Thursday, January 10, 2013

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN: Blu-ray (Samuel Goldwyn 1952) Warner Home Video

A painfully puerile attempt to celebrate the Danish author of so many beloved children’s fables, Charles Vidor’s Hans Christian Andersen (1952) is an absurdly lavish though woefully undernourished claptrap, loosely stringing together several of Andersen’s more celebrated fairytales into an incomprehensible ‘biography’ that even the film’s prologue laughingly refuses to acknowledge and I quote, “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.”
Well put, but erroneously executed with the usually charming Danny Kaye herein recast as an elfin clod, seemingly unable to slip into his clogs and fly a kite at the same time. Kaye, who made a name for himself largely associated with The Goldwyn Company throughout the 1940s and in a series of classy smash hits as the leering comic of formidable panache and timing is very un-Kaye-like herein and it does not serve either the star or his Danish alter ego. Kaye is in exceptional voice, as he proves throughout the Frank Loesser score. He is particularly affecting in “Anywhere I Wander” – a melodic love ballad – and “The Ugly Duckling” – sung to brighten the spirits of a forlorn child who is obviously suffering from some great illness.
For the rest, however, Loesser’s songs are moppet-happy treacle of the most absurd order; as in the jovially feather-weight “I’m Hans Christian Andersen” – interpolated throughout the film whenever Kaye’s misguided wanderer feels he needs to reassert his own legacy upon his ever-loyal travelling companion, Peter (Joey Walsh) or the unsuspecting inhabitants of “Wonderful Copenhagen”, and even more repetitively idiotic warbling “Inchworm” or “The King’s New Clothes” – all bounce and modest fizzle.
It’s rather baffling for me to assess Samuel Goldwyn’s overzealousness in producing this clunker with all the trappings money can buy that, for better or worse, I ought to point out was a smashing success upon its release. Clearly the innocence of the piece appealed to many a mid-western mom dragging little Tommy Fluffball and Suzy Cream Cheese off to the Bijou for the Saturday matinee. Don’t get me wrong. I love sugary sweetness and family entertainment. But it must be trans-generationally in its appeal in order for it to become timeless.  
Even as pure cinematic storytelling, Hans Christian Andersen is problematic at best;  Zizi Jeanmaire and Farley Granger herein cast as temperamental ballet dancer, Dora whom Hans falls haplessly in love with, and ballet master/hubby Niels, who isn’t above giving his prima donna the back of his hand when she fails to whirl like a dervish on stage. Clearly neither Niels, nor screenwriter Moss Hart had come to appreciate the ramifications of spousal abuse on the kiddy mindset. But in transforming Hans Christian Andersen into a socially stunted adult, both the man and the artist are ill-served in this Hollywood glam-bam; the scholarly storyteller of history who became a national treasure for the Danes, unceremoniously reconstituted as a somewhat effete middle-aged shoemaker who knows absolutely nothing about life or women.
Hans lives with his apprentice, and Jiminy Cricket-styled social conscience, Peter inside a not terribly prepossessing concern on the outskirts of their modest town. The children adore Hans’ stories. But the adults – particularly the schoolmaster (John Brown) – see Hans as a threat to their inevitable evolution as productive members of society. It’s a fair concern, for Hans does indeed exist within a social vacuum of his own design, his out of the way sequestering of the prepubescent population – lured over the bridge and away from their parents and studies by a sailing kite – by deliberate design undermining the onslaught of adulthood with a curiously faint whiff of pedophilia to boot. Seriously, if ol’ Hans is lonely he ought to get himself some adult friends and leave the toddler set alone.
Town council eventually elects to remove Hans from their midst and Peter, having overheard their plans, makes haste to Hans’ home beforehand to encourage him to take a much needed vacation, thus sparing him the embarrassment of being evicted. After some reluctance, Hans agrees to go to Copenhagen with Peter – the two embarking on what is hoped will be a great new adventure for them both.  But their introduction to the paper mache recreation of ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’ is hardly warm-hearted. In fact, Hans is promptly arrested for advertising his profession before the King’s statue.
Once again, Peter comes to Hans’ aid and soon Hans finds work with Copenhagen’s ballet company. He is asked by its prima ballerina, Dora to create a new set of toe shoes that will allow her to stand for longer periods. Prior to this request, Hans has observed the brutality in Dora’s relationship with husband, Niels; the company’s director. The two deliberately taunt one another with insults and barbs – she accusing him of boorish demands and him suggesting that she has been deliberately unprincipled and undisciplined in her practice.  The two then physically assault one another with Hans, at a distance, utterly horrified that any man should treat a woman in such a way – particularly one he professes to love.
