Cendrillon, 1899, 5m41s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 219-224
In the kitchen, Cinderella pleads with her sisters to let her go to the ball with them, but she is rebuffed. She sits in a chair and weeps. The cauldron turns into her fairy godmother, who asks her to open a rat-trap. Cinderella does so, and a rat emerges. The fairy godmother touches it with her wand, and it’s transformed first into a giant-sized rat, and then into a human footman. Two more rats emerge, and are given similar treatment. The fairy godmother asks Cinderella to place a large pumpkin on the table, which is transformed into a carriage. Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a gorgeous dress, and the footmen help her into the carriage prior to mounting it themselves. As they leave, the fairy godmother indicates the clock, prior to sinking through the floor. At the ball, a dance is in progress when Cinderella enters, kissing the King’s hand and captivating the Prince, who gladly dances with her. Suddenly, Old Father Time leaps into the centre of the dance floor to remind Cinderella of the time. But it is too late: she changes back into her original rags. Her sisters laugh at her, and she runs away in shame. The Prince picks up one of her slippers and runs after her, but to no avail. The dance recommences. Cinderella enters her bedroom, sits at her table and sobs unconsolably. Her freestanding clock sidles up to her and Father Time re-emerges, complete with four female assistants. Father Time himself turns into a woman, and the quintet rock from side to side, each holding a clock face showing midnight. They are then transformed into large ornate clocks that jump up and down as though taunting Cinderella. They turn back into the five women, who form themselves into a group and turn into a much larger clock face, with Father Time in the middle. It vanishes, and Cinderella’s sisters appear. They order her to answer the door. The Prince enters, holding the abandoned slipper. He tries it on each of the sisters’ feet, but it doesn’t fit. He goes over to Cinderella, ignoring their taunting, and slips it onto her foot - it’s a perfect fit. The fairy godmother appears and transforms her rags back into her earlier finery. The Prince takes her hand and leads her out. Cinderella’s sisters protest, but can do nothing. A crowd gathers to watch a marching band heralding the approach of Cinderella and the Prince - she is now wearing a wedding dress. A long retinue follows them into the church. A group of boys and girls is prevented from entering, but stays outside to dance in formation with the help of a violinist. A ballerina performs an elaborate pirouette. The Prince, Cinderella and their followers strike a pose.
Almost immediately after the eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair cycle (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899), which presented the story of late nineteenth-century France’s most notorious scandal as eleven separate tableaux (of which nine survive), Georges Méliès made an even more ambitious film that adapted Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale into a series of sequences that, unlike the Dreyfus films, were clearly designed to be presented together - since Méliès devised various elaborate transitions between shots.
Twenty sequences are listed:
- Cinderella in the kitchen.
- The fairy.
- The transformation of the rat.
- The pumpkin changes to a carriage.
- The Ball at the King’s Palace.
- The hour of midnight.
- Cinderella’s bedroom.
- The dance of the clocks.
- The Prince and the slipper.
- Cinderella’s godmother.
- The Prince and Cinderella.
- The arrival at the church.
- The Wedding.
- Cinderella’s sisters.
- The King.
- The nuptial cortège.
- The Bride’s Ballet.
- The Celestial Spherics
- The Transformation.
- The Triumph of Cinderella.
However, it should be noted that many of these are combined into one shot (for instance, 1 to 4 inclusive), so the final film isn’t quite as narratively advanced as the list implies. That said, it was still amazingly sophisticated for 1899, especially in its scene transitions. Three of them - between 4/5, 6/7 and 11/12 - are linked by dissolves, achieved by closing the lens aperture, rewinding the film, and opening the aperture again, and it is generally believed that these are the first dissolves in film history. The final transition, which is apparently given its own entry as ‘The Transformation’, is more visually elaborate, as the background and side flats are removed to let the dancers blend seamlessly into a tableau involving the Prince, Cinderella and her retinue, but much more redolent of a stage production. (Although this is believed to be the first film adaptation of the Cinderella story, it had long been a popular stage favourite).
The film also appears to be a conscious synthesis and summation of everything that Méliès had developed to date, both theatrically and cinematographically. The first scene (or tableaux 1-4), in which Cinderella’s fortunes are transformed by her fairy godmother consists of a familiar sequence of Méliès’s jump-cut special effects, albeit with two distinct stages - so a small rat is transformed into a bigger rat before reaching its final form as a footman. The second scene (tableaux 5-6) is initially more straightforward, consisting of Cinderella wooing the Prince via a dance - but the surprise entry of a man with a long white beard, presumably meant to be Old Father Time towards the end promises to ring some changes on otherwise familiar material.
This promise is fulfilled in the next scene (tableaux 7-8), which begins with the film’s second dance number - though unlike the sedate court dances, these are complex routines involving Father Time, four female assistants and a great many clocks, with jump-cuts facilitating various mid-dance transformations (Father Time turns into a woman at one point) complex dance routine involving not just Father Time but four female assistants (he occasionally transforms himself into a fifth), culminating in an extraordinary image of a giant clock face with Father Time suspended in the middle - this has distinct echoes of the gigantic devouring moon in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898).
There is then a very abrupt cut to the scene (tableaux 9-11) of the Prince and the slipper which, like the scene at the ball, is staged entirely straight. This is, as it turns out, the film’s final scene that has a primarily narrative purpose, as the rest of the film is given over to the most elaborate dance routine of all. After a lengthy procession into the church (tableaux 12-16), eight dancers are left outside, and begin to perform with the aid of a violinist (tableau 17). A ballerina enters and dominates the action (tableau 18) - and finally (tableaux 19-20) the backdrop is lifted, revealing Cinderella, the Prince and the members of their cortège in formation, blending seamlessly with the dancers in the foreground. The film has now definitively shifted from theatre to ballet - the final tableau being an authentic apotheosis, representing the Triumph of Cinderella, framed as though she was a successor to Marianne, France’s national emblem. (Although Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet wouldn’t be written for another four decades, there had already been several balletic adaptations of Perrault’s story dating back to the early 19th century, plus of course Rossini’s 1817 opera La Cenerentola).
Clearly sourced from more than one print, Flicker Alley’s presentation of Cinderella incorporates a very brief segment of stencil-tinted colour as the fairy godmother makes her first appearance. The colours aside, the condition of the print is generally fairly poor, and improves noticeably when the image cuts to a slightly sepia-tinted black and white - there’s still a fair bit of surface damage, but the definition is altogether sharper, and this quality is generally maintained to the end. Donald Sosin’s score mostly consists of solo piano, though there are interpolated electronic harp effects at key moments, such as the fairy godmother’s appearance.