Guest blog: The Slipper & The Rose by Terence Towles Canote

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In 1976 it had been 21 years since Margaret Lockwood had made her last film (Cast a Dark Shadow in 1955). She had kept busy in the intervening years. She appeared regularly on stage, in productions of Peter Pan, Signpost to Murder, An Ideal Husband, and other plays. She had guest starred on such television programmes as The Royalty, Saturday Playhouse, and The Human Jungle. In 1965 she starred in the BBC television series The Flying Swan with her daughter Julia. In 1971 she began playing barrister Harriet Peterson on the ITV programme Justice. The programme proved to be a hit, running for three series.
While Margaret Lockwood had never faded entirely from view in the United Kingdom (indeed, she is still quite popular), there can be little doubt that Justice gave her greater exposure than she had gotten in many years, and it introduced her to a whole new audience of younger fans. It should then be little surprise that Bryan Forbes, the director of such films as Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and The Stepford Wives (1975), would persuade her to take the role of the Stepmother in his big budget musical adaptation of the fairy tale “Cinderella”, The Slipper and the Rose. It would be her final feature film. The Slipper and the Rose was filmed over 22 weeks, both at Pinewood Studios in London and on location in Austria and England. It was released in the United Kingdom on 11 April 1976.

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On the surface, a musical adaptation of “Cinderella” would not appear to be a particularly original idea. The 19th Century alone had seen several ballets and operas based on the fairy tale. The 20th Century would be no different with “Cinderella” adapted several times as a musical film well before The Slipper and the Rose. The most famous musical adaptation may well be Walt Disney’s 1950 animated film Cinderella. In 1955 MGM released The Glass Slipper, a musical version of the fairy tale starring Leslie Caron. In 1957 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted “Cinderella” as a musical for television starring Julie Andrews. Rogers and Hammesteins’ Cinderella was revived for television in 1965, this time starring Lesley Ann Warren. The Deanna Durbin musical First Love (1939) was essentially a modernised version of the fairy tale.
Despite the fact that several film musicals based on Cinderella predated The Slipper and the Rose, it still proved to be a very original film. Indeed, it must be noted that in most previous film versions of the fairy tale the Prince is little more than a cypher. More often than not he is a simple cardboard figure who rescues Cinderella from her wretched life with her stepmother and stepsisters. This is not the case with The Slipper and the Rose, which devotes as much time (if not more) to its prince (Prince Edward of Euphrania in the film, played by Richard Chamberlain) as it does Cinderella herself. Indeed, Prince Edward is the first character to appear in the film and also gets the honour of singing its first song, well before Cinderella (played by Gemma Craven) makes her first appearance on the screen. What is more, Prince Edward is a fully developed character with his own motivations well beyond finding the pretty girl who wore the glass slipper to the ball.
The prince is not the only character from the fairy tale that is given an actual personality. In most versions of “Cinderella”, the Wicked Stepmother is little more than a stock villain. There is no explanation, explicit or otherwise, as to why she resents Cinderella or why she treats her so badly. The Stepmother in The Slipper and the Rose actually has reasons for treating Cinderella so badly, unjustifiable though they may be. What is more, as played by Margaret Lockwood, she is both beautiful and stylish. Even her daughters, Cinderella’s stepsisters, are given more personality than they are in most adaptations of the fairy tale. They are vain, selfish, and spoiled, a result apparently of their mother doting upon them. It is also notable that unlike most adaptions of the fairy tale they are not at all ugly, so that their resentment of Cinderella is rooted in matters beyond simple envy of Cinderella’s appearance.

