The Disney Cinderella Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

While Princess Cinderella may have found her prince to save her from a life of rags and drudgery, in the process of doing so she saved Walt Disney's debt-ridden studio from going out of business.

By 1947, the studio–still suffering from lack of sufficient income during World War II–was over four million dollars in debt and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The package feature films that were released quickly and cheaply only generated barely enough money to keep the studio open. Walt Disney needed a big hit.

In development at the studio were three animated feature film projects: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Cinderella. Walt decided that Cinderella had many similar elements to his previous success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and took a gamble to commit all of the studio's resources to the film.

It would be the first single story full length animated feature from the studio since Bambi (1942). Walt told the press, "People always like to root for Cinderella and the prince."

The story has had hundreds and hundreds of versions over the centuries, but the Disney team decided to focus on Charles Perrault's version that introduced the Fairy Godmother, the transformation of the pumpkin and mice into a coach and horses and, more importantly, glass slippers.

By the time Cinderella appeared in 1950, the world had changed significantly, with women having become more independent after their experiences in the work place and the military during World War II.

The success of Cinderella provided a financial boost to the Disney studio when it needed it most.

While not quite a feminist role model, Cinderella was more an independent and proactive woman than her predecessor Snow White had been, but like the women of the post-war era, she still longed for the ideal of marrying a prince and living happily ever after.

"Cinderella carries the story," stated animator Marc Davis who worked on the character. "If you don't believe in her, it doesn't matter how good or funny or interesting the rest of the characters are—the picture just doesn't work. With Cinderella, you could see the hurt and see the feeling. But even though she had her sad moments, she still stood rather strong all the way through. The audience had to believe she was worth their concern."

While also threatened by a more powerful older woman like Snow White, Cinderella revealed a strength, independence and resourcefulness that would later become an important part of the Disney princess personality.

When he compared Cinderella to Snow White while handling small maquettes of the characters on his weekly television show, Walt Disney stated, "She [Cinderella] believed in dreams, all right, but she also believed in doing something about them. When Prince Charming didn't come along, she went right over to the palace and got him."

The main animators on the character were Marc Davis and Eric Larson, but their perception of the character clashed with Larson wanting a simple rural girl and Davis wanting more elegance and grace. It was the mixture of these two approaches that helps make the character one of the favorites of the Disney princesses.

Mary Blair provided the overall look and color palette for the film, making it a vaguely French setting from the early 1800s.

In the Disney version, Cinderella had lost her mother and later her father, who had remarried. She was left all alone with her cruel stepmother Lady Tremaine and her two daughters Anastasia and Drizella. They take control of the estate and treat Ella as a housekeeping servant. They cruelly nickname her "Cinderella" because she is sometimes covered with cinders from laying near the fireplace for warmth.

Obviously, Lady Tremaine has somehow mismanaged the estate and spent the inheritance, since there are no other servants like a gardener, cook or maid, with poor Cinderella forced to do all the work and aspects of the chateau starting to fall into disrepair.

Cinderella's only friends are the birds, mice, a horse and a dog who repay her many kindnesses with their friendship. A royal decree announces a ball to be attended by all eligible maidens so the prince can find a wife. Cinderella rushes to complete all her chores and the animals help in making her a dress from her mother's old gown so she can attend but her stepsisters rip it to shreds just as they are all leaving.

A Fairy Godmother appears to the despairing young girl and with her magic creates a horse-drawn carriage, servants and beautiful dress with glass slippers that will all vanish at the stroke of midnight. At the ball, Cinderella wins the young prince's heart but races out from the ball at midnight, forcing the noble to hunt throughout the land for the maiden who left a single glass slipper behind. When he finally finds her, the two marry and live happily ever after.

The cleverness and the skill of the Disney storytellers is in the telling of this story since everyone knows that the slipper will fit Cinderella's foot. However, Disney constantly puts obstacles in the way to give the audience a sense of uncertainty.

The stepmother locks Cinderella in the attic so she will not be present. The mice steal the heavy key almost twice their size and then have to slowly lug it up a long flight of twisting stairs. When they finally get there, Lucifer the cat prevents them from unlocking the door.

When Cinderella finally arrives to try on the shoe, the stepmother trips one of the king's emissaries so that the slipper falls and shatters. Fortunately, Cinderella still has the matching shoe.

