Jerry Lewis was one of my favourite comedians as a kid and Cinderfella (1960) was my favourite film of his alongside The Nutty Professor (1963), to me it displayed all his best acting traits whilst taking a well known story and freshening it up. I watched it again recently and it hasn’t lost any of its charm, great for people who like parody or fun and creative family friendly films 🙂 Funnily enough I only ever really liked his solo films sans Dean Martin and that hasn’t changed over time!
Ok so you know the Disney version of Cinderella (1950) but Cinderfella did more than just change the sex of the main character…
We first see the last will and testament of his father (not mother as you would expect here) being read to the stepmother and her two sons and Fella is apparently in another room looking out at the pouring rain. The Bel-Air style mansion and all ‘worldly goods’ are left the stepmother in faith that she will take care of her stepson… Yeah we know how that goes in fairytales.
Cut to years into the future and we see ‘mother dearest’ using the intercom from her very Disney like bedroom to Fella sleeping in a storage looking room where it looks like items are just there for the sake of it and his tiny mattress doesn’t even fit the bed. Strangely he’s wearing two large rings but those are quickly overshadowed by the speed in which he has to get ready and go to the kitchen to make breakfast for everybody. His place in the family is further exemplified as we see his room is at the end of a very long, lavish corridor but when it reaches his part all the decoration ends! Servants quarters indeed.
The usual being bossed about, belittling and lecturing ensues – he can’t do anything right, doesn’t show his appreciation for being ‘given room and board out of the goodness of her heart’, he ‘doesn’t have a cent to his name’, has ‘ordinary blood in his veins’ etc etc. Perhaps luckily for him he actually enjoys housework and fixing things (though he’s not very good at the latter) and all those unkind and deceptive words seem to slide off him, but they don’t.
By this point we’ve already been shown the not-so-ugly but actually very suave, debonair and manicured stepbrothers (one of which could actually be a moving mannequin), and the plot swiftly moves on to the ball the stepmother is holding at the house for Princess Charming (pronounced ‘Charmaine’). Determined everything will go right and one of mummy’s little darlings will marry well. I don’t know why there is a stepmother and not a stepfather but the former are very much embedded as evil characters in Disney-fied fairytales so perhaps they thought they couldn’t change that but I think for a gender bending film they could of undid the prejudice and gone for a villain instead of a villainess.
Usher in the fairy godfather – and whose high pitched yet nasal voice many of us will know from other films – floating on the swimming pool in a classic stripped swimming cozzy and bowler hat, wacky indeed. He’s worried that Fella doesn’t have any ambitions because he thinks one day Fella might be a very important person.
The noblesse oblige ‘do’ they’re holding will cost a bomb and really stretch their assets it seems (though we know what that means for many i.e. their version of being hungry and homeless after over extending themselves are still nice hotels, long visits to friends, lot’s of credit and not really suffering at all) but still it’s imperative that they purloin more funds so they can maintain their lifestyle. Where will these funds come from? Ahh well that’s the problem, this next extortion from Fella won’t be so easy the key is in his memory, his dreams to be exact in which his late father is telling him the location of a secret fortune. How on Earth are they going to get that? They decide to change tactics and be nice for once! Shock! Yes it is, they’re so bad at pretending to be nice it’s cringeworthy; their fake smiles are creepy and it looks like their faces will crack in the effort, they’ve never complimented his cooking so it really affects him and then they try to wear him out as much as possible (even moreso than with his usual chores) by sharing hobbies with him. Does it work? And just how crooked are those brothers!?
Another interesting feature in this film is that the fairy godfather introduces Fella to another of his clients, Disney’s Cinderella! A ravishing and indeed roaring (you have to see it to believe it) Cindy who really makes a great appearance in this tribute movie and gives Fella her support.
Time for a ball? Fella is locked in his room and ‘the family’ (very mafia tone inserted there) have hired a fleet of staff to do all the work, that way they won’t be interrupted or embarrassed by ‘that lunatic’. Poor Cinders I mean Fella, will he ever make it to the ball and perhaps even destiny? Will the fake family’s poor attempts at politeness last against their wicked ways?
Jerry Lewis always seemed to play confused, diamond in the rough and dare I say ‘needy’ characters or characters in need and having seen the made-for-tv biography Martin and Lewis (2002) it seems he was one of those actors that played what he knew best – a version(s) of himself. Needless to say he plays this part very well and in his signature style.