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The emphasis that The Slipper and the Rose placed upon characters other than Cinderella is not the only way in which it differs from previous musical adaptations of “Cinderella”. The magic in The Slipper and the Rose is much more subdued than in previous film versions of the fairy tale, particularly Disney’s version. For instance, we never actually see the creation of Cinderella’s exquisite ball gown–it is simply and suddenly there. When we do get an actual glimpse of magic, it is generally restrained. An example of this is the creation of the legendary glass slippers, which the Fairy Godmother pours from an ordinary mop bucket. What is more, magic in The Slipper and the Rose operates under its own strict rules. Indeed, the Fairy Godmother can perform no magic for herself.
 The Slipper and the Rose benefits from some very fine performances. This should not be surprising given its credits reads like a Who’s Who of British Cinema. Aside from the legendary Margaret Lockwood, the film also featured Michael Hordern (who had appeared in Miss Lockwood’s films A Girl Must Live, Girl in the News, and Highly Dangerous) as the King, Lord Peter Graves (who appeared with Miss Lockwood in I’ll Be Your Sweetheart and Give Us The Moon) as the General, Kenneth More as the Chamberlain, and the legendary Dame Edith Evans as the Dowager Queen.

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It should come as no surprise to her fans that Margaret Lockwood delivers one of the best performances in the film. While the part of the Stepmother is not a particularly big one , it one that is pivotal to the film and Miss Lockwood makes the most of it. Miss Lockwood’s Stepmother is beautiful, stylish, and deliciously self-centred. The role is a very flamboyant one, yet Margaret Lockwood never plays it over the top. Indeed, she says more with the subtle arch of an eyebrow than many lesser actors could with a soliloquy. Although it was definitely not one of her larger roles, Margaret Lockwood’s performance as the Stepmother in The Slipper and the Rose is one of the best of her career.
As far as the rest of the cast, Michael Hordern delivered a fine performance as the King. As a monarch who is concerned that his line continue, not to mention worried that his tiny kingdom of Euphania might be taken over by its larger and more powerful neighbours, Mr. Hordern strikes the proper balance necessary between humour and seriousness for the role. It is little wonder that he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Kenneth More, a veteran of such films as Genevieve, A Night to Remember, and Sink the Bismark, was also very effective as the Chamberlain. Mr. More’s Chamberlain is as pompous and traditionalist as one would expect a king’s lord high chamberlain to be, yet Mr. More endows the character with a heart. In the end the Chamberlain is a much more sympathetic character than he might have been in the hands of another actor.
What could be the film’s best performance is that of character actress Annette Crosbie as the Fairy Godmother. There can be little doubt that it was one of the more difficult roles in The Slipper and the Rose, one in which it would have been easy for an actor to ham it up or slip into outright camp. Fortunately Miss Crosbie did an admirable job of playing the Fairy Godmother, giving the character just enough humour to be fun, but never so much as to be over the top.
The film’s two leads also did an admirable job of playing their respectable characters. Admittedly, Richard Chamberlain had the meatier of the two roles as Prince Edward. Prince Edward is a rational young man with his own mind who essentially wants to be himself, regardless of tradition. Strangely enough given the film’s subtitle The Story of Cinderella, newcomer Gemma Craven may have had the most thankless role in The Slipper and the Rose. Miss Craven’s Cinderella is sweet, innocent, and naïve, as one might expect and she also shows occasional flashes of spirit (as when she tells her stepmother, “I hate you!”). Unfortunately, she also seems quite passive at times. Indeed, rather than Cinderella speaking up, it is the Fairy Godmother who suggests that Cinderella wants to go to the ball, not Cinderella herself. Of course, this is not Miss Craven’s fault, but rather that of the script and a fairy tale in which the heroine was not particularly proactive to begin with.

