The Glass Slipper (1955): MGM's Atypical Retelling of Cinderella


The story of Cinderella has been retold in Hollywood more times than we can probably count. From the more traditional iterations like Disney's 1950 classic to looser adaptations like Billy Wilder's Sabrina, the Cinderella narrative is something audiences love to see again and again. One of my favorite interpretations is The Glass Slipper, starring the wonderful Leslie Caron and directed by the underrated Charles Walters. When I first saw this film, I was struck by its unique handling of such a familiar tale and quickly fell under its spell. Every time I rewatch it, it's like revisiting a friend, it's just so cozy and sweet.

Leslie Caron plays Ella, an orphan who was taken in by the cruel Widow Sonder (Elsa Lanchester) and her two vain daughters, Serafina and Birdena (Lisa Daniels and Amanda Blake). An angry and lonely girl, Ella struggles to connect with people and often lashes out. One day in her secret spot away from the village, Ella meets Mrs. Toquet (Estelle Winwood), an eccentric lady who is gossiped about because she lives by herself in the woods and likes to steal odds and ends. The two instantly bond, gaining Ella her first friend. The next day, Ella returns to her spot to meet with Mrs. Toquet but instead finds Prince Charles (Michael Wilding) and his friend, Kovin (Keenan Wynn). Charles has only just
returned from a very long stay in Paris, so Ella 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, they were stopped by the appearance of a little girl. "She was crying in a sort of tragic frenzy," Charles recalls to Kovin. "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... 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." Throughout the film, Ella's soulful blue eyes are accentuated, particularly when the rest of her face is covered with soot.

After a rough first meeting -- Ella pushes Charles into a pond when she mistakenly thinks he's making fun of her -- the two become smitten with each other. Charles invites her to the upcoming 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 by a bevy of new admirers. Once she finally does find Charles, he confesses that he's really the prince... and then the clock strikes midnight and Ella must go, leaving behind one of her ornate slippers.
For days after the ball, speculation circulates as to who the prince's mystery woman could be. She never spoke to anyone, and her short haircut is so different... Instead of connecting the dots that Ella is the only woman around with that unusual haircut, gossip spreads that the woman was an Egyptian princess. When Ella hears that Charles is going to marry this princess, she becomes distraught and decides to run away. She goes to her place in the woods one last time to say goodbye to Mrs. Toquet, but she is quickly surprised when Charles appears to present her with her lost slipper, thus making her realize that she is the one he wants to marry.


After the immense critical and commercial success of 1953's Lili, MGM producer Edwin Knopf wanted The Glass Slipper to recapture the magic. He hired the same director (Charles Walters) and the same waifish leading lady (Caron). Screenwriter Helen Deutsch returned too, and was asked to write the lyrics for a new song like she did with Lili's big hit "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo." Composer Bronislau Kaper was assigned to the film for the same reason.

Because Lili and The Glass Slipper share similar DNA, it's easy to make connections between the two films. They're both about orphaned gamines who discover makeshift families and find their lives transformed by unexpected love. The films' cutesy, colorful aesthetics belie their darker tones, although Lili is more complex in that regard. I would argue that the 1953 film is superior overall -- probably because it became Chuck Walters's passion project and you can feel his love for it -- but The Glass Slipper had my heart first.


Leslie Caron is someone I've felt connected to ever since I discovered her, and her tender portrayal of Ella hit me right in the feels when I initially saw it. There is something so raw and wild about Ella, making it all the more heartbreaking when you realize that she just wants friendship and love. The townspeople shun her and seem to think that Widow Sonder is a saint for taking her in. Her sustained anger and resentment is a different side to the Cinderella character that I don't recall seeing in any other iteration. Ella has a social awkwardness to her that I definitely relate to as well. When she's at the ball in her gigantic gown and perfect makeup, she looks so out-of-place and small — it doesn't register as a "wow" moment for me because it's so clear that this is not who Ella is.

Fun fact: feeling inspired by Marlon Brando's iconic performance in On the Waterfront (1954), Caron decided to play Ella as if she were Brando. The crazy thing is that once you know that, you can kind of pick up on it. Also, what a weird, fascinating double feature that'd make.


Much as I love Caron, as time has gone on, I've found that my favorite performance is Michael Wilding's. He looks like an honest-to-goodness prince, for one thing, but he also imbues Charles with sensitivity and warmth. I can't help but swoon over him. I have to admit that it was a little disappointing to read that his singing and dancing wasn't entirely him. Gilbert Russell provided the singing voice (quite seamlessly, I might add) while Oleg Tupine was his dance double in the long shots. According to Chuck Walters, choreographer Roland Petit wasn't interested in teaching Wilding, even though the actor needed all the help he could get. "Michael [was] a charming man [with] four left feet," Walters said. "When we got to the part where Michael had to do something, Roland unmistakably turned his back and went to sit down somewhere, and it was I who had to try and get him to do a couple of steps -- or at least give the impression that that's what he was doing."

