Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen (1952)
directed by Charles Vidor, starring Danny Kaye

(Note: This is my entry in the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon, Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Hans Christian Andersen (Danny Kaye) is the most contented man in all of his tiny village. Even though he's only a humble cobbler, his knack for spinning fairy tales out of the air dazzles the children and keeps Hans himself happily living in fantasy land. However, his tales don't sit well with the local schoolteacher, who sees his charges abandoning their books to listen to Hans. He demands that Hans be kicked out. Peter (Joey Walsh), Hans' young ward, protects his friend's innocence by convincing him to leave town for Copenhagen. Hans, overcome with the city's glamor, agrees and sets off for a grand adventure. Along the way, he wins the hearts of many people with his charming stories and songs. But one day, the naive storyteller meets a beautiful ballerina (Zizi Jeanmaire) and her angry, shouting director-husband (Farley Granger). Hans is immediately smitten with the dancer's charms. Even more so when he realizes she's the victim of an abusive marriage. His much more practical friend Peter thinks Hans is setting himself up for tragedy. But Hans is too busy pouring out his heart into a new tragic fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid," to listen. Little does he realize that he's living out his own story in a way he never imagined...

Hans Christian Andersen is one of those movies that is far more fascinating to me for what it suggests about the people that make it and watch it than for anything in the movie itself. It's a movie about one of the most famous storytellers that ever lived, the man whose best fairy tales ("The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen") feel as timeless as the oldest stories on earth. And yet, this movie, the most famous filmed version of Andersen's life tries to honor him while simultaneously working its hardest to obliterate Andersen himself. 

It's a biopic movie, told as a fairy tale. The film even opens with a title card that says flat out they're going for pure fantasy here, no facts: "Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales." I have to admit, it's kind of refreshing to have one of those "great artist" movies that just tells you upfront that it's not even going to pretend to a smidgen of accuracy. I've sat through so many biographical movies (the Bronte sisters melodrama Devotion being the latest and silliest) that diligently smuggle in a few facts here and there like they're crushing up some vitamin pills in the dessert. Instead
of trying for halfhearted realism, the makers of Hans Christian Andersen choose enthusiasm and magic, all the way.

Instead of making Hans Christian Andersen into the difficult, depressed, ambitious man he was, here he's a happy, singing cobbler who spins dreams for children. Instead of being a busy, proudly perfectionist writer, in this movie he stumbles into authorship in the way a man in a fairy tale might stumble into a magic castle. Instead of being a man who longed for adulation and worked hard for patronage, the Andersen that Danny Kaye plays is a simple soul whose happiest moments are when he can bring a smile to a child's face.

It's an approach to biopics that is, despite the awkwardness, kind of charming in its sincerity. This movie, helped along by a string of hummable Frank Loesser songs and a Danny Kaye performance that miraculously holds things together, is a sweet tribute to the way fairy tales can make us feel. How they can cheer us in times of trouble, help us find humor in strange places, and, as the character of Hans finds out, how they can sometimes mislead us into thinking people much less than they are.

However, the thing that makes Hans Christian Andersen a truly strange film for me, for all it's many enjoyable parts is that the very people who want to honor Andersen's life by telling it as a fairy tale end up with a film that seems as if it were made by people who never actually sat down and really read his fairy tales at all.

And seeing as how this film was a Samuel Goldwyn pet project, that's very likely the case.

My grandmother gave me a book of the complete fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen when I was a child. And one thing I learned very quickly was that Andersen fairy tales were dark. Not the dark of unabridged Grimm fairy tales; Andersen wasn't crude enough to scare
you with blood and gore alone. Oh no, you read Andersen, you get treated to gems like "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf," in which a girl who makes the fatal mistake of using a bread loaf to keep her feet dry is rewarded with a stint in a peat bog as a witch's statue. She is forced to stay in this immobile state while hearing people on earth tell her story and weep over her sin for generations. Later on, our bread-treading girl gets to show her penitence by flying around as a bird, giving bread crumbs to other starving birds until the crumbs add up to the bread she misused. Other Andersen tales include "The Red Shoes" (a girl nearly dances herself to death until her feet are cut off), "The Story of a Mother" (a woman who fights Death tooth and nail for the life of her child, to the point of pressing thorn bushes against her bare chest and giving up her own eyes, only to be told her child is better off safe in Heaven) and "The Snowman" (a snowman falls hopelessly in love with a stove, melts, and is forgotten).

