bart

The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951 movie

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I happened to come across the 1951 British film of Tales of Hoffman yesterday. (It's playing on Turner Classic.) I hadn't seen it since it was a often-repeated feature on local television stations in NYC in the late 50s. That was in black of white, of ocurfse. Now it's in its original -- and quite wonderfully garish -- color :off topic: .

I had time to see the Olympia segment, with extraordinary performances by Moira Shearer as a gorgeous (though over-dressed) dancing doll, Robert Helpmann as Coppelius, and Leonide Massine as Spalanzani, Olympia's"father."

I never had the chance to see any of these people on stage . In this, Shearer is delicate, precise, quick-silver, and witty. Really wonderful despite the over-decorated and distracting costume. Helpmann, who appears in all three segments as I recall, is remarkably eery and sinister. Massine: fussy, fleet-footed (all those beats), and amusing. Frederick Ashton has a small role as a touching and inarticulate puppeteer. He's lovely.

Ashton is also credited as choreographer.

Has anyone else seen this recently? I'd love to hear your impressions of the dancing and the staging. And what about other ballet films -- or films including snippets of ballet -- from the period?

P.S. Ballet turns up in the oddest places. Milliion Dollar Mermaid, from the same general time period as Hoffman and also being rerun on tv recently, has Esther Williams performing in toe shoes -- and entirely underwater -- to music from the Nutcracker.

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Thanks for the info, bart.

. Milliion Dollar Mermaid, from the same general time period as Hoffman and also being rerun on tv recently, has Esther Williams performing in toe shoes -- and entirely underwater -- to music from the Nutcracker.
That I have to see!

I don't watch it much lately, but excerpts from Tales have appeared on Classic Arts Showcase. I should probably finally join Netflix (especially since my last live-movie experience blasted out my eardrums) and see if either or both of these are available to rent.

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Shearer is on record to say that of films of her dancing she prefers TALES over THE RED SHOES without question.

Criterion has released TALES on DVD in a nicely done production.

Too bad no one has released THE STORY OF THREE LOVES in which Shearer dances another Ashton solo.

Her "Dragonfly" dance in TALES if very fine; not that her appearances in the other individual scenes or the epilogue don't have their own luster and nuance and depth.

One moment i'm especially fond of is the witty instance when Ashton's Cochenille, the puppeteer, sticks his tongue out, rudely, at Massine in his role as Spalanzani in the "Olympia" tale.

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Thanks for that info, rg. I definitely have to see the whole movie. You're right about that Ashton moment. In general, his performance in this small part has a pathos that is genuinely moving. He seems young(ish), a bit lumpish, innocent, forced to play an role in the fraud against Hoffmann, but resenting it and somehow above it.

Massine surprised me, too, even though I have seen him on video before. Was there ever a dancer so fast, precise, and manic? This is Puck on speed. Just catch those brise voles with little beats. (At least I think that is what they were. Whoosh! they happened and were gone.)

It's Helpmann, however, who impressed me most, especially when I was a kid. What a face! What a basilisk stare! What magnificant makeup and costumes. I'd love to have had the change to see him actually dancing -- he must have been exceptional in character work.

Carbro, Williams cheats a bit. She's in a kind of fish tank and is holding on to a vertical pole so that she can stay at the bottom. I saw all the Williams movies in my childhood -- they were very popular at the drive-in in our Long Island suburb -- and was always amazed at how she could hold her breath while smiling. It's a wierd smile, carefully painted and rather frozen ... and just a little scarey.

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Bart, I saw the film this week, too---but as usual I only watched it up to 'Olympia'. It gets a bit ponderous after that--- I like your perfect description of Shearer---"delicate, precise, quick-silver and witty". I have always had sympathy for her having to work in Fonteyn's shadow. Have you read the book she wrtoe on Balanchine?--"Balletmaster'. It's regrettable that she did not have a career with 'B'.

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Have you read the book she wrtoe on Balanchine?--"Balletmaster'. It's regrettable that she did not have a career with 'B'.
I hadn't heard of this book, but will seek it out. Thanks for the reference.