Perhaps because of the actor's inexperience, the bulk of the dancing is given to Caron, which was a smart choice. That being said, I have to wonder if some of Wilding's dancing was cut from the final product because there are lobby cards and illustrations on posters that depict a duet with Caron that we don't see in the film. (Which makes me weep because it looks so good.)

Because he felt so ill-equipped to be a musical leading man, Wilding was miserable throughout production and actually begged Caron to ask for him to be replaced. Despite his discomfort, Caron wrote in her memoir 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."



While Caron and Wilding may seem like an odd couple, their chemistry is extraordinary. Their scenes together are quiet and lovely, such as 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." Instead, he decides to teach her how to dance, giving us an adorable montage. As he hums the melody, the two dance the minuet, the waltz, and whatever else Charles can think of. Then he gently kisses her… and she runs away. You can watch the scene here.




The musical moments of this film highlight the characters' relationships by digging into their emotions and vulnerabilities. "Take My Love," the sole song, is a good example. Infatuated with Ella after their dancing lesson, Charles is playing the harpsichord back at the castle and begins to sing 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. Although not as radio-ready as Deutsch and Kaper's previous effort "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," "Take My Love" is a gorgeous, little-known piece that never fails to get stuck in my head.

With "Take My Love" as the only song presented, the dancing in The Glass Slipper far outweighs the singing. For the dance sequences, Roland Petit and his Ballet de Paris were brought in, much to Caron's delight since she was in Petit's company when Gene Kelly chose her for An American in Paris. Less delighted was director Chuck Walters. He didn't like the inclusion of Petit's ballets, saying, "I think [these sequences] spoiled, even killed the film because we went from a simple Cinderella story to Petit's grand classical ballets. [They] squashed the plot." I normally find Walters's judgment to be faultless, but I have to disagree with him here. The dance routines stem from Ella's imagination, illustrating her yearning for a happier life. These fantasies let us see the depth of what she is feeling, and they also demonstrate how she has been trained to internalize her emotions for fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others.

The first ballet is Ella's daydream of what life would be like 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, where Ella works side by side with Charles. The sequence ends with them decorating a giant cake that she then dances upon before jumping into Charles's arms and falling to the floor laughing, evoking a moment that actually happened to them earlier in the woods. I could only find the second half of the routine here.















The second and last ballet comes after Ella hears that Charles is marrying someone else. This sequence, while melodramatic, is filled with striking visuals and imaginative design. It starts with a stoic Charles walking down a hallway with a regal Egyptian princess until he sees a sleeping Ella and kisses her. They walk in the woods, only to be ambushed by the princess's blue-painted guards. They physically separate Ella and Charles, who fight against the guards, kiss each other's faces, and reach out desperately to one another as 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, a pose that is later repeated when Ella is laying on the grass, hopeless, and the prince appears with her slipper. You can watch the first part here and the second part here.















Supplying the film with the bulk of its whimsical fun is the always marvelous Estelle Winwood, whose last movie had been 1937's Quality Street with Katharine Hepburn and Franchot Tone. As Mrs. Toquet, the kooky village outcast who has all the best lines, Winwood is utter perfection. I love the spin she and the script put on the fairy godmother character, the primary change being that she is a thief and that's how she is able to get the Cinderella character to the ball. Why conjure up things with magic when you can just "temporarily borrow" them instead? Her wisdom is endlessly amusing, too. I think we'd all benefit from having a Mrs. Toquet in our lives.

As if I couldn't love this movie enough, it's narrated by one of the best voices of old Hollywood: an uncredited Walter Pidgeon! Out of all of the components of The Glass Slipper, this is one of my absolute favorites. Pidgeon's narrator is different from what you'd expect in a traditional fairy tale -- he enjoys pointing out the hypocrisy of the meaner characters and he makes plenty of cheeky comments.

He also adds some of the film's psychological undertones, such as when Ella runs to the woods after yet another fight with Serafina and Birdena: "[Ella's] little spirit is still defiant... 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 play with its fairy tale material. In one scene, Ella has to retrieve her shoes from the woods and finds that Charles has been waiting for her. He has her sit down so he can put her ratty shoes back on her feet, a twist on the inevitable ending with the glass slippers. The prince is also given a more three-dimensional characterization than what we usually see, and his father, the Duke, isn't upset at all with his son's decision to marry a commoner. Another difference is that the stepsisters aren't ugly, but actually rather beautiful. Other touchstones of the Cinderella story are briefly mentioned -- such as her parents' deaths and her kindness towards animals -- which is appreciated since they're already so well-known.

