'Hans Christian Andersen' - the Fairy Tale Film

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Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about this great spinner of fairy tales.

- Opening Text

Hans Christian Andersen is a 1952 musical ballet fantasy starring Danny Kaye1 and loosely inspired by the stories and life of the titular Danish author famed for his fairy tales. The film, which is honest when it stresses that that it has virtually no basis in truth, shows Hans Christian Andersen leave his hometown and become a famous author in Copenhagen. On his journey he is inspired to sing songs about his famous stories as the naïve childlike soul discovers love and hurt for the first time. Nominated for six Oscars and often included in lists of the greatest musicals of the 20th Century, the songs were by award-winning composer Frank Loesser, many of which remain popular to this day and have been covered by numerous artists since.


In many ways the plot is merely the skeletal structure that the songs are hung off.

In the mid-1830s in the idealistic small Danish town of Odense, Danish cobbler Hans Christian Andersen spends his time making up stories and singing them to the town's children, much to the ire of the local schoolmaster as the children are supposed to be in school. The schoolmaster convinces the burgomaster to expel Hans, a conversation heard by Hans' indentured orphan teenage apprentice Peter, the only level-headed character in the entire film. Peter, wishing to spare Hans' feelings, convinces Hans to go to Copenhagen immediately. Copenhagen is of course the capital of Denmark and 100 miles away as the crow flies, but somewhere that no-one in Odense has ever been to.

On arriving in Copenhagen Hans is immediately arrested as teenage Peter has sat on the plinth of a statue of the king. Fortunately Peter, hiding in the Royal Theatre, promptly overhears the Royal Danish Ballet's choreographer Niels demand that a cobbler needs to be found immediately for the lead ballerina, Doro. Peter takes arranges for the theatre to released Hans from prison. Hans is taken to meet Doro, with whom he instantly is smitten, as she argues with Niels. Niels and Doro are a happily married couple, who enjoy a tempestuous relationship2. Hans witnesses this aggressive behaviour and wrongly concludes that Doro is unhappy and trapped in a marriage she wishes to escape from, so promptly writes an allegorical fable about a little mermaid as a love letter to Doro. She receives this before going on a tour of Denmark and is inspired to use the story as a ballet. Yet Hans' imagination has run away, convincing him that Doro is in love with him despite Peter trying to set him straight. While the Royal Ballet are away Hans mends shoes and tells stories much as he had in Odense, only this time his stories become published in the Gazette newspaper.

I'm Hans Christian Andersen: Dramatis Personæ

I’m Hans Christian Andersen, I’ve many a tale to tell

And though I’m a cobbler, I'd say I tell them rather well.

Hans Christian AndersenDanny Kaye
NielsFarley Granger
DoroZizi Jeanmaire
PeterJoseph 'Joey' Walsh
OttoPhilip Tonge
Hussar in BalletErik Bruhn
Prince in 'The Little Mermaid' BalletRoland Petit
SchoolmasterJohn Brown
BurgomasterJohn Qualen

Songs and Soundtrack

Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser:

  • 'The King's New Clothes'
  • 'Inchworm'
  • 'I'm Hans Christian Andersen'
  • 'Wonderful Copenhagen'
  • 'Thumbelina'
  • 'The Ugly Duckling'
  • 'Anywhere I Wander'
  • 'No Two People'

Additionally the soundtrack contains ballets. With two exceptions, the music is by Franz Liszt and arranged by Heinz Roemheld:

  • Ice Skating Ballet from the overture to Rosamunde by Franz Schubert
  • Dream Ballet by Frank Loesser
  • Sonata in B Minor Piano Sonata
  • Les Preludes
  • Gnomenreigen
  • Tasso
  • Mephisto Waltz

Composer Frank Loesser was five-times nominated for a Best Song Oscar>, with 'Thumbelina' his fifth and final nomination, having previously won in 1949 for 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'. He also won four Tony Awards for the music and lyrics for Guys And Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For the latter of which he also won a Grammy Award and was nominated to win the Pulitzer Prize3. Many of the songs have been performed by various artists. In the UK since 1975 the soundtrack album by Bernard Cribbins has been particularly well regarded. In 1979 the song rights to most of Frank Loesser's catalogue was bought by Paul McCartney's company MPL Communications (McCartney Productions Ltd); McCartney covered 'Inchworm' on his Kisses on the Bottom (2012) album. The song was also performed by Kaye and the Muppets when he was a special guest on The Muppet Show.

