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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.