However, what struck me, even as a kid, way more than the brutal punishments and death that exist in Andersen stories, is the tone of isolation and suffering that permeates even his more whimsical tales. He could find anguish in two toys sitting on a mantel or in a Christmas tree. His characters are almost crushed under the weight of unrequited love, a personal pain that hardly ever seems to happen in our Perrault and Grimm fairy tales. Even when people win and find happy endings, they're bittersweet after the taste of so much sorrow.

And yet, Andersen's tales often succeed in speaking so well to people (children and adults) because they never take for granted those hurt feelings that sometimes really do last our whole lives. There's a reason the phrase "ugly duckling" has become a permanent part of the lexicon. And the physical tortures he inflicted on his characters could sometimes be the perfect metaphors for a character's feeling. In the original "The Little Mermaid," the mermaid not only trades the voice that would allow her to speak her feelings to her beloved human. She also endures the pain of invisible knives cutting her feet every time she walks; the price she pays for becoming a new person is a life without true rest or relief.

This is the problem with Hans Christian Andersen the Movie. At no point is it possible to connect Danny Kaye's happy cobbler with a man who could understand deep feelings of loss or a lack of belonging. The movie does hint in this direction by giving us a plot about Hans falling in love with a ballerina and, thanks to his lack of real world understanding, imagining her as a damsel in distress who loves him, too. It gives a touch of poignancy that the movie badly needs. However, the movie works so hard to emphasize the whole angle of Hans Christian Andersen, Friend to All Children, that it can't connect the man to his own actual work.

So, after all that, what makes Hans Christian Andersen a movie worth watching? Danny Kaye. After seeing so many great comedians crash and burn on the Shoals of Sentimentality (it's pretty tricky to switch to sincerity if all you're used to is snark), I was pleasantly surprised with how well Danny Kaye managed to convince me that he really is a goodhearted, humble soul who makes children smile. His idea of Hans is a man who's simple but never simpleminded. He's not dumb, he just finds too much wonder in the world to pay attention to those boring everyday matters. He gets along with kids because they're on the same wavelength. Kaye has the charisma and the acting talent to make these scenes work. Whether he's inventing "Thumbelina" for a little girl outside his jail cell or "The Ugly Duckling" for a boy with a shaved head, he's always good company. Oh and when he sings the song, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen," it will never leave your head. 

Kaye's counterpart is Joey Walsh, a child actor who plays Hans' young ward Peter (at least I guess he's a ward, the movie never really explains). Just as Hans is the child in the grown man's body, Peter is the adult in a child's boy. It's his job to explain to Hans why he has to focus on the business of cobbling shoes as well as making fairy tales. He is the one who stays by Hans' side and tries to protect him from the humiliations that others might heap on him. And Peter is the one who understands where Hans' ill-fated attraction to a married ballerina will lead him. Joey Walsh is fine in the role and the moment where Hans tries to send his friend away in a fit of temper is surprisingly sad.

Hans Christian Andersen is so much a Danny Kaye showcase that, other than Peter, the supporting characters don't fully register. Which is a shame because the whole unrequited love subplot, with Farley Granger and Zizi Jeanmaire as a dancing couple locked in a complex love-hate relationship, really begs for more explanation.

