The movies Jerry Lewis made immediately following his split with Dean Martin were mostly lower budget formula comedies, often produced by Hal Wallis: movies like The Sad Sack (1957) and Don't Give Up the Ship (1959). Nobody was sure how Lewis would fare as a solo act and Wallis apparently didnt want to take any chances once the initial curiosity about Jerry minus Dean had died down. But Lewis, unlike Martin, barely missed a beat working as a single, and once he shook himself free of Wallis, Lewis began to assert his hard-earned authority, winning a gargantuan, unprecedented 14-picture deal with Paramount worth $10 million over seven years.
Cinderfella (1960) became something of a showcase for this newer, glossier Jerry. It was Paramount's big budget Christmas release that year, an almost-musical comedy fantasy with opulent sets that literally dwarf its cast at times. As a modern, gender-reversal of the famous fairy tale, it's pretty badly muddled, and critics today pretty much agree that The Bellboy, directed by Lewis on a comparatively microscopic budget that same year, is the far superior work.
Cinderfella is set on a palatial estate in Bel Air, California (and filmed at the same mansion later home to The Beverly Hillbillies), where orphan Fella (Lewis) lives in servitude to a wicked stepmother (Dame Judith Anderson) and her two playboy sons, Maximilian (Henry Silva) and Rupert (Robert Hutton).
Desperate for cash, Fella's stepmother plays matchmaker to Rupert and Princess Charming (Anna Maria Alberghetti, a role conceived for Grace Kelly), a visiting dignitary looking for a husband. Meanwhile, Fella's Fairy Godfather (Ed Wynn) conspires to get Fella to the grand ball so he can rightly win the princess's heart.
Cinderfella (or, to be precise, CINDERfELLA) is grandly produced but flat and rudderless. It plays like a picture that knew it was in trouble half-way through production and may have been heavily cut prior to its release. The barely 90-minute film seems to be missing one key sequence. (Spoiler) In the last act, Fella just kind of turns up at the ball, and only after the stroke of midnight is it revealed that he had been driven there in a futuristic gold sedan driven by a gold-faced chauffer. (Because of the cutting, at first it seems as if the ball were being held on the stepmother's estate, not somewhere else.)
When Fella's car later turns into a bike and the chauffer into a goldfish it comes as a complete surprise -- there's never any hint that they were changed from those things in the first place. Fella's physical appearance at the ball also goes unexplained. Inexplicably, his hair is suddenly gray, and there's some unconvincing talk among his step-family about the "stranger's" identity, which is all too obvious. There's also a superfluous subplot about hidden money, and the picture abruptly ends with Fella and Princess Charming all but shoved into a resolution that's completely unmotivated.
Fella does next to nothing to charm to the princess. He's neither sweet nor suave, though director Frank Tashlin may have been shooting for the latter. Oddly enough, Robert Hutton's Rupert is far more romantic and intimate with the princess than Fella ever is. Lewis's wardrobe at the ball, meanwhile, is silly and its function unclear. He wears a flaming red lounge jacket which makes him look like a some sort of hep cat...or maybe a waiter at Musso & Franks.
Although the awkwardly-named Fella is much put-upon by his stepmother and her no-good sons, the film has little in the way of heart. There's a genuine sweetness in Lewis's scenes with Wynn, the latter perfectly cast, but that's about it. The picture is partly a musical, partly a fantasy, partly a typical Jerry Lewis comedy, but none of these elements come together. In some scenes Fella is a typical Lewisian bumbler, in others he's a sad, lonely misfit. The script takes little advantage of its modern setting (the Deanna Durbin film First Love is much better at this) or its gender-reversal, while the comedy elements are low-key and slight.
Video & Audio
For such a lavish picture, Paramount's DVD of Cinderfella is a disappointment, a grainy 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer light years from their dazzling Delicate Delinquent or even the otherwise insufferable The Family Jewels. The colors are okay if muted, but the grain is bad enough to suggest the look of a 16mm TV print (though presumably that was not the source). The English mono is okay though one wonders if the stereo tracks of the songs or its score might have been accessible for use here. An alternate French track is included, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Disappointingly, there's no trailer, a shame since this was such a major release in its day. Extras are limited to an Audio Commentary by Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence, which runs the length of the picture, and four minutes of dull Bloopers (color and 4:3 full screen). The commentary track is superficial with long stretches of silence.
Cinderfella is innocuous enough to function as harmless weekend entertainment for the family, but despite its lavishness Lewis was better served in small-scale comedies like The Bellboy.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.