The Tales of Hoffman (UK 1951)

tales-of-hoffman

The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with the Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.

Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.

The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film the Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of 'Olympia' with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Leonid Massine

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of ‘Olympia’ with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine (© StudioCanal)

The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her the Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.

I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that the Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to the Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.

Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes:

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One comment

  1. keith1942

    I like this film, one of the most sumptuous of Powell and Pressburger productions. However, the film used playback techniques for the singing – despite this we have two opera singers in lead roles, and to be honest they cannot act, certainly on film. Seriously lets the film down.

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