Saturday, February 22, 2014

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM

I saw THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM when it was first released in 1962 at the old Austin Theater on South Congress. I don't remember much about the film (I was only six years old at the time) except for the sequence with Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett and a stop-motion animated, fire-breathing dragon. I do know that I did not see it in it's original Cinerama format as the screen at the Austin was far too small to accommodate that wide screen format.

I watched the film again the other night for the first time in over fifty years the other night, thanks to a recent airing on TCM. Wouldn't you know it? The part of the movie that found me nodding off the most (hey, it was a long day and I was dead tired) was the dragon sequence. I missed most of it while watching the insides of my eyelids. But I did manage to see all of the other parts of the film.

The print that TCM showed was the Cinerama version and even though I have a large, flat screen high definition television, the picture image was soft, fuzzy and slightly blurry. Plus, I could occasionally see the two faint white vertical lines that indicated the three "screens" of the Cinerama format.

 And here's the worst part. In the Cinerama format, the sides of the projected image were supposed to curve out and around the theater audience, enhancing both the depth and breadth of the film. On television, instead of seeing a film that was meant to be experienced as concave, the two side "screens" of the Cinerama process actually appeared as convex. Instead of being at the same depth of focus as the middle screen, images in the side screens often appeared as being in the deep background with human figures appearing smaller than those in the center screen. When an actor in a side screen walked towards the middle, their image got progressively larger and they appeared to be turning an unseen corner before entering the center of the shot.

 This effect came and went throughout the film depending on what was being shown on the screen. If actors remained in the center and the camera didn't move, it wasn't too bad. But if the camera panned (as it did during a dance sequence), the background of the gypsy camp appeared to ripple with wagons undulating towards and away from me at a dizzying rate of speed and motion. Needless to say, this was not the best way to see this film and during the first few minutes of viewing, I debated as to whether to continue watching or not.

I pressed on and was glad I did. In addition to being originally filmed in the short-lived Cinerama format, MGM released WONDERFUL WORLD as a prestige picture, complete with "roadshow" engagements with reserved seating at select theaters. The film has an overture and an intermission lending it an epic feel and an air of importance. Plus, the film was produced by science fiction and fantasy film auteur George Pal (who directed the fairytale sequences) and there was that fire-breathing dragon to consider (even if I fell asleep a few times).

The film presents the story of the Brothers Grimm (Lawrence Harvey and Karl (PEEPING TOM) Bohm). They are tasked with writing a flattering biography of a local Duke (Oscar Homolka). While serious, industrious brother Jacob (Bohm), buckles down and works hard, dreamer brother Wilhelm (Harvey) is more interested in the folk tales he hears from various residents of their small village. He tells two of these stories, "The Dancing Princess" with Russ Tamblyn, Yvette Mimieux and Jim Backus and "The Cobbler and the Elves" with Harvey as the cobbler and Pal's Puppetoons as the elves, to his own children at home and to an audience of children and adults in a bookstore. An old woman (Martita Hunt) tells the story of "The Singing Bone" (Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett and that dragon) to another group of children with Harvey eavesdropping and note taking at the window of her hut in the forest.

The film takes a slightly dark turn when the brothers fail to complete their assignment and are threatened with eviction and starvation while Harvey falls ill and lies near death. While on his sick bed, he's visited by a parade of fairy tale characters who tell him that he cannot die because if he dies, so do they. It's a moving scene about the power and need of stories and Harvey, of course, recovers and goes on to give the world the stories of the characters who came to him that night.

The Grimm brothers eventually achieve a measure of fame and fortune. Bohm publishes serious, academic texts, while Harvey writes a series of immortal fairy tales. A subtitle at the end of the film tells us that "they lived happily ever after".

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM is an earnest, sincere film that will appeal to fantasy fans, admirers of George Pal and anyone who grew up with the classic fairy tales by either reading them or by having them read to them. It's not a great film by any stretch but it's worth seeing at least once. Just remember that if you see a Cinerama print, the visuals will be a little wonky in places.

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