As to the thought of her dancing for Balanchine, there IS something curiously modern about her approach. I don't know exactly what I mean. But --allowing for the classical choreography and elaborate costuming and makeup -- her attack and ability to switch directions and balance so quickly DO make me think of someone dancing a Balanchine allegro. :o

Which roles on stage was she particularly noted for? What did you -- or others on BT -- see her in? Or wish you had?

And -- please -- comments on Helpmann, Ashton and Massine as dancers would be much appreciated.

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According to the Meredith Daneman book on Fonteyn, both Shearer and Fonteyn danced in one of Balanchine's ballets in England (Symphonie Concertante? Symphony in C?? - I forget). Balanchine much preferred Shearer "the other girl - much better". Evidently Fonteyn's typically English softness and roundness of attack didn't mesh well with the Balanchine style.

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It's Helpmann, however, who impressed me most, especially when I was a kid. What a face! What a basilisk stare! What magnificant makeup and costumes. I'd love to have had the change to see him actually dancing -- he must have been exceptional in character work.

Here is Helpmann as he was in Nureyev's Don Quixote with the Australian Ballet.

I love the the story about Helpmann's first meeting with de Valois. Being embarrased because she seem to be studying him he asked her what she was looking at.

"I can do something with that face." she said slowly.'
Helpmann
by Elizabeth Salter, page 52

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the Balanchine ballet in question above, where Shearer and Fonteyn shared a role, was, i believe, BALLET IMPERIAL.

Balanchine himself might well have fit into the script for another hard-to-find Shearer movie: THE MAN WHO LOVED REDHEADS.

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Shearer’s ‘Balletmaster’ is a nice little book, with some shrewd observations.

As rg notes, Shearer thought that ToH gave a better account of her dancing than Red Shoes, which is correct. The ballet excerpts in RS are well chosen but brief, and the centerpiece ballet has Shearer mostly striking poses, albeit lovely ones. bart's description sums up her dancing here well. I love her footwork in ToH. Nice extension, too. Hands and feet are beautiful, as is the rest of her, of course. I think TCM showed the longer version of ToH – the DVD version has about ten minutes missing, mostly of dancing.

From what I’ve seen on film, I’d rather watch Helpmann acting than dancing, and his Dracula-like performance(s) here is very effective. (I think that the director George Romero, who loves this movie, is on to something when he suggests that ToH is essentially a horror film.)

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thanks for the facts about the full length of the film, etc. Dirac.

do you know if the earlier released videocassette is also shortened?

i have both the cassette and the dvd but haven't compared the two and didn't see what was shown on TCM.

how odd for Criterion, normally quite scrupulous, to leave out some minutes.

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The ballet Shearer danced was 'Ballet Imperial'. In 1950 Balanchine was invited to stage it for the Royal Ballet. There were 3 casts for the ballet--led by Fonteyn, followed by Shearer and Violetta Elvin (a former Soviet dancer named Prokhorova). Fonteyn wisely dropped out (can't imagine her in this!) and Balanchine requested Shearer. She had only been married 3 weeks at the time but hinted if she wasn't she would have followed Balanchine back across the Atlantic---our loss, she had all the makings of a fine Balanchine dancer. I did see Shearer on the stage in a few productions. In the Sadlers Wells NYC debut she and Alexis Rassine danced the Bluebird PDD and she and Ashton were comic geniuses in 'A Wedding Bouquet'. I also liked her Cinderella very much.

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regarding the length of THE TALES OF HOFFMANN on film today, one source notes that the film originally was made to run 138 min. in the UK but that it was cut to 128 'before release' - does anyone know if TCM had a pre-release print from the UK at 138 min.?

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rg, I haven't taken my VHS copy off the shelf in some time but I believe it has the full 138 minutes (the version often seen runs about 125 minutes).

I remember reading that for some reason the longer version was not available and so Criterion went with the theatrical release. As you note, Criterion is most meticulous in these matters and whatever the reason I'm sure it was a good one and they had no other choice at the time.

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Forgot to add a thank-you to atm711 for those details and recollections.