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Of course, The Slipper and the Rose is a musical, and musicals often succeed or fail based on the strength of their songs. Fortunately, The Slipper and the Rose does not fail on that account. The songs were written by the Sherman Brothers (Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman), who were also responsible for the scores of Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Tom Sawyer. While the Sherman Brothers’ songs on The Slipper and the Rose are not as strong as those from Mary Poppins or The Jungle Book, they are much stronger than their work in some other films (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang being a prime example) and altogether quite enjoyable.  “The Slipper and the Rose Waltz (He Danced With Me/She Danced With Me)” stands out as one of the Sherman Brothers’ most memorable compositions (it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Music, Song). The songs “Protocoligorically Correct” and “Position and Positioning” are both quite fun, while “Once I Was Loved” and “Tell Him Anything (But Not That I Love Him)” are lovely ballads.
Of course, much of the credit for The Slipper and the Rose’s high level of quality must go to director Bryan Forbes. Mr. Forbes had helmed such classic films as The L-Shaped Room, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and The Wrong Box. He not only directed The Slipper and the Rose, but co-wrote the screenplay with the Sherman Brothers. As an actor himself Mr. Forbes had an uncanny knack for bringing out the best in his performers. As a director he had a gift for realism of the sort seen in the British New Wave and he was able to bring that gift to his more fantasy oriented films. One can see it in his camp classic The Stepford Wives and one can see it to a degree in The Slipper and the Rose as well. Despite the fact that there is a good deal of comedy and even magic (although much more subdued than in many fantasy films) in The Slipper and the Rose, it also seems much more grounded and realistic than many adaptations of “Cinderella” and other fantasy films as well.

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The Slipper and the Rose proved to be moderately successful in the United Kingdom. It was even chosen for a Royal Command Performance in 1976. Unfortunately The Slipper and the Rose did not do well in the United States. Reviews of the film were lukewarm for the most part. Even worse, The Slipper and the Rose bombed at the box office in the United States. Despite the big names associated with the film, The Slipper and the Rose then remains largely forgotten in the U.S. for that reason.

As to why The Slipper and the Rose failed in the United States, it is perhaps that it was a bit of an anachronism when it was released. Despite the success of such big musicals as Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965), movie musicals went into a swift decline in the Sixties, with bombs far outnumbering hits by the end of the decade. By the Seventies it was a rare thing for musical films to do well at the box office. It seems quite likely that had The Slipper and the Rose been released twelve years earlier it could have been a smash hit in America.
Despite its failure at the box office in the United States upon its initial release, The Slipper and the Rose has developed a cult following over the years on both sides of the Atlantic. There are probably numerous reasons for this. Much of it may be due to the fact that it was one of the very last big budget, original musicals (that is, one not based on a stage play) ever made. Much of it also probably has to do with its rather original take on the fairy tale “Cinderella”, as well as the fact that it features one of the Sherman Brothers’ best scores.

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Of course, there can be little doubt that much of The Slipper and the Rose’s cult status is largely due to the presence of Margaret Lockwood. Even for viewers unfamiliar with her earlier works there can be little doubt that Miss Lockwood is one of the film’s star attractions. Her Stepmother (of the fact that she is wicked there can be no doubt) could well be the best in any adaptation of “Cinderella”. That Margaret Lockwood’s stepmother would be beautiful would be expected (she was never anything less), and costume designer Julie Harris insured she was stylishly dressed. That having been said, it was Miss Lockwood herself who endowed the character with archness, vanity, vindictiveness, and malevolence rarely seen in other portrayals of the character. It was a great performance in a film filled with great performances. While The Slipper and the Rose may not have been a box office hit in the United States, it was certainly a fine swan song for one of Britain’s greatest film actresses.

 

About the Author: Terence Towles Canote runs the pop culture blog A Shroud of Thoughts (http://mercurie.blogspot.com/). He is the author of Television: Rare & Well Done: Essays on the Medium. His book Imaginative Television will be published later in the year.

