not in our stars, but in ourselves
13/52: A movie you watched as a kid
“Oh, let me be mawkish for the nonce! I am so tired of being cynical.” So says Humbert Humbert, so say I. I love The Slipper and the Rose. I have loved it since I was five years old, when my mom taped it when it was on the Disney Channel. I love it now. I will love it until I shuffle off this mortal coil. It is miles and miles beyond delightful, lavish beyond lavish – and I love it, you hear me?
In brief: it’s Cinderella. Since Perrault’s fairy tale is ever so slightly flimsy – and flimsy still, even with the Brothers Grimm gore included – things are expanded and re-imagined here. Prince Edward of Euphrania (Richard Chamberlain) has just returned from neighboring Carolsvelt, where his parents had arranged for him to meet the unmarried princess, in hopes of Edward’s making a marriage of alliance. Edward declines to offer his hand, and argues with his parents that he wants to marry only for love. The King and Queen think that marrying for love is (a) absurd, and (b) impossible for a royal, but Edward disagrees. Meanwhile, Cinderella (Gemma Craven) has just buried her father in the same grave as her dead mother. When she, her stepmother (Margaret Lockwood), and two stepsisters return home, her stepmother informs her that she will now live in the cellar as the household’s entire staff of servants. She can either accept her lot, or go to the orphanage. Back at the castle, the King tries to concoct a plan to get Edward to marry an eligible princess, and eventually settles on a “bride-finding ball.” Edward is reluctant in the extreme, but he relents. While Cinderella is trying to complete an impossibly large chore set by her stepmother, a stranger (Annette Crosbie) stops in and asks if she can warm herself by her fire. When she arrives, a little dog (Fred – yes, the dog actor is credited) wanders in with her. It turns out that the stranger is a Fairy Godmother, and the dog is her familiar, and Cinderella’s kindness has earned her the right to a bit of magic. The Fairy Godmother helps to whip up three lovely gowns for “that unholy trio” of step-family – and an especially glorious gown for Cinderella herself. Cinderella goes to the ball, Edward falls in love with her immediately, she reciprocates, and then the clock strikes twelve. Oops. She runs away, drops her slipper, Edward undertakes a massive search to find her, they’re reunited – but once the King hears that she’s a commoner, he arranges to have Cinderella exiled, for Euphrania’s own good. She consents, Edward tries to find her again, agrees to marry whichever royal virgin his parents select, the Fairy Godmother intervenes again, and they all live happily ever after. Of course.
Have I mentioned that The Slipper and the Rose is a musical? Because it is. And the songs are – despite what Vincent Canby, who apparently hates joy, had to say about them and the movie overall – terrific. They remind me of Rodgers & Hart or Franz Lehár: decidedly in the lighthearted operetta family, charmingly and meticulously structured and overflowing with clever rhymes. There are songs for the grownups, dealing with the futility of marriage (“What Has Love Got to Do With Getting Married”), diplomacy as a last resort against warfare (“Protocoligorically Correct”), the essential injustice and indestructibility of class (“Position and Positioning”), and even the bittersweet, voluptuous feeling of failure after losing love forever (“I Can’t Forget the Melody”).
Most importantly, however, there are some of the greatest lyrical and melodic celebrations of True Love Everlasting that I’ve ever heard. There’s the “Waltz Theme” – which accompanies the dance I’ve wanted to do at my wedding since I first saw this movie when I was a tadpole of a person:
There’s Edward and Cinderella’s declaration of love, “Secret Kingdom”:
There’s a lot. I do not exaggerate when I say that The Slipper and the Rose has taught me everything I know about and expect from love. For one thing, the idea of a “secret kingdom” where love reigns supreme: what else should you want, and hope for, and work for, than a private domain where you and your partner regard the surety of your love together as powerful and magnificent as the rule of the most benevolent dictator? (Namibian proverb: “Love is a despot who spares no one.”) I can’t think of anything better. For another thing, it’s not just in music that The Slipper and the Rose positions love as more important than God or country. When Cinderella has been exiled, and Edward is about to marry some strange woman he’s never met and has no interest in knowing, he kneels down as if to pray before an altar – but he addresses Cinderella directly, praying directly to her for her to come back. Even though the movie does basically uphold the necessity of the royal status quo, it also champions the fairy-tale notion of Happily Ever After. It has its cake, and eats it too. Why settle for one or the other?
To more concrete matters, the film is gorgeous to watch. Shot largely on location in the Austrian Alps, among glorious old palaces and estates, each frame is sumptuously full. The costumes are all magnificently detailed, as they used to be in the good old days of MGM’s showing off in the ’30s. And while it wouldn’t matter especially if the two leads were cardboard cutouts, I think they’re both fantastic. Chamberlain was approaching the height of his status as a sex symbol (the peak of which was, I think, The Thorn Birds), and he brings a certain amount of smolder to the usually dead-boring Prince Charming role. Craven is feisty, fragile, fey – and her lovely, slow vibrato brings far more sensuousness to her songs than the typical, cheery timbre of Disney princesses.
Essentially, this movie has – in no small measure – made me who I am. Despite all the disappointments and trials and miseries of real life, I’ve always held this ideal in my head and heart. It allowed me to grow up believing in true love. If you didn’t grow up with the same certainty, the same unshakable belief, then I feel sorry for you – but urge you to see this as soon as humanly possible.