Much of the credit for these ideas goes to screenwriter Helen Deutsch. The Glass Slipper was initially a 1944 play (and later a novelization) written by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon that MGM bought the rights to, but from what I can gather, it sounds like Deutsch made the screenplay her own creation. The script would've turned out a lot differently, though, if Knopf had had his way. Intent on repeating Lili's success, the producer drove Walters and Deutsch insane with his bizarre and superfluous suggestions, like Cinderella not owning a mirror, Birdena and Serafina not eating for three days before the ball to fit into their gowns, and Ella's coach only being hired for three hours.

Worried about the changes Knopf wanted her to make to her script, Deutsch turned to Walters, who told her to ignore Knopf's "incredible and idiotic" requests. They then worked together to put things back in the film that the producer had previously taken out. When Knopf eventually confronted Deutsch, she recalled, "I turned to Chuck, he backed me up, and then Eddie (to save face) said the script was now so good that he wouldn't insist on the changes."

Despite its reluctant leading man, annoyed director, exasperated writer, and interfering producer, the cast and crew still managed to put their best foot forward and make The Glass Slipper a fairy tale that is sometimes unusual and always delightful. Its sweet romance, marvelous cast, charmingly eccentric ballets, and brilliant, humorous direction are sure to make this film the right fit for all sorts of audiences.




















































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This is my entry to the Costume Drama Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. To read the other contributions, click here.

Comments

  1. This write-up has made me curious about a pair of movies are really not in my wheel-house. Nice work!

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    1. Thanks! I can definitely see why Lili and this film wouldn't be someone's cup of tea, but I personally think they're still worth checking out. Just get ready to have "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" and "Take My Love" stuck in your head!

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  2. A charming review which taught me so much about a movie that I simply adore.

    I showed this to my daughter when she was 6-years-old. She sat on the floor in front of the television and I watched her watching The Glass Slipper. She hadn't moved so I knew she was enthralled, but when Ella's dance of dejection was going on, the kid turned to me with defiant tears and warned me not to cry! Movies have their own magic and The Glass Slipper cast a special spell.

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    1. What a sweet story! That dance had the same effect on me when I first saw it. This whole movie is just so adorable and lovely. I'm glad you love it, too!

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  3. I was swooning just reading your review! Michael Wilding sounds like the perfect choice as prince.

    I laughed when you talked about Leslie Caron playing the role like she was Marlon Brando. That, right there, makes me want to see this film ASAP.

    But the costumes, too! They are stunning! I might have to watch this twice: once to see the costumes, then a second time to catch up on the plot. ;)

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    1. Thanks, Ruth! I love Wilding in this film so much. Some critics at the time said he looked uncomfortable, but they must have been watching a different movie.

      Caron as Brando is something else! And I totally forgot to mention Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett's costumes. They are indeed spectacular!

      I have a feeling you'll really enjoy this one. :)

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  4. Hi Michaela, Ros again. Thank you for doing Glass Slipper. The photos are wonderful. I remember reading Michael Wilding's Biography and he reflected one day Lionel Barrymore saw him on the MGM lot in the white tights for the second ballet. Lionel Barrymore said "he looked like a milk bottle" which Michael Wilding remarked after doing the ballet he felt like a broken milk bottle. How about the fairy godmother Estelle Winwood she was so funny and lived to a good old age. Her scenes with Leslie Caron at the brook so funny! Take Care Ros

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    1. That's a great anecdote! It's just amazing to me that Wilding hated making the film as much as he did and it didn't affect his charming performance.

      Estelle Winwood was just the best. I always love it when she appears in a film. She definitely brings some much needed levity to The Glass Slipper.

      Thanks for reading, Ros!

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  5. I saw this film when I was very young and my main memory of it was thinking how weird it was that Cinderella had short hair. I think it's time to revisit it, l0l.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

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    1. Haha, Leslie Caron is quite the unconventional Cinderella. Which just makes this movie all the more enchanting. I hope you enjoy visiting it again, and thanks for hosting!

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  6. Dear Michaela,

    What a great article! This sounds like such a charming movie. I would love to see it. I love Leslie Caron's acting and dancing, and I bet she is great as Cinderella. You really brought this film to life!

    I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for a Liebster Award: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2019/10/08/the-liebster-award-from-paul-batters/. At the end of the article, I invited you to join our blogathon next weekend. I look forward to hearing your response!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tiffany! I think you'd really enjoy this film. I would argue that it's a must-see for fans of Caron.

      Thank you for the nomination! I'm currently drowning in thesis work and many other commitments, so I don't know how timely my response will be. And I'm sorry to have missed your blogathon! I didn't see your comment until it was too late. I don't think I could have joined since it's at the same time as my Tracy and Hepburn blogathon anyway, but I hope it's been going well!

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  7. I am glad I came across your blog. I did know about this version of the Cinderella story. I will admit that I did not read the article in detail because I intend to watch the film and wish to avoid spoilers. I will surely come back to it afterwards.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy the film, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

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