Cendrillon (1899)    2 Stars


Director: Georges Méliès

Cast: Barral, Bleuette Bernon, Carmely

Synopsis: A fairy godmother magically turns Cinderella’s rags to a beautiful dress, and a pumpkin into a coach. Cinderella goes to the ball, where she meets the Prince – but will she remember to leave before the magic runs out?




Cendrillon, Georges Méliès 1899 version of the Cinderella fairy tale, sees the cinema’s early technical wizard moving away from the one-scene filmed illusions that had typified the majority of his early output and towards the multi-scene extravaganza that would reach its peak with his 1902 epic La voyage dans la lune. The comparative extravagance of the sets and costumes indicate a growing ambition on the part of Méliès to submerge his audience further into the story that is unfolding on the screen rather than just dazzling them with illusions.

Cendrillon begins in the home Cinderella shares with her sisters. They’re off to the ball, leaving Cinderella alone to do the housekeeping in her rags. Intentionally or not, the sisters instantly disappear at the same moment that Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and her tall wand put in an appearance only to find Cinders sobbing inconsolably. The Godmother tells Cinderella to release three mice which she promptly transforms into a carriage driver and footmen. Upon her Godmother’s instruction, Cinderella then exits stage right only to return with an oversize pumpkin which her Godmother makes grow even larger before finally turning it into an ornate carriage. Finally, she changes Cinderella’s rags into a fine ball gown and escorts her onto the carriage. Quite how such a large carriage gets out of the cottage, Méliès leaves to our imagination…

The scene then changes to the ball taking place at the King’s palace. We see the king and queen sat to the right while maybe five or six couples dance in front of them; that makes maybe fourteen or more people on screen at the same time, which pretty much qualifies Cendrillon for 1899 epic status when compared to the ambitions of most movies made around this time. The dancing stops as Cinderella enters the ballroom and introduces herself to the king. When a couple of women — who might be her ugly stepsisters — rebuff Cinderella, Prince Charming steps in to spare her blushes by inviting her to dance. However, almost immediately, Cinderella realises that it’s nearly midnight and she must return home before her fancy gown reverts to its original rags and her footmen start hunting for cheese. It wouldn’t have mattered if she’d forgotten, to be honest, because a gnome-like old man with a full white beard (who might well be Méliès himself) leaps onto the screen and capers about with a giant clock held above his head before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, Cinderella’s too late and, much to her embarrassment, her Fairy Godmother arrives to change her back into her rags. Cinders makes her getaway, but leaves behind a glass slipper. Gathering up the shoe, Prince Charming determines to find and marry its owner. Another scene change returns us to Cinderella’s home as the distraught girl makes her entrance, but this is a different room to the first scene, which suggests that Méliès was making a determined effort to produce a noticeably big budget affair. This time we see her in a bedroom, and Méliès can’t resist the temptation to throw in some of his familiar camera trickery, with a Grandfather clock moving on its own and even jumping onto a table before that old man and a handful of women emerge from nowhere for a moment before all turning into clocks, as if taunting the poor girl. Then they’re replaced by a giant clock which has, instead of hands, the old man affixed to its centre.

Presumably these are either hallucinations or interpretations of the fevered thoughts running around in Cinderella’s head, because as soon as her ugly stepsisters’ arrive, the hallucinations disappear. The sisters send her off to carry out her chores, but before she can leave, Prince Charming enters, and after trying the slipper on the two women — both of whom have feet too large to fit — he finds that it fits the dainty foot of Cinderella. As Cinderella rejoices, her Fairy Godmother appears once more and replaces Cinders’ rags with her ball gown once more.

Now this should really be where the movie fades to black, but at this point Cendrillon still has a quarter of its running time to go. After showing Cinderella and Charming enter the church where they are to be wed, Méliès subjects us to a poorly choreographed dance scene which seems to go on forever and must surely be cinema’s first example of shameless padding. Nevertheless, despite this over-baked finale, Cendrillon demonstrates a significant step forward in the evolution not only of Georges Méliès as a filmmaker, but cinema as a form of art and entertainment.

(Reviewed 25th August 2014)