Looking Back: Cinderfella (1960)

With the passing yesterday of Hollywood legend, philanthropist and ultimate fundraiser Jerry Lewis, I thought I’d revisit one of his many films. CINDERFELLA, which came out in 1960, is a comedic take on the classic Cinderella story with the genders of most of the characters being reversed. And you thought GHOSTBUSTERS broke new ground in that regard!

In the film, Lewis plays Fella, an orphaned man-child who lives with his wicked stepmother, Emily (Dame Judith Anderson, REBECCA), and her two adult sons, Maximilian (Henry Silva, the original OCEAN’S 11) and Rupert (Robert Hutton, the awful THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE). Like Cinderella, Fella is at the beck-and-call of his family, making their meals, serving their food, cleaning the swimming pool at their Bel Air mansion and servicing their fleet of expensive cars. He doesn’t seem to mind it though, as he is happy with his lot in life. After Emily arranges for the Princess Charming of the Grand Duchy of Morovia (Tony award winner, Anna Maria Alberghetti) to visit California with the intent that she marry Rupert and rescue the family from impending bankruptcy, Fella is visited by his Fairy Godfather (played with wonderful camp by another Hollywood legend, Ed Wynn) who informs Fella that he will be the one who will marry the princess. The film roughly follows the traditional Cinderella story but with a Hollywood twist with a goldfish doubling as the Cadillac driver and ball music provided by Count Basie and his orchestra.

From the start of the film, it’s very clear that this is a vehicle to showcase Lewis’ huge talent as he mugs, sings and dances his way through the film. The only other actor who gets to sing is Alberghetti, but considering she is a professional opera singer, her number is hugely understated. Ever the entertainer, Lewis often gives Fella his typical, loveable klutzy clown treatment right down to the crossed eyes, wobbly legs and nasally, loud voice. Audiences back in 1960 probably would have wanted to see him that way. Today, we may look it nostalgically but the characterisation does wear a bit thin after a while, especially when we see scenes in this film where he tones the shtick down and just plain acts. (I’m reminded of Jim Carrey whose best work has been in films like THE TRUMAN SHOW and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND where he didn’t overact.)

Paramount apparently wanted to release the film during the summer of 1960 but Lewis preferred to hold onto it until Christmas. Given his enormous clout, the studio agreed to the delay provided he give them another film they could release in its place. Lewis agreed, and he wrote, produced and directed THE BELLBOY, which was released in July of that year. It was a huge hit for the studio and everyone was happy.

If you haven’t seen CINDERFELLA before, or if you haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. Fifty-seven years later, it still holds up. Remember to look closely at the mansion. If it seems familiar, it was the same mansion that was used in the 1960s TV show, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES.

Jerry Lewis was one extraordinary talent and he will certainly be missed by his millions of fans all over the world. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

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