 

Interview with Robert Matzen, author of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

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I received a review copy of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 from Goodknight Books and I have to say, I knew nothing about Lombard at all except a few things: she was very beautiful, extremely talented and she died young. So you might wonder why this book, which is not a traditional biography in any sense of the word, would serve as my springboard to learning about Lombard’s life. First of all, I am a big fan of old Hollywoood, so of course Lombard’s name appears here and there, and we all know she was married to William Powell, and then to Clark Gable. Matzen gives her story a unique approach; he uses the infamous plane crash to move the story along, interweaving facts from the accident, the build-up before she boarded the plane (everyone told her to use the train) and the characters she met before and during her journey. Don’t fret, this isn’t a story about aviation and its disasters (says she, who is afraid of flying) – the reader is treated to flashbacks from Lombard’s life, as she travels to her untimely death. I thought the entire book was paced like a documentary, and indeed it would make a fascinating one. Matzen also gives Lombard’s story a masculine edge, often his writing reads like a ’40s detective novel, which is entirely appropriate given her penchant for swearing and using rough language. A contrast to her Patrician beauty. All in all I adored this book, I read it in one day.

Click here to purchase the book. And here to read more about the publisher.

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(Note from author: I love these questions, by the way. RM) << Thank you, Robert!

Q. What inspired you to write the biography in this non traditional way? What gave you the idea to mirror her life with the tragedy of the plane crash?

The story of the plane crash moves at a mile a minute; the story of her life unfolds like a life, day by day. I wanted the reader to be plunged into the final moments right away and set the essential story in motion. Because the plane crash was a 70-year-old mystery, I’d build real and false clues into the narrative so the reader would make mental notes. Is this going to be important later? And then I set about answering the question, “Who was Carole Lombard and why should we care about this character?” By chapter 2 when we start to learn about her, there was already forward push to the narrative.

I have always liked the “you are there” approach to storytelling, and have applied it to biography in the past. Otherwise, you are covering largely familiar ground with a reader who knows about Carole Lombard. This happened, then that happened. Boring! But if you break the chronology up with a story that’s right in front of your face and being lived in the cold and the dark by heartbeats, I believed it would be effective. A few reviewers have hated this approach, but most of the readers I’ve talked to have mentioned it right away as one of Fireball’s assets.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book?

I had written an academic volume about Lombard 20 years ago and had a lot of accumulated research upon which to draw. Plus I am a goal-oriented, one-track thinker and once I start something, it becomes my passion. That said, the actual writing of Fireball from front to back took about a year, applying old research and conducting new research with the help of two very talented investigators.

Q. What methods of research do you use?

There are two answers to this question, and they overlap. When researching a person, I try to avoid relying on second-hand sources recounting familiar stories. I believe that an accurate portrait can only be created with primary sources—people who were capturing quotes through interviews with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, or people who knew them. Not only had I interacted with people who knew them while writing the academic volume back in the day, but I also found a wealth of untapped material in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, and was able to find a few people still around who knew these people.

About the crash, I stuck to primary sources as much as possible, which to me means accounts of an event that were immediate and told by eyewitnesses. There is a core of such material about the crash in newspapers as related by reporters who actually climbed the mountain and watched the investigators at work. There is a tremendous wealth of information about the crash in Washington, D.C. that no one had ever reviewed, and my DC researcher found all that in no time. I never would have found it; she snapped her fingers and there it was. We’re talking 2,000 pages. She also pointed me to the TWA archives full of confidential information about the crash of Flight 3.

Lastly, I wanted to portray the others on the plane as living, breathing human beings with bright futures ahead of them, and this involved tracking down and speaking with relatives, and relying on obits and other documented information about their lives. A geneology researcher helped me with that part.

Q. Where do you think Carole’s career would have gone had she not died?

She was always taking the pulse of her own career. Always, always, the way a hypochondriac takes his or her own pulse. She had seen that dramatic pictures didn’t work for her and had completed one comedy and was about to make two more when she died. One of those, My Girl Godfrey, could have vaulted her back to the top as a screwball comedienne.

Because of her business sense I firmly believe that Carole would have embraced television like Loretta Young did. In fact, the entire history of early television might have been changed if Carole had been on the scene and agreed to have a show crafted around her like I Love Lucy was for Lucille Ball. Lombard could have become the focus of early television instead of Lucy. But of course that’s idle speculation.

