Forgotten Classic: The Glass Slipper (1955)


It’s time for the second installment of my “Forgotten Classic” series. This time I’ll be talking about the absolutely enchanting The Glass Slipper (1955). Directed by Charles Walters, this film is an interesting take on the Cinderella fairytale, with Leslie Caron as Ella, Michael Wilding as Prince Charles, Keenan Wynn as Charles’s valet Kovin, Elsa Lanchester as Ella’s stepmother, and Estelle Winwood as the fairy godmother character, Mrs. Toquet.

We all know the basic Cinderella story, but I’ll provide a summary of the movie anyway. Ella is an orphan taken in by Widow Sonder and her two daughters, Serafina and Birdina. Ella is an angry and very lonely girl, or as the narrator puts it: “It was the old story of the rejected becoming all the more rejected because they behaved badly because they’d been rejected—one of those circles.” One day in her secret spot away from town, Ella meets Mrs. Toquet, an eccentric lady who is gossiped about because she lives by herself in the woods and likes to steal things (but she always returns them, so no one pays attention). The two instantly bond, gaining Ella her first friend. The next day, Ella returns to her spot to meet with Mrs. Toquet, but she instead finds Prince Charles and his friend, Kovin. Charles has only just returned from a very long stay in Paris, so Ella doesn’t realize that he is the prince, therefore she believes him when he tells her that he’s the son of the palace cook.


Charles is instantly taken by the girl because of her eyes. You see, years ago when Charles and his entourage were leaving for Paris, a disturbance in the village stopped them: “My carriage was held up in the middle of the town because something was going on in the street, blocking our path… a little girl of about five. She was crying in a sort of tragic frenzy… the constable was trying to hold her back. I don’t know what it was all about. One thing I’ve remembered ever since, in the most minute detail: she had great, agonized, rebellious eyes. She had dark lashes and her cheeks were wet with tears. It was the most tragic face I ever saw — not just sad, but the agony of a Greek tragedy… I’ve never known sorrow, not really. But ever since that day, I’ve felt I’ve had some knowledge of what it’s like… And ever since that day, I’ve found it almost impossible to resist a weeping woman. If she happens to have eyes like that, I’m lost.”

After a rough first meeting (she pushes him into a pond when she mistakenly thinks he’s making fun of her), the two fall in love. Charles invites her to the ball, and with Mrs. Toquet’s help, Ella makes it there. Throughout the whole evening, she tries to get to the kitchen in order to see Charles, but she’s continually dragged to the ballroom floor to dance. Finally, Kovin spots her and informs Charles, who then confesses to Ella that he’s really the prince. Of course, the clock strikes midnight and Ella leaves behind one of her slippers.

Meanwhile, speculation starts circulating among the guests as to who this mystery woman could be. She never spoke to anyone, and her short haircut is so different—she must be an Egyptian princess! The rumor spreads and when Ella hears that Charles is going to marry an Egyptian princess, she’s distraught and decides to run away. She goes to her place in the woods one last time to say goodbye to Mrs. Toquet before she leaves, and it’s there that Charles appears to present Ella with her lost slipper, thus making her realize that it is she who will be marrying the prince.

I absolutely love Leslie Caron; she is one of my favorite actresses. I always feel connected to her, and this film is part of what built that connection for me. Ella is tough, but all she really wants is friendship and love. The townspeople shun her and seem to think that Widow Sonder is a saint for taking her in. Her anger is a different side to the Cinderella character that I don’t think has ever been shown before or since this movie. She has a social awkwardness to her that I definitely relate to. When she’s at the ball in her gigantic gown, she looks so out-of-place and small — it doesn’t register as a “wow” moment like when Eliza Doolittle comes down for the ball in My Fair Lady. Sure, the dress is fantastic, but it’s not who Ella (or Leslie) is.

The chemistry between Caron and Michael Wilding is surprisingly incredible. Their scenes together are quiet and lovely. What’s great about The Glass Slipper is that the musical moments enlighten and enhance the characters’ relationships more than the dialogue does. That’s not to say that the dialogue isn’t good — it is. I love when Ella tells Charles that she feels like he already knows her every thought and feeling, and she asks him to “[t]ell me what you think so when I don’t have any thoughts of my own, I can think of yours.” But then he decides to teach her how to dance, and the following montage is just adorable. As he hums the melody, the two dance the minuet, the waltz, and whatever else Charles can think of. Then he tenderly kisses her… and she runs away.

I’ve got to admit, Michael Wilding totally has my heart after watching this film. He is so warm and charming, and his costumes just look so dashing on him. This was the first time I saw him and I couldn’t believe that he did all that singing and dancing. Of course, I was devastated when I found out he didn't do either (Gilbert Russell provided the voice). Apparently, Wilding wasn’t a fan of the white tights, leading some critics to say that his discomfort is noticeable in the film. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I don’t think you can tell at all. In her memoir, Caron wrote that Wilding was "the most pleasant partner one could dream of. He was no dancer and had to have a double... slightly humiliating for a romantic British actor who had been brought from England for his resemblance to Leslie Howard." He even wanted Caron to ask for him to be replaced!

Anyway, Wilding gets one of the most memorable scenes of the picture when he performs “Take My Love” as a bemused Keenan Wynn listens. Charles is so infatuated with Ella after their dancing lesson that he sings this song in a manner that is both heartfelt and absentminded, almost as if he subconsciously has to sing it and doesn’t realize that he really is. “Take My Love” is gorgeous and never fails to get stuck in my head. Helen Deutsch, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote the lyrics to this song, while the score’s composer Bronislau Kaper wrote the music.

