The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm

Original poster for the film!

The Hungarian film maverick George Pal is perhaps not as well known as his American counterpart Ray Harryhausen, although they both worked in family-oriented fantasy film and both were based in America. Harryhausen commands a following among world-leading celebrities of film and television, with many luminaries like Martin Scorcese and Tim Burton citing him as an early influence on their work.

Today Pal’s name is only familiar to die-hard film aficionados and puppeteers, which is a shame because he produced and directed some of the most iconic films of the 1950s and 60s. These include science fiction gems such as Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide.  Prior to these successes, Pal had received Oscar nominations for his short fantasy films featuring his puppetoons, latex puppets that he patented in Germany before escaping Nazism, first to the UK and then to America.

Souvenier book

For me, as for many other film fans, his masterpiece is THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, one of the only two narrative features shot in 3 strip Cinerama.  [To find out more about Cinerama and its legacy to the world of film, click here].  One of the highest grossing films of 1962, it was nominated for four Oscars and won for best costume design.   The stars were Russ Tamblyn, Laurence Harvey, Karlheinz Bohm, Claire Bloom, Yvette Mimieux and the initimable Martita Hunt as an old witch with a golden heart and a mind full of enchanting stories.   Pal produced and directed the three segments based on Grimm’s fairytales, hiring Henry Levin who’d just lensed an Italian production of Aladdin, to helm the wraparound narrative.

This is an ingenious mix of fact and fantasy, giving the viewer an insight into the way the brothers Grimm collected their now world-famous stories while making it clear that this is a film-maker’s homage to the writers.   The plot highlights the difference between the two brothers.  Jacob, played by Karlheinz Bohm, is married and worried about making ends meet.  Wilhelm, portrayed by Laurence Harvey, is single and is prone to taking time off from the day job to collect fairy tales.  Sometimes he even fritters the family’s bread budget on bribes to street hawkers in exchange for a folk tale.  The pair have been employed by a local duke, played by Oscar Homolka, to write the family’s history but Wilhelm’s erratic behaviour is putting the project, payment and even the brothers’ house in jeopardy.  Can Jacob and the rest of the family talk some sense into him? You’ll have to watch the film to find out….

Artist’s impression of The Dancing Princess

Interspersed into this narrative are  three of the Grimms’ most famous stories.  The first to hit the screen is an adaptation of Twelve Dancing Princesses, here cleverly reduced to just one.  A king is perplexed by his daughter’s ability to wear out a pair of slippers every night.  She is locked in her room but somehow she manages to escape.  The king is determined to find out how and why, and offers a reward to anyone who can come up with some answers. A woodsman, played by Russ Tamblyn, offers his services, even though failure means losing his head on the chopping block.  He manages to trail the princess to a travellers’ site where she dances her ballet pumps to pieces.  The Grimms’ ending to the original story had the hero [a retired soldier, rather than a woodsman] choose one of the twelve princesses for a wife. Here the woodsman falls in love with the dancing princess, which leads to an emotionally satisfying ending.

The second story is is The Elves And The Shoemaker, starring the puppetoons.  Once again, Pal tinkers with the original to bring the narrative up to date. In this version, the cobbler fails to meet his rich clients’ deadlines because he is carving Christmas presents for the kids at the orphanage next door.  On Christmas night, the presents come alive to repay the cobbler’s generosity in a very magical way.  

A knight for my tea, please!

I saw this film recently at the National Media Museum as part of their world-renowned Widescreen Weekend.  Some time during the programme, we also watched a short about George Pal on a promotional tour for the film.  In one segment, he gives a boy whose been badly burnt in an accident, three airline tickets so that he and his family can return home for the holidays.  The boy looks pleased, but not as thrilled as when Pal suddenly opens a bag and presents him with one of the puppets from the film.  His ‘oooh’ was echoed in the cinema, by mature men including me, and it’s easy to understand why.  The elves are adorable, with a retro feel that harks back to the days when toys were made of wood and glue. Each one has his own personality which comes across even in such a short segment.

The third story is The Singing Bone, a tale that has counterparts in cultures around the world. It is narrated by Martita Hunt, she who immortalised Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations.  Here, she plays a storyteller, suspected of being an evil witch.  But her enchantment on the local kids turns out to be her ability to make a story come alive.  Pal gives her oral talent a visual fillip in what turns out to be the most special effects heavy part of the film.  It stars a cowardly knight, his humble squire and a bejewelled dragon with a taste for lordly flesh.

The dragon is stop motion and even after all these years the magic still works. His movements might not be as fluid as the cgi dragon’s in the more recent How To Train Your Dragon but, somehow, these mid-century creations captured the essential suspension of disbelief necessary for enjoying a story in a way that seems to elude modern cgi.  Perhaps it’s down to that old conjurors’ mantra: never reveal how a trick is done.  With modern cg,i we all know that we’re watching pixels, so there’s no magic there, at least not for me.  The innovators of the mid twentieth century employed a mixed bag of tricks – stop motion, glass shots, etc – which was impossible to decipher while watching a film.

Comic book based on the film

The climax of the film sees Wilhelm interacting with characters from the many stories he has collected.  The final scene is a tribute to storytellers everywhere – and one that could only have been written by someone who has had direct experience of entertaining kids, and dealing with adults who often look down on folklore and the magic of storytelling.

Today it’s virtually impossible to watch the film in its original 3 strip Cinerama glory, but it often crops up in pan and scan on television and is available on DVD.   The National Media Museum in Bradford now has its own copy, kindly donated by the Australian Cinerama enthusiast John Mitchell.  If you live close by, keep a lookout for it.  They just might show it again……….

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm

  1. Glorious idea Saviour – and you are the perfect person to celebrate these stories. How I loved that film as a child. Still do! Lovely to be reminded of it and I will be back often!

  2. I'd only seen it on a black and white telly until recently, James. A film buff had a copy of it in his collection and has just donated it to the National Media Museum. Miraculously, it has survived in all its glory. The audience was spellbound.

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