Q. Do you think she would have remained married to Gable?

Tough, tough question. I guess, no, I don’t think so. Under existing conditions, I believe it would have lasted a long time and that Carole would have hit the magical age of 40 or 42 and thought, What am I trying to do here? What am I building with this self-centered, emotional island of a man? The ultimate irony in Fireball is that Carole needed two things from Clark: communication and commitment. I think she could have accepted the occasional fling from him with anonymous actresses—it was a tradeoff for being the mate of the most famous movie star in the world. But he didn’t know how to contribute to a marriage. He didn’t appreciate what he had in Lombard until she was dead. Then, boy did he learn a lesson. If only he could have shown her what he learned, but he couldn’t. He had to live without her, and live with the knowledge that this was the woman for him.

Q. What lessons do you think the aviation industry learned following the crash?

Despite the great advances in aviation from 1930 until the time of the crash of Flight 3, this was still the era of seat-of-your-pants flying, and many of the airline captains were former Army or barnstorming pilots. Commercial aviation was still being invented, there just weren’t that many rules, and any crash taught investigators a lot, resulting in guidelines that became new rules. For example, there was a radio beam for planes to follow, but around Las Vegas the weather was always clear and the flight crews flew by “contact” with the ground—what they could see. They didn’t bother to use the radio beam. In the wake of the investigation, flight crews were ordered to use the radio beam at all times. Also, weight of the aircraft was an issue and there would be no more fudging of the numbers to make sure an overloaded ship was cleared for takeoff.

Q. Was the airline sued?

TWA was sued by the family of Alice Getz, the stewardess of Flight 3. But MGM, Clark’s studio, represented Carole and her traveling companions, Elizabeth Peters, who was Carole’s mother, and Otto Winkler, who was Gable’s press representative at MGM. We will never know what the under-the-table amount was in this matter. There is no written record of it. Most of the people on the plane were soldiers, and at the time, TWA and the War Department were working very closely together and so there weren’t going to be any lawsuits involving those cases.

Q. What type of projects can we expect in the future?

I have always been drawn to old Hollywood, and used to think only in terms of biographies. But Fireball was an eye opener, and I learned the power of looking at a significant event from all angles. I think I’d like to try that again.

Q. Can you tell the Margaret Lockwood Society a bit about yourself?

I was raised in the Pittsburgh area and still live there. My wife Mary and I are nearing our 20th anniversary. I used to be a big reader, back when there was time, and my heroes were Alexandre Dumas and Robert B. Parker. Both writers used elements of mystery in their stories, Parker much moreso, of course, and I always liked that.

I’ve been a professional writer for more than 25 years and a filmmaker for more than 20. My day job has always involved writing and editing, and I spent 10 years supporting communications efforts for NASA’s aeronautics program. That background came in handy when sifting through all the aviation-related information in the crash investigations.

Fireball is my sixth book. Two previous books have been about Errol Flynn—one about his infamous house and the other about his professional and personal association with Olivia de Havilland. I’ve been an on-air or on-mic expert about Flynn, de Havilland, Lombard, and Gable, for various documentaries over the years.

As a filmmaker, I’ve done lots of things as writer, producer, and director, but I guess my claim to fame is a documentary called When the Forest Ran Red about George Washington and the French & Indian War, which appeared on PBS and is still considered the classic interpretation of that conflict. It’s no coincidence that When the Forest Ran Red uses the same style of storytelling as Fireball: plunging the viewer into the middle of an unfolding story as a participant who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, really, the viewer does know, but it doesn’t matter because they’re hooked and must find out what happens next, and why.

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Margaret Lockwood Jewellery Auction

I’m excited to share with you the info about Margaret Lockwood’s jewellery auction at Lawrences auction house, 16th January at 10am. Click on each photograph to find info on its estimate price etc. If you cannot make it to the auction in person you can also complete an online bidding form by clicking here. Alternatively you can telephone the auction house at 01460 270799. Remember to have your lot numbers handy!

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