In The Glass Slipper, the dancing far outweighs the singing, with “Take My Love” as the only actual song presented. The choreography was done by Roland Petit and performed by the Ballet de Paris, a choreographer and a company that Leslie Caron previously worked with before Gene Kelly took her to Hollywood. The dance sequences all take place in Ella’s imagination, the first one being her daydreaming of life with the “son of the cook of the palace of the Duke”. The dance interprets their first meeting and subsequent life in the palace kitchen.

The second and last dance comes after Ella hears that Charles is marrying someone else. This sequence never fails to tug at my heartstrings. It starts with a stoic Charles walking down a hallway with a regal Egyptian woman. He sees a sleeping Ella and kisses her, evoking Sleeping Beauty more than Cinderella. They walk in the woods, only to be ambushed by the princess’s guards. They physically separate Ella and Charles, who fight against the guards, kiss each other’s faces, and reach out desperately to one another once they’re finally ripped from each other’s arms. Charles is changed back to how he was in the beginning and he returns to the princess, leaving Ella outside the palace doors to express her heartbreak through aching moves until she’s stretched out on the steps in a defeated pose.

Adding to the film’s fun is the always-marvelous Estelle Winwood as Mrs. Toquet. She has the best lines, and she doesn’t make the fairy godmother a sappy character. She’s kooky, but you’ve got to love it. I think it was an excellent idea to make Mrs. Toquet a thief—it puts a clever twist on how the godmother character helps the Cinderella character get to the ball. Instead of conjuring up a magical dress and carriage, she steals a dress and borrows a coach from other guests of the ball. Mrs. Toquet also has great wisdom; I especially want this line stitched onto a pillow: “Clouds pass, but the blue remains constant.”

As if that all wasn’t enough, the film is narrated by one of the best voices of Old Hollywood: Walter Pidgeon. (Oddly enough, he’s not mentioned in the film credits.) The narrator is a little different than most—he’s funny and a little cheeky about the meaner characters in the story, letting the audience know that he’s with them. He is also able to get to the truth of things, such as when Ella runs to her spot in the woods after a fight with Serafina and Birdina: “Her little spirit is still defiant and the fence still unbroken. But give them time, they’ll break it. A few more years and she will stop fighting back and will no longer feel any pain. The others will then have the convenience of an unpaid spinster slave in the house—willing, docile, grateful for crumbs. A few more years and all will be peaceful.” It’s this kind of thing that gives the story more gravitas than the usual Cinderella tale.

The Glass Slipper is full of moments that try to flip the switch on its fairytale material. There is the aforementioned thieving fairy godmother and the playful narrator, naturally. In the scene leading up to the dance lesson, Ella has to retrieve her shoes from the woods and finds that Charles has been waiting for her to return. He has her sit down so he can put her ratty shoes back on her feet, a reverse from what happens at the end of the story when he puts the glass slipper on her.

It’s also cool to see the prince get more background than the typical fairytale (which I think is slowly beginning to change nowadays). It is still clearly Ella’s story from start to finish, but the scenes Charles has without her show you a more 3-D character than the usual princely fare. In addition to that, Charles’s father, the Duke, isn’t upset with his son’s decision to marry a commoner—he is completely open-minded about it, instead of trying to fight it. Another difference is that the stepsisters aren't ugly, but actually rather beautiful.

A great film to pair up with The Glass Slipper is Lili (1953). Slipper was the follow-up film to Lili, using many of the same people: screenwriter Helen Deutsch, director Charles Walters, producer Edwin Knopf, Leslie Caron, and composer Bronislau Kaper. (It would’ve been interesting to see what the original director, Vincente Minnelli, might’ve done with Lili had he decided to stay with the project, but I digress.) Lili is a little darker in its storyline, so definitely start with it first and then go to Slipper. Or go from light to dark. Really, either way, you can’t lose.

With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Do you have any idea where I might find the complete list of lines by Mrs. Toquet (Estelle Winwood) in The Glass Slipper (1955). All of her colorful lines, but especially those bits of wisdom that were spoken to Cinderella at the end of the movie before the prince showed up with the shoe.

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  2. I haven't been able to find those myself. When I wrote the post, I had to watch the movie and write down lines (which was a lot of pausing and playing). I tried looking for The Glass Slipper screenplay online and came up with nothing, even my Indiana University resources couldn't help me. Sorry I wasn't able to help!

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  3. This sounds completely endearing - and interesting how they do it a little differently. I've always thought it must be hard to make good Cinderella stories, because so many have been done and it's hard to keep it from being bland, but it sounds like they succeed marvelously here!

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    Replies
    1. I like to think so! It's true that the Cinderella narrative has been done many, many times. It's interesting that this particular story has never left our culture. There's certainly a timeless quality to it, which is probably why Hollywood has had no problem going back to it over and over again.

      Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoy the film whenever you see it!

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  4. I have loved this movie since I first saw it at 7 years old (decades ago). Thanks for the narrative and insights. So beautifully crafted this one is a keeper. Leslie Caron is one of my favorite actress. Her face is so expressive.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading! I agree with everything you said. This film is so lovely and Caron is one of my favorites too.

      Delete

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