THE BOOTLEG FILES: A COACH FOR CINDERELLA

BOOTLEG FILES 478: “A Coach for Cinderella” (1936 animated short directed by Max Fleischer).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and other video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in anthology collections of public domain cartoons.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nah, it is an orphan film.

For many years, there have been complaints about commercial product placements in films and television productions. The main problem, I feel, is the lack of subtlety – especially when the product in question becomes an intrusive element, thus calling attention away from the actors and the story.

When it came to using films to promote products in a subtle and often playful manner, no one did a better job than Jam Handy. Born Henry Jamison Handy (1886-1983), he was an Olympic medalist in swimming and water polo who formed the Jam Handy Organization, which produced a series of advertising, educational and training films that often surpassed Hollywood fare for their entertainment and artistic value.

One of Handy’s main clients was General Motors, and in 1936 the auto giant was eager to produce a promotional film that highlighted its latest Chevrolet model. Rather than offer a straightforward commercial highlighting the Chevrolet’s basic features, Handy tapped animator Max Fleischer to create an animated short that would incorporate the vehicle into the classic Cinderella story. To enhance the value of the production, Handy authorized the use of Technicolor – a rather expensive detail for the era, but one that would certainly help the short stand out at a time when most cinematic fare was in black and white.

The cartoon begins the Cinderella’s atrocious stepsisters preparing themselves for the ball. A wee elf with a long white beard, hiding on a mantelpiece, watches this spectacle with amusement. One sister uses paint and a stencil to draw eyebrows on her forehead, while the other is so stout that Cinderella struggles to secure her blubber in a tight corset. Alas, Cinderella is so overworked and ill-appreciated that her stepsisters beat her (we only hear their slaps off-screen while the camera focuses on the unhappy elf’s reaction).

After the stepsisters exit for the ball, the elf emerges and measures Cinderella, who is asleep on the floor. The elf then jumps upon a strange insect that has a horse’s head and a cricket’s body, and they gallop off to a land where mostly elderly male elves live in mushroom-shaped houses. The elves vow to create a gown and a coach for poor ragged Cinderella, in order for her to take her place at the ball.

The elves employ the local insects and birds in the project. Spiders spin the fabric for the garment while birds help to place it on a large wooden mannequin for proper tailoring. An Italian barber elf who lives in a hollowed-out apple shaves a woolly caterpillar, and the bug twists himself into a circle to become a wheel on Cinderella’s coach. A boy elf lights firecrackers under a sleeping turtle, causing the startled creature to separate from his shell – that, in turn, goes atop a hollowed pumpkin to form the body of the coach.

The tiny coach is then placed in a large machine marked “Modernizer,” which begins to chug and hum ferociously. The film then cuts back to Cinderella, who is magically clothed in a blue gown created by the elves; a pretty butterfly which set down on the front of the gown becomes the garment’s decorative design. As for the coach, a curtain is pulled back and a 1936 Chevrolet is revealed. Obviously, General Motors wasn’t offering wheeled pumpkins as part of its Depression-era vehicular trade.

“A Coach for Cinderella,” sadly, is not among the best animated shorts of the Fleischer canon. In some ways, it offers a preview of the problems that plagued Fleischer’s less-than-successful 1939 feature “Gulliver’s Travels” – the human Cinderella is a bland and uninspired figure who is not very well animated, while the tiny elves are exaggerated grotesques full of noise and commotion but lacking in charm.

There are a few amusing gags scattered about: the coach driver referring to the stepsisters’ valet as “Toots,” woodpeckers riveting together the body of the coach, a pair of female spiders gossiping about one of their peers while weaving the threads of the gown, the boy elf emerging from the “Modernizer” as a slang-talking hipster in contemporary clothing, and the coach’s engine is powered by mice and bugs. But the ultimate payoff, with the unveiling of the Chevrolet, is something of an anti-climax – the car is on screen too briefly to make much of an impression. And, in any event, the proceeding antics suggests that the automobile is little more than a hodgepodge of a pumpkin, turtle shell and caterpillars rather than a triumph of Detroit-based engineering.

But General Motors wasn’t unhappy. In fact, it gave Handy and Fleischer the green light to create a sequel, called “A Ride for Cinderella,” in which the Chevrolet plays a more substantial role in uniting Cinderella with her charming Prince. Handy was also happy with the work, and he would help Fleischer in 1942 when Paramount Pictures ousted the animator from his studio. Fleischer would serve as the head of Handy’s animation operations, where he would reach a late career peak in 1948 with the production of the animated short “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on behalf of the Montgomery Ward retail chain.

Also happy with this film were the theater owners. Back in 1936, “A Coach for Cinderella” had no problems securing a spot in the short subjects line-up. And having a color film to offer audiences was always a plus during this period.

“A Coach for Cinderella” has been a public domain title for many years, and prints of this short (ranging in visual quality from decent to less-than-adequate) are all over the Internet. Students of animation, film history, sales and marketing might enjoy this nine-minute exercise in unique product placement. And while it may not be a great film, it certainly qualifies as a distinctive way to sell Chevrolets.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on May 10, 2013 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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