The Wicked Stepmother (played by Dame Judith Anderson) – plays a stoic, refined, cutting, hypocritical, bossy b(r)itch(es) who fawns over her beloved sons very well. Her clear, sharp tones were made for commanding.
Two Tailored Twits, the older brother Rupert (played by Robert Hutton) and the younger Maximilian (Henry Silva) obviously spend a lot of the time in the salon/spa and playing sports with peers; they’re every bit the cocky, pampered, spoiled, spying and demanding duo but just not ugly or uncultured 😉
Princess Charming (played by Anna Maria Alberghetti) reminds me somewhat of Audrey Hepburn and as part of the revamp gets more of an emotional part than Prince Charming. She not only dances and clutches a shoe well but is not just a wooden doll, she tells Fella that she feels, she’s a person and it’s not her fault that people see her as her title/namesake and she’s convincing, she even cries.
The effervescent and quirky Fairy Godfather (played by Ed Wynn the ‘Mad Hatter’ in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and ‘Uncle Albert’ in Mary Poppins (1964) delivers his lines characteristically well and matches Lewis with his own funky facial expressions.
There’s one point where the fairy godfather goes into a diatribe about women; the women who wrote history, the women behind and effected by the Cinderella story, ordinary women’s expectations, follies and all those poor men. However it is ironic like the nature of the film and another twist on ‘his-story’ but also includes some interesting observations about people in general as they are rather than twisted. It’s particularly funny (not if you were in the scene or Fella) though that he says in order to right all the uneven and unfair doings of womankind that the ‘big Him’ in the sky and various societies working for ‘Him’ elected to choose a male example to tip the balance and make up for it but instead of a ‘tall, handsome’ honey that they all wanted the fairy godfather chose Fella instead. “He’s not tall, not handsome, anything but clever” he’s just ordinary – though quite frankly Lewis never really was ordinary in my opinion even as Fella ;-).
An interesting political insert that the Disney 50s version didn’t have and I also liked that in this version Cinderella oops I mean Fella realizes s/he’s being abused, tries to pull her/himself up by the bootstraps taking a cynical tone to stand up for her/himself. That change doesn’t last but it’s ok because the character doesn’t really want to be angry or aggressive but it was needed at the time.
Songs and Music
This isn’t your usual musical, the songs just flow into the filming and some are spoken-sung so it doesn’t feel like you’re being hit full in the face with a big sing-a-long theatre number out of nowhere, they’re shorter too. My favourite is probably the shortest ‘Let Me Be A People’ where he explains that he likes being a regular ‘people’ and feels sorry for ‘persons’ who are people of importance and my second is actually an instrumental that he mimes playing the instruments to in the kitchen (and mime is a tough art to make look interesting!) Most of the numbers have a jazzy feel to them and very much in keeping with their time although I think still have a contemporary feel. Additionally there are a couple of soft, heartfelt songs captured perfectly well with the surrounding visuals and mood.
Aside from the obvious numbers there is a fair bit of lovely classical either as excerpt sound effects or in the background. The big band numbers at the ball are particularly impressive especially ‘that’ scene where Lewis make’s his dramatic debut down the stairs to the shock of all assembled.
That epic stair scene, funky dance and clock striking midnight.
This film is one of the better produced ‘light hearted’ films of the time in my opinion, everything comes together really well from the score to the costumes, nothing feels too gaudy or out of place – not even Lewis’ kooky, slapstick style! The colour is vibrant and rich, the details are well thought out from fixtures and fittings to entire scenes, the dialogue is clever and moving and the updating of the Disney-version really makes this something worth seeing and remembering. Great film 🙂
Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1988) – another revamped version of the story in which Drew Barrymore and Prince Charming’s characters are developed more. The part where Fella tries to act with self confidence reminded me of this film though understandably not to the same extent as this has a more serious tone.
Rags to Riches (1987) – A rich businessman adopts 5 orphans as a PR stunt for a merger and has no intention of raising them but through no fault of their own they end up raising hell for his work but he learns to love them. More of a musical than Cinderfella.
Lastly is a film I can’t remember or find the title for and maybe one of you know it – an old Black & White film in which a young lady wins some money, quits her job and goes to the ‘big city’ to spend it all whilst pretending to be high society. There she meets an annoying bellboy who keeps getting sacked who turns out to be a prince in disguise.