Stir the embers of the Cinderella story and new flames arise. Kenneth Branagh directs the latest film version in an expensive-looking Disney release starring Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother, and fresh-faced Grace Kelly look-alike Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) as the ashes to riches heroine.
What’s the appeal? In the first 24 hours of its release in November, an online trailer for “Cinderella” was viewed 35 million times on YouTube and
Facebook. The scullery maid turned princess can still pack ’em in.
Whatever draws people to the story, it’s been doing so for a very long time, with versions that date to ancient Egypt and have appeared in scores of countries around the world. In his landmark 1976 study of fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment,” the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim dissects “Cinderella” into its essential components. They include the stepmother and her two awful daughters, the Dickensian debasement, the ashes, the king, the prince and the ball, and the fairy godmother. More variable are items such as a tree and the bird helpers and one strand of the story that even involves matricide. But always the shoes: The first teaser trailer released for the new film was a minute-long ogling of the glowing crystal footwear.
For some, shoes say Manolo Blahnik. For Bettelheim, they say phallic symbol and foot fetishism. Where some see magic and the vindication of good over evil, Bettelheim sees a darker parable of guilt, sadomasochism, sibling rivalry, and incest. He probably would have nodded sagely while watching Ellen DeGeneres’s hilariously brilliant talk-show mash-up of Branagh’s “Cinderella” and recent No. 1 film “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
But while much of the basic story serves as a Rorschach test revealing the timeless secrets of the ego, id, and superego, the metamorphosis of Cinderella on screen can also be interpreted as a mirror of the changing role of women in American society. Seen 65 years later, the heroine of the much-loved Disney-animated “Cinderella” (1950) seems shockingly passive and accepting of her degrading position. She endures with cloying, tuneful cheer her abuse at the hands of her noirish stepmother and her big-flippered “vain and useless” stepsisters. In short, she exists to do the bidding of others, especially that of the splenetic patriarch, the king, and his vacant, Ken doll-like son, Prince Charming.
Such was the infamous ’50s role model for little girls (though Jerry Lewis’s gender-bending 1960 parody “Cinderfella’’ demonstrated how boys could suffer similar oppression in a matriarchy), as Cinderella served as the Little Mermaid or Elsa of her day. Curiously, Disney’s film came five years after the supercharged heroine in Tex Avery’s MGM cartoon “Swing Shift Cinderella.” There she’s a red-haired spitfire who disposes of the Big Bad Wolf (who has intruded from another Avery cartoon, 1943’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” thus making for an example of fairy tale intertextuality long preceding “Shrek” and “Into the Woods”) by calling on her man (or Wolf)-hungry fairy godmother to turn the would-be hunter into prey.
The sex-obsessed Fairy Godmother also provides Cinderella with the requisite transformations — a magically spun skintight red gown and a “woodie” station wagon bewitched from a pumpkin — to allow her to attend the ball. As usual, Cinderella must leave by midnight, which is when she begins her shift at the Lockheed factory. In the animated realm as well as in the real world, this proto-liberated woman from the war years would be put back in her place in the reactionary era to follow.
It would not be until the 1970s Women’s Lib era that the Cinderella stereotype would evolve. “The Slipper and the Rose” (1976) is an old-fashioned musical with a modern attitude to gender roles. Directed by Bryan Forbes with score and songs written by Disney alumni Richard Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (“Mary Poppins”), it retained more of the material from the older sources and by so doing paradoxically updated the politics. Played by Gemma Craven, this Cinderella fights back, and Richard Chamberlain’s Prince is a sensitive guy with issues of his own. Nonetheless, the medium did not fit the message, and regardless of the feminist subtext, American audiences were not interested in such a rickety old genre at a time when the New Hollywood of Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, and De Palma was in its prime.
Despite that, the more enlightened female image in “Slipper” has been revived in the most recent wave of Cinderella adaptations that began in the ’90s. Perhaps not so much so with “Pretty Woman” (1990), the glad rags to riches tale of a prostitute played by Julia Roberts, who finds her Prince Charming in a cold, corporate raider played by Richard Gere. She’s got spunk, and lots of shoes, but the film doesn’t offer much in its options for women: mother or whore.
But the prospects brighten with “Ever After: A Cinderella Story” (1998). It opens with a regal Grand Dame (Jeanne Moreau) seizing control of the narrative from the patriarchal authors who have taken it over. In a post-modernist, self-reflexive opening scene she chastises the Brothers Grimm for their harsh 1812 rendition, “Aschenputtel.” In that harsh version, there is no empowering fairy godmother, and it includes scenes in which women mutilate themselves and have their eyes pecked out in a manner worthy of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
The Grande Dame then proves her bonafides by presenting a glass slipper to the astonished folklorists and proceeds to relate the “true” version: the story of Danielle (Drew Barrymore), a 16th-century Cinderella who vows to be “brave and kind,” quotes from Thomas More’s “Utopia,” and is a better swordsman than the Prince (Dougray Scott), whom she has to rescue repeatedly when he is in distress.
Following in Danielle’s footsteps have been “Ella Enchanted” (2004), in which Anne Hathaway plays the title role of the unwillingly dutiful daughter who wants to break the “spell” that forces her to be obedient, and “Into the Woods” (2014), Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim multi-fairy tale musical roundelay in which Cinderella keeps running from her Prince not so much because she’s been ordered to, or because she’s an independent spirit, but because she’s neurotically indecisive.
Whether Disney’s new edition — which updates the 1950 effort both in its politics and its special effects — will further the cause of Cinderella liberation, or instead reinforce the tawdry bondage popularized by “Fifty Shades,” only a Fairy Godmother could say for sure.