Cinderfella

Cinderfella Paramount Pictures 1960.

Before watching the movie:

It seems a natural fit that a comedian who often plays meek nice guys would eventually land in a genderbent fairytale. If Jerry Lewis has a specialty in stories, it may well be nebbish men’s wish fulfilment fantasies, and few stories are more wish fulfilment than Cinderella.

In an era where we’re taking our traditionally white male role model character roles and trying to be conscious about putting more women and people of color there, it may seem a little backward to turn one of the canon fairytale princesses into Jerry Lewis, but I think the reason I’m not too discomforted by it is that Cinderella is a pretty classical feminine role type, and it’s not a position one would expect to find a fictional man who is the protagonist in. So it’s an underutilized permutation that stands exploring in media.

After watching the movie:

After the death of Fella’s father, his stepmother assumed control of the family fortune and has spent the last several years spending it on luxury for herself and her sons, sparing very little for Fella and demanding he serve them constantly in gratitude for what little she does provide for him. In fact, most of the father’s fortune was hidden somewhere unfound, and the stepmother has nearly run out of money. In order to keep herself and her sons in the life they’ve become accustomed to, she has planned a ball honoring the visiting Princess Charming so that one of the sons can marry the princess. The stepmother forbids Fella to go to the ball, but his Fairy Godfather arrives to tell him that he’s been chosen to become the men’s counterpart to Cinderella, he’s going to go to the ball, marry the princess, and cease to be a “people” (unremarkable, ordinary) and soon become a “person” (noteworthy, important).

This movie has two big messages it’s centered on. The honorability and preferability of being a decent but forgettable person is a fairly common moral, but then there’s everything about why Fella’s being picked up out of obscurity. Ed Wynn is delightful in everything, and I expected him to be just as delightful as a Fairy Godfather, but then he started talking.

It turns out that not only was he actually the one who fixed up Cinderella’s life, and the women of the day attributed his deeds to a woman because “women want to take credit for everything”, but the plan for Fella is “to right the wrongs created by the original Cinderella story”. Certainly some bad lessons can be learned from Cinderella, but in this case, the problem is that every woman who hears the story waits for her own Prince Charming to take her away from all her troubles, and as there was only one Prince Charming, eventually all women settle for the closest available man and become bitter about them not being their princes, which is a problem because of “all the abuse the men of the world suffer for it”. If men have Fella to point to as a lucky guy, everything equals out and people will have to learn to love each other for themselves. This is presented as the central thesis of the plot, that women take out their frustrations about their bad life decisions on their husbands, and in order to make it right for the husbands of the world, they need to have their own rags to riches figure to turn back on their wives.

Everything around that explanation is a fun little movie about Jerry Lewis being a put-upon nobody who marries a princess with the combination of a little luck and being his earnest honest self, but the movie’s whole excuse for the events happening is a chauvinist manifesto that destroyed my enjoyment going forward.

I could also talk about how the necessary feeling of Fella being helpless to the whims of his stepfamily is deflated by him having the time for things like pretending to be an entire orchestra when he’s alone in the kitchen and should be working, or how Fella has a whole song about how being a nice guy hasn’t gotten him anywhere and he’s going to be nasty and self-serving from now on, only for his Fairy Godfather to show up and tell him to forget all that or the deal’s off, therefore collapsing any chance for Fella to have an arc where he learns something, but when a movie lays out its position so boldly and wrongheadedly, there’s not much else to say.

Jerry Lewis is as always, great with physical comedy. The musical numbers are often fun, especially when Count Basie is playing. There are some really clever sight gags. But I didn’t want the plot to even acknowledge the original Cinderella story as happening at all, let alone as something that needed to be fixed by centering a man in it. I never expected to see such active misogyny in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

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