The Prince's name is never mentioned in the film nor is he ever referred to as "Prince Charming". Singer and television talk show host Mike Douglas provided the singing voice for the prince. William Phillips did the speaking voice because of Douglas' strong Chicago accent that didn't sound regal enough.

Another reason for the continuing success of the film, especially with young girls, is its emphasis on fashion. Cinderella is the ultimate fashion dream of haute couture. The right dress can literally change social status and make dreams come true.

Of course, the famous transformation scene where the Fairy Godmother magically changes Cinderella's rags to a fabulous ball gown inspired the creation of the Disney parks Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutiques where young girls can re-create the experience.

Cinderella's iconic ball gown is inspired by a similar gown from the same time period by French designer Christian Dior for his Zemire ensemble. Cinderella's headband and choker are American accessories popular since the war thanks to actresses and pin-up girls who wore them.

Cinderella's iconic ball gown was inspired by a similar gown from Christian Dior's Zemire line.

The pink dress with the huge bow in front made by the mice and birds for Cinderella is reminiscent of the work of Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli who wore a dress with a huge bow in front and whose favorite hue was a shocking pink. Later Schiaparelli in collaboration with Salvador Dali created a "tear dress" with pointy shards similar to Cinderella's dress after it is torn by the stepsisters.

The transformation scene actually echoes the change from homemade tailoring popular during the war to a popular foreign couturier dress that denotes wealth and status. There are photos of Christian Dior using a measuring stick the same way as the Fairy Godmother uses her wand.

In his autobiography Dior speaks of the perfect wardrobe as "Cinderella's trousseau" and calls the couturier "one of the last possessors of the wand of Cinderella's fairy godmother."

Of course, the major iconic fashion accessory was the glass slipper.

In 1697, when Perrault put the story to paper, glass was an extremely expensive item to produce, and only the Venetians were doing it. Thus, it was literally worth more than gold by weight, and these slippers represented the most costly possible fashion accessory, unavailable to anyone else.

The Brothers Grimm would later make the slippers silver and gold in their version, as they couldn't understand why Cinderella would wear such unconscionably dangerous footwear, since glass was breakable, widespread, and cheap by then.

Amusingly, one translator even assumed Perrault's story contained a misprint, and that he meant to say the slippers were made of vaire (fur) rather than verre (glass), since glass slippers made no sense from his modern perspective.

The slipper doesn't fit others because it was meant for a small foot, a symbol at the time for aristocracy and being special which is one of the reasons some Asian cultures practiced foot binding. In the Grimm version, the stepsisters cut off their heel and big toe to try to squeeze into the shoe.

One of the reasons for the success of the character was the voice work of Ilene Woods who provided a more contemporary sound like a Doris Day or Dinah Shore than the classical operatic sound done by Adrianna Caselotti as Snow White.

Woods brought a real warmth and honesty to the character that matched the animation done by Marc Davis, which tried to balance girlishness with a certain sophistication and maturity despite her young age.

Born Jacquelyn Ruth Woods on May 5, 1929 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ilene Woods' ambition was to become a school teacher when she grew up but her mother steered her toward a singing career.

"She was a backstage mother who saw to it that I had dancing lessons, music lessons and was on stage whenever possible just as she had wanted to be when she was younger," said Woods.

By the age of eleven, she was using the name Ilene Woods and had her own program on a local radio station.

Three years later in 1944, The Ilene Woods Show was being broadcast for fifteen minutes three days a week on the Blue Network on ABC Radio, in New York. Among her guests were songwriters Mack David and Jerry Livingston, who became longtime friends with her. Composers often came on the show wanting her to sing their new compositions to help publicize them.

By the time she was eighteen she had worked with such stars as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and many others as well as having sung for U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

Ilene Woods looks on as Marc Davis draws Cinderella.

She was a busy almost 18-year-old singer appearing on radio shows in 1948 when, as a favor to her two songwriter friends, Livingston and David, she recorded a "demo" for them of a few songs they had written for an upcoming Disney animated feature film.

"I did the discs for them, in a studio with a piano — Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boo, So This Is Love, and A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," Woods recalled in a 2005 interview with the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah.

