A so-so movie but an ideal vehicle for star Danny Kaye, Hans Christian Andersen (1952) very wisely avoids standard biopic clichés, the genre being at its most popular during the late '40s and early '50s. Instead, as its prologue states, it's "not the story of his life, but a fairytale about this great spinner of fairy tales." The film works best when it is most simple, with Danny telling and singing Andersen's stories to a group of delighted if truant schoolchildren, and later non-stop to anyone else willing to listen. The second-half gets tangled up in pathos and story it doesn't really need and there's a lengthy, mildly pretentious ballet sequence doubtlessly inspired by the Andersen adaptation within The Red Shoes (1948), as well as the celebrated ballet sequence from An American in Paris (1951). It's colorful and impressive in its own way but, again, it takes time away from Kaye, who's much more fun to watch.
A Samuel Goldwyn production in Technicolor originally distributed through RKO, Hans Christian Andersen was released to DVD, with identical cover art, by MGM in 2001. I was working at MGM then and recall that the owners of the Goldwyn library weren't providing the best source materials to MGM for its transfers, or maybe in some cases they provided transfers themselves that MGM found lacking. In any case, that might also explain why the film, now residing at Warner Bros., once again has a less than perfect transfer, though it's still a big improvement over the DVD. Perhaps to compensate, the Blu-ray is being offered with a thick, program-like booklet.
In 1830s Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen (Kaye) works as a cobbler but whiles away his days as an inveterate storyteller and starry-eyed dreamer. His original stories entrance both the children and adults of his small village, but when the stern schoolmaster makes the townsfolk choose between him and Hans, they decide to order Hans to leave town. Before word can reach him, however, his loyal but long-suffering young apprentice, Peter (Joseph Walsh, whose thick New York accent is a mite out of place), in an off-kilter scene convinces malleable Hans to seek his fortune in Copenhagen.
Peter soon joins Han on his journey and, in the big city, Peter learns the Royal Theatre's ballet company is looking for a cobbler to attend to the slippers of its prima ballerina, Doro (Zizi Jeanmarie), after Doro's husband, director-choreographer Niels (Farley Granger) ridicules her. Hans mistakes their early sparring for marital strife, and he naively falls in love for her, writing The Little Mermaid as an expression of his love.
Goldwyn wanted to film the story as early as 1936, and at one point considered partnering with Walt Disney (whose films were also being distributed through RKO at the time) to animate fantasy sequences. He also originally intended using Moira Shearer, but when she became pregnant she relinquished her role to Jeanmarie, whose stockier physique and peasant-like features aren't a particularly good match with Kaye. A delicate beauty she's not and physically was nearly Shearer's opposite.
But even if Shearer had played the role the film's unrequited love story isn't interesting, and watching mopey, dopey Kaye isn't nearly as much fun as watching him during the first-half of the picture, when in character he's so obviously passionate about his storytelling, and so wonderfully intimate with his audience, the picture's decades-long popularity is self-evident. In these scenes, Hans Christian Andersen plays to all of Kaye's strengths, captivating listeners with his singing and low-key clowning. Indeed, he's gentler and subtler than usual up to this point in his career, and it capitalizes on his uncanny ability to connect with viewers so intimately and individually.
Because the audience has limited interest in the never-gonna-happen romance between Kaye and Jeanmarie, with Farley Granger closing that romantic triangle, almost all the good stuff is confined to the picture's first hour. There, Kaye robustly sings Frank Loesser's "I'm Hans Christian Andersen" (once heard, you'll never be able to say the film's title without singing it), the especially good "Wonderful Copenhagen" (my favorite number), and "Thumbelina," which won an Academy Award.
Directed entirely on sound stages by Charles Vidor, the movie features a lot of colorful matte shots that deliberately resemble storybook illustrations. It was an expensive film by 1952 standards at $4 million, but earned $6 million in rentals in the U.S. alone and was a huge hit all over the world.
Video & Audio
Hans Christian Andersen was shot in three-strip Technicolor but it appears Warner Bros. may not have had access to the original black and white separation elements, if they still exist at all. The color and sharpness are reasonably good but the image never quite pops the way it could. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio is strong, however; I was surprised how robust thunder came across in one scene. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Despite its thickness the accompanying book isn't much, offering relatively slim information about the film and its cast and crew. An okay trailer rounds out the package.
Like Kaye's performance, Hans Christian Andersen is a notably gentle and sweet film in an era of razzle-dazzle and emerging psychologically darker movie musicals, with references to Andersen stories that will probably be lost on children watching the film today. But Kaye still connects with his audience, and his performance, along with Frank Loesser's delightful songs, make the film still worth watching. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.