Hans develops and incurable loyal streak toward Dora, toiling all night to fashion a pair of dancing slippers that will treasure her feet.  In the morning Hans presents these to Dora for her approval. She is immensely touched by his diligence, quaint modestly and tenderly affectionate stance toward her. But how could Dora conceive Hans’ emotions to be anything more than abject human kindness when he seems completely to lack that spark of male animal magnetism; thoroughly incapable of attracting any woman as a potential mate.
Peter begins to sense that Hans’ attachment toward Dora is becoming mildly obsessive after Hans writes ‘The Little Mermaid’ as an homage about her. Misunderstanding Hans’ true intensions, Peter inadvertently gives the story to Dora who becomes enchanted by its whimsical simplicity and Niels, believing that Hans has written it for the company rather than his wife, elects to turn it into an opera. Hans, however, is quickly whittled out of the creative process by Niels, who increasingly finds him a minor nuisance.
The next day Hans notices a bald child, Lars (Peter J. Votrian) being ignored by the local children as he tells his stories in the public square, and thus concocts the tale of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ expressly for Lars’ entertainment.  In gratitude for this simple kindness, Lars’ father (Miles Mander), who also happens to be a publisher, elects to print Hans’ stories for the whole world to read. However, just when it looks as though Hans’ future is looking bright, Peter intrudes with the suggestion that Hans will never be anything more to Dora than a friend. This scene, particularly Hans’ admonishment of Peter, whom he rather callously orders to return to their home town without him as part of his dissolving their lifelong friendship, tingles with a rather obvious homoeroticism.
Bitter, though obliging, Peter leaves Hans who pursues Dora at the opera on the eve of the premiere of The Little Mermaid. At Niel’s command, the stage doorman (Robert Malcolm) quietly bars Hans – who has designed a brand new pair of shoes for the occasion - from seeing Dora, and Niels compounds this insult by locking Hans inside one of the rehearsal halls where he remains, thus missing out on his own triumphant debut. The next day Niels – who is about as superficial and heartless as any male suitor I can recall – suddenly remembers that Hans is still locked in the rehearsal hall at the theater. Infuriated with her husband, but only superficially so, Dora orders Hans brought to their bedchamber where Hans at last witnesses for himself that she is very much in love with her husband.
Realizing that Peter was right all along, Hans packs his things and hurries down the open road to catch up to him and apologize. The two companions reconcile and reprise several bars of the film’s title song before returning to their village. As Hans’ published tales have preceded his return, he is now regarded as a national treasure and welcomed back with open arms by the populous – child and adult alike.
Hans Christian Andersen is so utterly dishonest in its premise, so manipulative in its plaintive plucking at our heart strings that it instantly fails to win in any lasting or sincere manner. For all of the aforementioned reasons, this glossy – undeniably expensive – and even more incredulously obvious studio bound super production utterly bombs. The ballet sequences, choreographed and occasionally danced by Roland Petit are a hodgepodge, lushly photographed in Technicolor by Harry Stradling, thought heavy-handedly edited by Daniel Mandell. Had the spectacle of it all been handled with a tad more esthetic agility the movie might have escaped my thorough tongue-lashing of its incredibly misguided and idiotically hokey narrative.
But the gloss is superficial at best and wears thin only a few moments into the story: Danny Kaye’s central performance instantly grating on the eyes, if marginally soothing to the ears. In the final analysis, Hans Christian Andersen limps into its own as a big budgeted booby-trap of artistic misfires, more glaringly obvious with the passage of time. Quite simply, the film doesn’t hold up. Frankly, it’s a wonder to me that it ever did!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is at least welcome for those who do not share my view of the movie. Grain is a tad thicker on this presentation than I expected. It’s important to recall that three stripe Technicolor was a grain concealing process. Still, colors remain remarkably vibrant – a tribute to those metal based dyes yielding mostly impressive results. Occasionally, differential shrinkage of the elements results in modest halos cropping up here and there. None will terribly distract, but they are nevertheless quite obvious when they occur.
For the rest, we get a bright and breezy transfer with solid contrast and an excellent display of fine details. Age related artifacts are present but kept to the bare minimum. Truly, the visual presentation will delight. The audio is DTS mono, but exhibiting a startling amount of clarity and power – particularly in music and effects. Despite Warner’s digibook packaging, what we get is very threadbare indeed, amounting to a bunch of photos and poster art thrown together, but a very scant amount of info on the making of the film.  Other than a theatrical trailer, there are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



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