Cinderella is a story that seems endlessly retold and reimagined — some well and some not so well. But for me, none hold a candle to this 1950s classic. It’s pure movie magic from the moment the title character rescues poor Gus from a trap, to the mice banding together to finish Cinderella’s dress for the ball, all the way to Cinderella’s fairy godmother coming to the rescue and the prince searching his kingdom for her with nothing to go on but an abandoned shoe.
It’s a simple tale; a girl who, after the death of her father, is forced to serve her new stepmother and sisters, attends a ball, meets a prince and falls in love. While many assume Cinderella is the story of a girl who can’t stop dreaming of a prince coming to her rescue, it’s really not. What struck me most during this particular viewing is how much it is simply the story of a girl whose greatest dream is to be happy. That famous lyric — “A dream is a wish your heart makes” — never once mentions a prince or a husband. For a film maker who was utterly obsessed with the American Dream (see: Disney World’s Carousel of Progress for further proof) and for a film released amidst the rising prevalence of the term ‘nuclear family,’ this is actually quite a breath of progressive fresh air. Walt (and those who would run the company after him) never had a problem altering a classic story to fit their own definition of family entertainment (Ariel lives at the end of The Little Mermaid; Bambi’s species was changed from a roe deer to a white-tailed deer), making this plot point all the more extraordinary. And while she does meet and fall in love with a prince, it’s a prince who remains nameless because this isn’t a man’s story. It’s a refreshing contrast to Walt’s first princess, someday-my-prince-will-come Snow White.
Changes were also afoot within the Disney studio itself. After almost a decade of mediocre episodic releases, Cinderella marks two changes in direction at the studio. First, the era of the Nine Old Men had officially begun. Many of them had been around the studio for awhile and animated many of the early classics, but Cinderella was the first time they all worked together. Second, Walt was back to gambling megabucks on projects he truly believed in. Without a commercial hit since Snow White and the studio deep in debt, production costs quickly ballooned to $3-million in an effort to turn Cinderella into magic. Many people close to the company at the time believed a box office failure for Cinderella would have meant the end of the studio. Thankfully for us, the movie was a success and its revenue prompted a bit of a spending spree, ushering in a string of animated and live-action hits, the establishment of a distribution company and a television company, and the construction of Disneyland.
Cinderella is most certainly one of Walt’s darlings — just look at how she has permeated Disney culture in the years since her debut. Her castle has become as synonymous with the Disney brand as Walt’s signature. Along with Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon A Star,” its image has welcomed viewers to Disney films for decades.
A physical representation of the castle sits in the heart of Walt Disney World in Florida. Unbeknownst to most visitors, like the apartment hidden on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland, there is a small apartment tucked within the walls of the castle. (See pictures here.) In 2007, Disney World ran a contest that awarded the luckiest of families with a night’s stay in the suite, furthering the lore of the beautiful castle.
But Walt didn’t throw away everything he learned during the lean years of the 1940s. Producing films on a budget often meant that actors would use basic sets and act out the film, providing a model for the animators to follow in their work and drastically reducing the time and effort it took to draw complex human movements. It was with this technique that Bambi and his friends gained their life-like movements, and the technique was used again in Cinderella. The New York Times instantly forgave Walt for his past mediocre productions, quoting Cinderella’s fairy godmother in saying, “Even miracles take a little time.” It praised the “lushly romantic images” and “whoever engineered the sequence of the pumpkin transformation in this film — the magical change to coach and horses — deserves an approving hand.” The movie-going public couldn’t agree more, and after winning three Academy Awards for Best Sound, Original Music Score and Best Song, the ancillary profit from music sales and other merchandise finally gave Walt the cashflow he needed to pursue more ambitious work. In fact, Cinderella became the gift that kept on giving. Theatrical re-releases in 1957, 1965, 1973, 1981, and 1987 kept money flowing steadily into the Disney coffers. Walt’s gamble had clearly paid off.
But for me, despite all its commercial and technical success, Cinderella will always be a story of a woman who maintained grace and dignity in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. And for that, she will forever have a special place in my heart.