"Two days later I received a call saying that Mr. Disney would like to talk with me at Disney studios. I gladly said, 'Yes, anytime you say.' We met and talked for awhile. He said 'I've listened to the songs. Now that we've met and we've talked, how would you like to be the voice of Cinderella?'

"And that's really the way I got the part. I didn't even know they were auditioning and by that time I understand, or was told, that they had auditioned over 300 girls. Needless to say, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. When I started working on the movie I knew I would never meet anybody like him again.

"He came in every single day we recorded. He came in at the end of the day to check everything out. He really made changes that were, once in a while, major, beautiful changes and he always had such an imagination going on. He was the only true visionary, I think, I ever worked with.

"When Walt would come in at the end of recording every day, the other three directors would have been arguing over and over. Walt would come in and sit down and play the tape. He never looked up when he was listening. He always sat with his head in his hand listening. He would make one suggestion and we'd do it his way and it would always be right. Always.

"I worked off and on the movie for two and a half years. We'd work for maybe a couple of weeks, and then have a week and a half off and then we'd work for another week and have two or three weeks off, and then work for two or three weeks."

As she told the Houston Chronicle in 2005, "Walt would sit down at the table with us at meals, and we discussed the movie together. It was just magical. There was a happiness and joy.

"I loved doing the character. When my dad saw the movie, he said he saw me in the facial expressions, hand movements and mannerisms. Marc Davis, who animated [the Cinderella character], would watch me record and picked up on things.

"I think Cinderella had a lot of spunk. She was a happy girl because she accepted life as it was and made the most of it. There was a happiness and joy for me in making that film. While I did a lot of radio and television, it was the only voice-over role I ever did."

Filming live-action reference footage for Cinderella carrying dishes to her stepmother and stepsisters.

Ever since then, as she told me when I talked with her, "I never hesitate to do a favor for a friend. I used my regular voice but just took on the attitude I thought she would have. I was just eighteen years old when we started recording and about twenty when we finished.

"A funny story that I love is that I took my young (three year old) daughter to a showing of Cinderella in a movie theater and when she heard my voice she got so excited she jumped up on her seat and pointed to the screen and yelled, 'That's my mommy!'

"A woman sitting behind us said, 'Isn't that cute? She thinks her mother is Cinderella.' I turned and in my regular voice that hadn't changed said, 'She is.' The expression on her face was priceless."

One of the ideas that Walt came up with was suggesting that Woods sing harmony with herself based on an early storyboard concept where Cinderella imagined multiple copies of herself doing all the tasks. It evolved in the final film to the character singing Sing, Sweet Nightingale as she was scrubbing the floor and multiple soap bubbles reflecting her image. It was one of the very first efforts at overdubbing and Woods was able to amazingly blend the voices.

When the innovative idea worked, Walt joked to her, "How about that? Before now I've paid three salaries for the Andrews Sisters when I could have only paid one for you!"

On television during the 1950s, she sang on the Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey shows and was a regular on Garry Moore's daytime show, where she met drummer Ed Shaughnessy, whom she married in 1963.

She had previously been married when she was seventeen but it ended in divorce. Shaughnessy later became a drummer on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show for many years.

Just like Cinderella, Woods had grown up with a stern mother who forced her into doing something she didn't want to do, but she ended up fulfilling her childhood dream by teaching third grade for two years in the Florida Keys before being lured back to radio where she met her own Prince Charming and lived happily ever after.

Woods was spokeswoman for the United Cerebral Palsy telethons around the country for many years. After she and her family moved to California in 1972, she retired from show business, with the exception of doing an occasional Disney event usually promoting a re-release of the film.

Later in life, she said in an interview, "I love the fact that so many young women will come up to me and say 'I had a Cinderella wedding' or 'Oh I just love Cinderella. I love her spirit and I loved the movie so very much.' Other girls will come up and say 'I had my whole bedroom decorated in Cinderella's colors.' It just thrills me that the women mostly will come up to me and say to me how much they loved the character and they love Cinderella.

"Walt told me his favorite heroine was Cinderella. I thought he was just being kind to me because at the time I didn't realize all the things he had gone through so his life had been like a rags-to-riches story just like Cinderella.

"He also said his favorite scene in all his films was when she got her ball gown from the fairy godmother. I think that was my favorite scene, too, because after all her hard work and kindness she was finally getting rewarded. Cinderella had finally come through out of her troubles and was going to the ball in a beautiful gown. I think that was the happiest time in the movie. That scene was my favorite."

