grand Duke and the king, that the prince loves Cinderella, that “he won’t rest until he finds her, [and] he’s determined to marry her…the prince swears he’ll marry none but the girl who fits this glass slipper” (Cinderella). The
Grand Duke does point out the flaw in this plan: the shoe could fit any number of young ladies, though the king does not care and is determined that if the shoe fits, the prince shall marry. But the prince has no part in informing the viewer of his love, or of sending out the proclamation; nor does he appear at Cinderella’s home to witness her miraculous unveiling of the second glass slipper. He does not reappear, in fact, until the very end, after the marriage, and even then, as they are driving away, he is relegated to a painted statue while Cinderella waves in the foreground—he has returned to the mannequin state. As with Perrault’s prince, Disney’s prince is good for falling in love and for marriages, but is weak when it comes to actually stepping in and removing ladies from unpleasant situations. Someone else has to do this for them. Cinderella herself is not entirely the docile creature that she is so often represented as. In both variants, she has the courage to ask to try the slipper, which may not seem a great deal, but it requires standing up to her stepsisters (and stepmother in the Disney film), who have kept her beaten down for most of her life. Perrault’s Cinderella has “gentleness and goodness…without parallel”—they are the first things that the reader hears about her, not her beauty (Zipes 449-50).
It is not until the end of the second paragraph that we learn that even in rags Cinderella is far more beautiful than her stepsisters. Beauty, clearly, was not at the forefront of Perrault’s mind in writing, and particularly not beauty of the kind that one flaunts, as the stepsisters do. Their vanity is unbecoming, especially when compared to Cinderella’s quiet and demure way of being. The way that she suffers in silence is reminiscent of a warrior code, to keep her hurts to herself and grow stronger in that way. She is not impervious to her stepsisters’ barbs, however, and it is one of these that causes her to break down into tears after they leave for the ball, and leads to her fairy godmother creating a fantastical way for her to go to the ball after all.
Cinderella’s godmother gives her a coach made from a pumpkin, horses made out of mice, a coachman that used to be a rat, and footmen that were once lizards. Surrounded by this odd menagerie, and clad in gold and silver and jewels, with glass slippers adorning her feet, she goes off to the ball. Her attire is noteworthy: gold, silver, and jewels would make for a decently heavy set of garments, and glass slippers would be very flimsy and fragile. By inference, one would guess that Cinderella is likely delicate and very graceful, capable of walking smoothly in those slippers without twisting an ankle, and capable of carrying the extra weight that the garments would bestow without needing to worry that it might snap the slippers. This might suggest that Cinderella is especially tiny to begin with, or at least especially slight. Wherever she appears, she causes comment about how lovely she is. She is polite, but not withdrawn—she is forward enough to request of her godmother another night of gifts, as the prince has asked her to return. She follows this application for more finery and magic by deceiving her stepsisters when they return from the ball, by making them believe that she has been asleep and has been awoken by their return, when she has of course been awake the whole while.
Cinderella is not above vanity—she is “delighted” when one of her sisters tells her of the
“most beautiful princess…the most beautiful [princess] in the world” who attended the ball
(Zipes 452). But unlike her stepsisters, she is not consumed by it; she does not spend her time in front of a mirror examining her appearance. She is pleased to hear that she looked well and that others enjoyed her presence, particularly the prince. And when it comes to the prince, she is not immune to the allures of the opposite sex he keeps “saying sweet things to her,” so much so that she loses track of the time and consequently outstays the duration of the magic spell and loses her slipper in her haste to depart (452). This unintentional disobedience to her godmother’s instructions, however, does not have a negative effect; it follows the fairy tale logic that disobedience is not punished when it is necessary for a plot development. The disobedience allows for her slipper to fall, and for the prince to announce his wide-scale shoe-fitting plan. Of course it would have been easier for the prince to simply propose, but that would not make for nearly so romantic a story.
One of the last things Cinderella does ties back to her gentleness and goodness. Her stepsisters have been unkind to her for years, but once they discover that she will one day be queen and they are kin, of a sort, to royalty, they immediately beg her pardon. Cinderella, being the sweet and generous-hearted person that she is, forgives them entirely and even sets them up with fancy marriages of their own. Are we to believe this? It is perhaps more satisfying to imagine that she lies awake at night plotting their downfall, but there is nothing in the text to support this, so we must, in the end, believe that Cinderella is in fact truly this wonderfully kind as well as outwardly beautiful. And yet she is not flawless: she does disobey, and she does have little moments of vanity that tickle her occasionally. But Perrault’s moral boils down, essentially, to the simple idea that it is what is in a girl’s mind, not on her face, that will win a man’s heart, and that that is why Cinderella triumphed where her stepsisters failed.