Farley Granger famously summed up Hans Christian Andersen as "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets boy." He was pissed off at Goldwyn for foisting him into the underwritten part of the dance director who simultaneously bullies and worships his wife. Granger was nearing the end of his glory days as a Goldwyn contract player and playing second banana in a Danny Kaye vehicle could hardly have sweetened the deal. Kaye also, reportedly, saved most of his charm for his onscreen moments, carping at his director, his fellow actors, and complaining whenever he felt cheated of something. He objected to Granger getting to sing in a duet with Jeanmaire, taking the part for himself. 

Granger answered second-class treatment and a second-class part with a second-class performance. He looks great in costume but can't muster up much than bored petulance. But then, what can you do in in a part that asks you to play one half of a sadomasochistic love affair in a brightly saturated, singing kid's movie? Maybe George Sanders could have pulled that one off but not the clearly bored-out-of-his mind Farley Granger.

Moira Shearer was Goldwyn's original choice for Doro, the object of Hans' infatuation. Unfortunately, Shearer became pregnant and the role went to Zizi Jeanmaire, the famous ballerina who danced into international stardom with her 1949 interpretation of Carmen. I say, unfortunately, not because I have any real problem with Jeanmaire, but because I have a real soft spot for Shearer whose redheaded, wide-eyed beauty seems much more in tune with the damsel in distress that Hans dreams up. She was also a better actress than Michael Powell liked to admit; her tragic fates in The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom wouldn't carry nearly the bite if Shearer's characters didn't seem so joyously alive.

Jeanmaire on the other hand, plays Doro as a preening, self-absorbed cliche of a French ballerina. She's saucy and smirking, the kind of woman who seems more likely to inspire, well, Carmen, than The Little Mermaid. She's got charm but I never once believed her chemistry with either Kaye or Granger. Still, Jeanmaire does get a great moment at the end, when Doro finally, for the first time, realizes that Hans is a human being with feelings that she has completely taken for granted. The slow-dawning understanding in her eyes allows us to see, for the first time, Doro as a woman who could dance The Little Mermaid and mean it.

Also, Zizi Jeanmaire does get a fine showcase for her talents with The Little Mermaid ballet, choreographed by her husband Roland Petit. Some reviewers don't care much for the ballet interlude in the film, but I think it's a treat, adding a welcome touch of darkness and starkly beautiful pantomime to a very bright, tuneful movie. Also, if it wasn't for me looking up facts about Petit and Jeanmaire, I might never have found out about this gorgeous real-life couple of almost sixty years, who, in addition to their balletic brilliance, had the gift of looking perpetually adorable and in love in nearly every photo taken of them.

At the time of its release, Hans Christian Andersen was a smash success for Samuel Goldwyn, then in the twilight of his movie-making career. And yet, this movie exists uneasily in the land of semi-classics. It's too fondly remembered by too many people who saw and loved it as a kid to be totally forgotten. And yet it doesn't fully click for a lot of people, myself included. Really, if anyone nowadays wants to tackle a Hans Christian Andersen movie musical that actually puts some of the real Andersen in it, I would be behind them all the way. I would pay money to see someone write a song about that time when Hans Christian Andersen stayed with Charles Dickens and made himself The Most Annoying Houseguest of All Time (so annoying in fact, that he reportedly inspired Uriah Heep). Can you imagine the Dickens-Andersen duet?

In the end, even if the 1952 Hans Christian Andersen is not fully to my taste, I can still concede that there's room enough in this world for all kinds of fairy tales. The kind that end in Hollywood box office and the kind that end in peat bogs. The kind that tell what a man's work means to someone and the kind that tell us that storytelling, no matter how silly or serious, really matters.

Favorite Quote:

"The other day I asked my Gerta what time it was and she said that the minute hand and the hour hand weren't speaking to each other. They were both in love with the second hand. And they wouldn't make up until they met at twelve o'clock. And no one could tell the time until then."

Favorite Scene:

Danny Kaye singing "I'm Hans Christian Andersen." It's just so irresistibly catchy.

Final Six Words:

Sugar-spun fantasy of writer's life

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Farewell, Patty Duke

It has a name!

Patty Duke (1946-2016)