Woods, who was presented with a Disney Legends award in 2003 said, "I just love children. Knowing that many years from now, when I'm gone, the children will still be hearing my voice and enjoying the movie is just the biggest thrill to come out of this altogether. Every time I look at that Legend Award, I think of the time I spent there making Cinderella."

Woods died from complications of Alzheimer's disease at a care facility in Los Angeles on July 1, 2010, at the age of 81. She had forgotten about her performing as Cinderella. Nurses would play the song A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes and it always calmed her down when she got agitated and made her feel peaceful.

While Davis and other animators took inspiration from the expressions and movements of Woods for creating Cinderella, they also relied heavily on the work of actress Helene Stanley who was the official live action reference model for the character.

Helene Stanley was born July 17, 1929 in Gary, Indiana and passed away December 27, 1990 in Beverly Hills. She appeared in multiple movies for studios like 20th Century and MGM including The Asphalt Jungle (1950) as the nineteen year old girl dancing at the jukebox at the end of the film, the same year Cinderella was released.

She was a favorite of Disney artists providing live action reference for Cinderella and her stepsister Anastasia in Cinderella (1950), Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Anita in 101 Dalmatians (1961).

She also appeared in live action as Polly Crockett, the wife of Davy Crockett in Disney's Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955).

Helene Stanley was the live-action reference model for Cinderella, Aurora, and Anita.

She retired in 1962, about a year after she and her husband Dr. David Niemetz had their first son.

One of Walt Disney's innovations when he started doing animated feature films was to bring in dancers, actors and models to perform some scenes in front of a motion picture camera so that his animators could study the movement, how clothes moved, what happened with the folds on the clothes and more to try to capture a more realistic figure in pursuit of the illusion of life.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), dancer Marge Belcher (later Champion) performed some scenes as Snow White in full costume and with makeshift props as well as some of the animators standing in for the dwarfs. She also was the live action reference for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940) and Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia (1940).

However, for the first time with Cinderella, Walt decided he might be able to save time and money by shooting a full live action version of the storyboard using live actors, minimal props, makeshift sets and costumes and eliminate much of the trial and error of hand drawn animation.

Live action performers acted out scenes in front of a camera that was set up at the same angle as the storyboard drawings of the prospective animated sequence.

Animator Frank Thomas stated in 1993, "Walt was desperate for money at the time and he said, 'We've got to find the cheapest possible way to make this picture'. Doing animation over again if it was done wrong was terribly expensive so we had to figure out some way to do it right the first time.

"By shooting the live action, the director and animator could look at the footage and say, 'This part is right; this part is not right; it needs to be faster' and so on. And if you had good live action to start with, it would make your job a whole lot easier to get some imagination out of it."

Many animators felt that doing the film this way "nailed their feet to the floor" because they couldn't experiment with other possibilities, but it did result in saving time and money on the film.

Cinderella opened on February 15, 1950, supported by a massive merchandising campaign. It was a huge success, bringing in enough profit to clear the studio's debt and allow Walt to explore making more films and creating Disneyland.

By making Cinderella's dreams come true, Walt's dreams came true as well.



  1. By carolinakid

    Great article as usual, Jim, but just one quibble. According to the narration which opens the film, Cinderella was named Cinderella by her parents before Lord Tremaine ever married his second wife. Iíve heard the story about naming her because of the cinders before, and it may even be in some storybooks of the Disney version, but according to the opening of the film, Cinderella was always called Cinderella. It wasnít a nickname.

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    Great article as usual, Jim, but just one quibble. According to the narration which opens the film, Cinderella was named Cinderella by her parents before Lord Tremaine ever married his second wife. Iíve heard the story about naming her because of the cinders before, and it may even be in some storybooks of the Disney version, but according to the opening of the film, Cinderella was always called Cinderella. It wasnít a nickname.

    You are absolutely correct! Thanks for catching that. Writing the article, I did a lot of research and the "cinders" story kept coming up in many of the Cinderella stories so it just stuck in my mind. If Disney had adhered to that, then she would be Princess Ella when she got married because the "cinder" would have been a slur. Disney always made significant changes in the princess stories and usually for the better. Thanks again.

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