Like her literary counterpart, Disney’s Cinderella is not the passive young woman that she is often remembered as. Her personality is full of spark, captured in meaningful pauses, impish eyes, quirks of her eyebrows, and twitches of her lips. She dreams of happily ever after, but for the meantime she is practical. She can be equated to Bruno, the dog who dreams of catching Lucifer, Lady Tremaine’s cat. Bruno is a beaten-down dog with his tail between his legs, who dreams of freeing himself of the thing—Lucifer—that torments him. Since that is not possible at the current time, he has to learn to live within the parameters set out for him, just as
Cinderella must do. Cinderella tells him that he must learn to like cats—but her tone tells us that she is not entirely serious, just as we know that she of course cannot possibly like her stepfamily.
But Cinderella is not afraid to push the boundaries. She does not treat Lucifer like the prince he views himself as—she closes the door before he is completely into the hall—and she dreams of escaping into a happier world, a dream that does come true.
We can see that Cinderella is more beautiful than Drizella or Anastasia; they try to flaunt their nonexistent beauty and turn into fashion disasters, while Cinderella does what she can with the little she has, and exudes a quiet radiance that is perfect for her character. In many ways, she is more beautiful as the scullery maid than as the beautiful princess. She is in her element among the brooms and the dustpans as she is not at the palace—as exhibited by her awe and confusion upon her arrival—and that element makes her more beautiful, in a place where she outshines her surroundings, as opposed to a place like the palace where she is overshadowed by them.
Unlike Perrault’s Cinderella, Disney created little animal friends to help Cinderella out, and to provide comic relief from those more serious or romantic aspects of the story, rather than relegating animals to being purely passive means of aiding Cinderella’s magical journey to the palace. Mice and birds that act as helpers and, in some ways, as mother-figures; as they comfort her when she is upset and aid her when she needs help, such as with sewing her ball gown— something more reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm rather than Perrault. Her fairy godmother seems much less an ever-present force—in Perrault, the godmother seemed rather as though she was around, much more human, as though she might pop in for a cup of tea and a biscuit if she happened to be in the neighbourhood, whereas Disney’s fairy godmother has to go through the trouble of materialising. The trappings created are far less—four horses instead of six, only one footman instead of six—but the coach is exotic, the dress shimmering. It is not unreasonable to assume that this particular change, of less rather than more, was made for animation reasons. It is unlikely that the animators particularly wished the challenge of animating six footmen holding on to one relatively small carriage.
Cinderella’s dress is clearly white in the film. It may have faint blue undertones in some scenes, but it is most certainly not blue as it has become for all marketing of Cinderella since the
1950s. This is an interesting observation, because of course white dresses for the American culture tend to bring to mind a wedding gown, which may suggest that Cinderella, in being dressed for the ball, is already dressed for her wedding. This is reinforced by the end scene of the film, which in many ways parallels the ball. Cinderella and the prince are married at noon, as evidenced by the clock tower in which the hands are both pointed at the twelve; the prince is dressed in virtually the same clothing as he was in the ball; Cinderella is in another, albeit different white gown; and while running down the stairs, Cinderella again loses a shoe. This constant losing of shoes shows lack of perfection, and perhaps represents the paradox the prince has embraced. He saw perfection at the ball, and fell in love with it, but the perfection was a deception. He saw only the docile, dolled-up side of a girl who speaks with animals and has spark and sass, and who is constantly stepping out of her shoes—about as far from the ‘perfect’ bride as a prince can get. But then, he did catch a glimpse of her usual self, as she began to run when the clock struck twelve, so perhaps he knew what he was getting himself into.
Walt Disney Productions based their Cinderella on Perrault’s “Cinderella.” The similarity is obvious, from the pumpkins and mice and fairy godmothers, to the wicked stepfamily and the ball and glass slippers. But upon further examination, it can be seen that
Disney did a great deal more with the story than simply copy it. There were things that they changed, and things that they left out—and entirely new things that they added. It is Walt
Disney’s Cinderella, not Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella.” Disney was catering to an entirely new audience, after all, two and a half centuries after Perrault had written his work. There is something about the story of Cinderella that has persisted and continued to be popular—so much so that it saved Disney from financial ruin. Perhaps Disney had a godmother or godfather watching over it, thus proving Perrault’s moral right.
“Cinderella.” Disney Archives: “Cinderella” Movie History. Disney.com. Web. 13 Oct. 2009.
Cinderella. Dir. Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson. By Charles Perrault (classic fairy tale) and Bill Peet (story). Walt Disney Productions, 1950. DVD.
Tatar, Maria, ed. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Zipes, Jack, ed. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.