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The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951 movie


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#1 bart

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 02:47 PM

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.

#2 carbro

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 03:03 PM

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.

#3 rg

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 03:55 PM

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.

#4 bart

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 07:31 PM

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.

#5 atm711

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 04:33 AM

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'.

#6 bart

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 05:46 AM

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.

#7 FauxPas

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 11:13 AM

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.

#8 innopac

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 11:55 AM

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



#9 rg

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:02 PM

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.

#10 dirac

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:03 PM

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.)

#11 rg

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:08 PM

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.

#12 atm711

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:12 PM

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.

#13 rg

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:25 PM

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.?

#14 dirac

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:38 PM

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.

#15 dirac

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Posted 06 January 2009 - 12:47 PM

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


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