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Has anyone seen the new DVD by any chance?

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I happened to come across the 1951 British film of Tales of Hoffman yesterday. (It's playing on Turner Classic.) I hadn't seen it since it was a often-repeated feature on local television stations in NYC in the late 50s. That was in black of white, of ocurfse. Now it's in its original -- and quite wonderfully garish -- color :o .

I had time to see the Olympia segment, with extraordinary performances by Moira Shearer as a gorgeous (though over-dressed) dancing doll, Robert Helpmann as Coppelius, and Leonide Massine as Spalanzani, Olympia's"father."

I never had the chance to see any of these people on stage . In this, Shearer is delicate, precise, quick-silver, and witty. Really wonderful despite the over-decorated and distracting costume. Helpmann, who appears in all three segments as I recall, is remarkably eery and sinister. Massine: fussy, fleet-footed (all those beats), and amusing. Frederick Ashton has a small role as a touching and inarticulate puppeteer. He's lovely.

Ashton is also credited as choreographer.

Has anyone else seen this recently? I'd love to hear your impressions of the dancing and the staging. And what about other ballet films -- or films including snippets of ballet -- from the period?

P.S. Ballet turns up in the oddest places. Milliion Dollar Mermaid, from the same general time period as Hoffman and also being rerun on tv recently, has Esther Williams performing in toe shoes -- and entirely underwater -- to music from the Nutcracker.

Interesting that you should mention "Million Dollar Mermaid" and the underwater ballet with Esther Williams. It 's the life of Annette Kellerman, a famous swimmer of early 20th century. But did you also notice the scene with Maria Tallchief dancing the "Dying Swan'' as Anna Pavlova? I don't think she is credited but it is certainly her.

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Interesting that you should mention "Million Dollar Mermaid" and the underwater ballet with Esther Williams. It 's the life of Annette Kellerman, a famous swimmer of early 20th century. But did you also notice the scene with Maria Tallchief dancing the "Dying Swan'' as Anna Pavlova? I don't think she is credited but it is certainly her.
Richka, you got me to check with imdb.com. Tallchief IS credited as Anna Pavlova. (I must have missed that bit. :o )

While we're wondering around the topic, I also noticed that the New Barlett Sher production of Contes d'Hoffman at the Met will have a choreographer -- Dou-Dou Huang, who did the choreography for The Last Emperor several years ago. Of course "choreographer" is a v-e-r-y broad job title.

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/new...l.aspx?id=10676

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It is Tallchief. I seem to remember a publicity photo of her with Esther Williams from somewhere.

If Martin Scorsese has some time on his hands I hope he considers a restoration of Tales of Hoffmann, which could probably use the attention.

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The Criterion Classics release of “Tales of Hoffman” is a wonder. It has gotten the usual Criterion treatment, with impeccable color timing and balance and ultra-sharp restoration, so that when Hoffmann is shown with a fuchsia wig in the “Olympia” act the viewer knows that Robert Rounseville lost that particular argument and wore the odd wig. There wasn’t much effort to have those appearing on camera lip-synch with the soundtrack, a good decision by Powell and Pressburger.

As noted already Moira Shearer was terrific as both Stella and Olympia, clearly knowing the ins and outs of dancing on a sound stage. Ludmilla Tcherina had little to do other than look dangerously beautiful which she carried off perfectly. Nicklaus is a role that a good singer/actor (or in this case, a good singer and a good actor) can do a lot with. Pamela Brown interpreted Nicklaus as rueful, knowing, long-suffering and always quick to help Hoffmann out of a jam even though he wouldn’t have been in the trouble in the first place if he had listened to his friend. Nicklaus was sung by the vocal star of the production, Monica Sinclair who was at the beginning of a long and distinguished international career.

Robert Helpmann almost stole the show as the four villains. Amazing acting and he moves with such elegant grace it is breathtaking. He gave us a hint in the prolog during Lindorf’s pantomime with Phillip Leaver who is delightfully described in the opening credits as “Andreas, Stella’s Servant, a rogue”. He is evil as Dapertutto in the second act, particularly while dancing to the aria in which he charms Giulietta with a gaudy necklace he creates from candle drippings. Bruce Dargavel the bass who sings the aria rolls out the low notes effortlessly. Helpmann and Tcherina make a wonderfully horrible pair—great casting. Leonide Massine was as slender and deadly as the saber he planned to use on Hoffmann. He looks coiled and ready to strike when just standing and watching the action.

