by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann, yet another experimental movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This time, as a follow-up to their 1948 ballet extravaganza The Red Shoes, they took Offenbach’s opera (sung in an English translation by Dennis Arundell of the original French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré — though for some reason Barbier is credited but Carré is not) from a soundtrack recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (and released on Decca in Britain and London in the U.S., the only time Beecham recorded for that company), and used it as the basis for a fantastic story shot in highly stylized color on extravagant and flagrantly unreal sets, and with most of the cast members doubled by ballet dancers — including Red Shoes star Moira Shearer, who dances both Olympia (sung by Dorothy Bond) and Stella, the ballerina Hoffmann is lusting after in the opening scene. The opera is based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, an early 19th century German Romantic writer (he also wrote the tale on which Tchaikovsky’s warhorse ballet The Nutcracker is based) with a flair for fantasies about doomed loves. Barbier and Carré took three of these stories and linked them with a framing plot that made Hoffmann (played in the movie by Richard Rounseville, one of only two cast members who appears both on the screen and on the soundtrack) an on-stage character, hanging out in Luther’s Tavern between the acts of the ballet Stella is dancing and narrating his unfortunate experiences with previous would-be lovers.
These include Olympia, a woman who turns out to be a mechanical doll run by clockwork (these sorts of things were actually quite popular in Hoffmann’s time, though none were life-size; there was a chess-playing robot that was exhibited as supposedly having belonged to Napoleon, but most modern authorities believe the thing was actually a fake with a live person inside operating it); Antonia (Anne Ayars, the only cast member besides Rounseville who both appeared in the movie and sang on the soundtrack), daughter of a famous opera singer who died young and apparently headed for the same fate, with her father and doctor alternating between insisting that she sing and insisting that she not sing, for fear that the act of singing would be fatal; and Giulietta (played by Ludmilla Tchérina, sung by Margherita Grandi — who was also Lady Macbeth in Beecham’s production of Verdi’s opera), a femme fatale in Venice who gets her lovers to give up their shadows or their reflections as the price of her affections. (Offenbach, who died before he had quite finished the opera — Ernest Guiraud, who had composed the recitatives for the grand-opera version of Bizet’s Carmen after Bizet’s death, was likewise employed here to finish the piece — intended the acts to be played in the order Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta, but for some reason it’s become traditional to play the Antonia act last and so it’s done here.)
I enjoyed watching this movie but I’m not quite sure what I think of it long-term; it’s certainly not your standard-issue stand-and-sing opera movie, and in The Tales of Hoffmann Powell and Pressburger certainly picked an opera that lent itself to their no-holds-barred fantasy approach (one couldn’t imagine The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata or Lohengrin working this way!), but the film doesn’t seem to be about anything. The Red Shoes stuck closely enough to conventional narrative that it had real dramatic issues — the conflict faced by Moira Shearer’s character between fulfilling her art as a dancer and pursuing love and marriage as a woman; the domineering, almost Svengali-like attitude of her ballet coach (Anton Walbrook — indeed when I saw The Red Shoes the films it reminded me of, Svengali, The Mad Genius and Maytime, all had John Barrymore in similar roles, so in effect Walbrook was “channeling” Barrymore in that film!); the relative innocence of the composer the ballerina character falls in love with — and packs a wallop even though the ending seems totally over-the-top and frankly unbelievable (but then so does the sexist cop-out ending of Maytime; perhaps the reason both these films have their hallucinatory power is that the conflict between love and art, at least as both sets of filmmakers present it, is ultimately unresolvable) — whereas The Tales of Hoffmann seems to be about only itself and the ability of Powell, Pressburger and their cinematographer, Christopher Challis, and art director, Hein Heckroth, to create absolutely stunning, over-the-top images.
Powell and Pressburger (who tends to get lost in the modern literature on these films; most of today’s critics credit these films to Powell alone even though Pressburger is listed as co-director on the original credits) had a flair for visual stylistics that ran through their films, but sometimes they hitched those dazzling images to a coherent and emotionally gripping plot (as in A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes) and sometimes they didn’t (as in Black Narcissus and The Tales of Hoffmann). The Tales of Hoffmann is a marvelous movie — and certainly one doesn’t want to criticize a film that dares so much more than the average movie — but it’s also one of those curious meals that seems to be all desserts. The imdb.com Web site had a “Trivia” item that said that George A. Romero, director of The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, regards The Tales of Hoffmann as his all-time favorite film and said that seeing it in his childhood was what made him want to be a director — had Guillermo del Toro said that I could believe it (certainly the extravagant imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth has commonalities with Powell’s and Pressburger’s work), but it seems odd that Romero claims The Tales of Hoffmann as his inspiration for a bunch of cheap, tacky, sloppily photographed and badly acted horror films.