When Dr. Miracle enters during the third act we know we are in the presence of pure, unexplained and unexplainable depravity. Dr. Miracle has killed Antonia’s mother and now plans to kill Antonia, simply, it seems, because he can. The mother is represented by a life sized statue which I kept expecting to do something—sing, talk, something, like the dead Queen Hermione in “Winter’s Tale”. Helpmann’s acting here has all the mugging and playing to the camera/audience that we associate with silent films and he pulls off a real coup never overplaying how depraved he is, often approaching the edge but never quite straying into caricature. Since his second act character is Giulietta’s “satanic master, a collector of souls” it was quite a stretch for Miracle to be even more malevolent. The isolation, immediacy and intimacy of the claustrophobic set in the third act helped him bring this home.

There is a lot going on throughout “The Tales of Hoffman”. Powell and Pressburger and their cinematographer Freddie Francis (credited as “camera operator” which probably doesn’t tell the entire story) made superb use of crane shots and just the sheer height available on the stages at Shepperton Studios with shots from above to begin the orgy scene in Act II and single room sets with columns that disappear into impossibly high ceilings. I will try to post a bit more about this and other stuff I haven’t even touched on after watching this disc a few more times.

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Yes, please tell us more, Ed. The cinematographer on the picture was Christopher Challis if I'm not mistaken.

Pamela Brown interpreted Nicklaus as rueful, knowing, long-suffering and always quick to help Hoffmann out of a jam even though he wouldn’t have been in the trouble in the first place if he had listened to his friend. Nicklaus was sung by the vocal star of the production, Monica Sinclair who was at the beginning of a long and distinguished international career.

Powell had wanted a larger role for Nicklaus, planning at one point to reveal Nicklaus as Hoffmann’s muse. Brown had a most wonderful and distinctive speaking voice, which you don’t get to hear in ToH, unfortunately. Her career was blighted by crippling arthritis, which struck her in her teens. Powell speaks movingly about her in his book – they lived together for decades until her death.

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I seem to remember reading years ago that a scene with Pamela Brown as Hoffman's muse was actually filmed, but discarded at the editing stage. "Wrapped in gold leaf" was the description, if I remember correctly. I thought she was wonderful - one of the best things in the film, though I also loved Ashton as Kleinzak - a very Fred piece of self-casting! I loved the film and negotiated an advance on my pocket money to see it a second time.

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Robert Helpmann almost stole the show as the four villains. Amazing acting and he moves with such elegant grace it is breathtaking. He gave us a hint in the prolog during Lindorf’s pantomime with Phillip Leaver who is delightfully described in the opening credits as “Andreas, Stella’s Servant, a rogue”. He is evil as Dapertutto in the second act, particularly while dancing to the aria in which he charms Giulietta with a gaudy necklace he creates from candle drippings. [...] Helpmann and Tcherina make a wonderfully horrible pair—great casting.
Ed, you capture Helpmann beautifully. Even when I was a child watching endless reruns of this film on local tv, it was Helpmann who fascinated me the most. What a face. And how well he carried himself.

I remember being surprised to learn, later on, what an important -- and varied -- role he had played in the development of the Royal Ballet.

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There was a story about Robert Helpman I had heard many years ago. He apparently had developed the talent for reading writing upside down. He would go into De Valois office just to chat. While he was speaking to her would gather information from the papers on her desk. He would later report back to his fellow company members about casting and any news about the company. What a talented and interesting man Helpmann was !

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Helpmann certainly was interesting, although personally he seems to have had some less than attractive qualities. His talents are shown to much better advantage in ToH than in The Red Shoes, definitely. (A naive observer could be forgiven for wondering just how Helpmann wound up as premier danseur for the Ballet Lermontov.)

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