Cobblers or Cobbled Together? The Making Of

A fairy tale based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen was a long-held passion-project for Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn since the late 1930s. Born Samuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw he moved to America in 1899, changing his surname to Goldfish, co-forming his first film company with his brother-in-law Jesse L Lasky, The Jesse L Lasky Feature Play Company, in 1913, which was merged with the Famous Players Company in 1914 to form Famous Players-Lasky and taken over by Paramount in 1916. Goldfish co-founded Goldwyn Pictures with Broadway producers the Selwyn brothers and changed his surname to Goldwyn, only for the Selwyn Brothers to sell their shares of Goldwyn Pictures to Marcus Loew who owned Metro Pictures Corporation which created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Despite having his name in the middle, Goldwyn did not have any involvement in MGM after Goldwyn Pictures was taken over. Samuel Goldwyn then created his own company, Samuel Goldwyn Productions4, which was a production company that unlike the major Hollywood film companies of the time did not own any cinemas.

By the late 1930s Goldwyn, along with fellow producer Walt Disney, was under contract to release his films through RKO Pictures. After the success of fantasy films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) Goldwyn was keen to make a fantasy adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's life, hoping to have animated sequences by Walt Disney for the fairy tales that Hans told. Walt Disney was delighted with this idea, particularly as Walt Disney Productions was struggling financially and would not make another huge hit following Snow White until Cinderella in 1950.

It took several years for a script to be written that Goldwyn was happy with, having rejected scripts by Myles Connolly and replacing him with Moss Hart as the author of the screenplay, with Connolly successfully petitioning for a 'story by' credit. Goldwyn had also unsuccessfully tried to hire musical theatre giants Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to write the score. Yet in 1948 a British film based on an Andersen fairy tale led to a complete change in direction. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 ballet The Red Shoes starring Moira Shearer was a major international hit, nominated for five Oscars and winning two and was then the most successful British film ever. One particular fan was eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes, who bought RKO Pictures in 1948. Going through a ballet phase he decided to buy his own ballet company and flew Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit, renamed 'the RKO-Ballet de Paris de Roland Petit' to America from Paris on Trans-World-Airlines (TWA), which he owned. They stayed in one of his hotels for six months without the opportunity to give any shows. Eventually deciding they were performers and would prefer to perform in Paris than be paid to do nothing in America they tried to use their TWA return tickets to fly back to France but Howard Hughes was alerted. After negotiations Hughes agreed to let the dance company perform in a film and that Roland Petit would have artistic freedom to choreograph the ballet sequences, with Hans Christian Andersen the film chosen.

As Goldwyn was under contract with RKO, he was ordered to include them in Hans Christian Andersen. This worked well as Goldwyn had already considered a ballet angle following the success of The Red Shoes and had even seen whether Moira Shearer would be interested, only to learn she was unavailable due to pregnancy. Petit's right to choreograph the ballets led to conflict with the director as they both felt they were in charge, but overall the ballets work well, particularly the Little Mermaid sequence. In an example of life following fiction, while the film's plot has ballerina Doro married to her choreographer, dancer Zizi Jeanmaire would marry this film's choreographer Roland Petit in 1954.

Hans Christian Andersen was the last film Goldwyn released through RKO, severing all ties and releasing their final two films, Guys and Dolls (1955) and Porgy and Bess (1959) elsewhere. While Disney did not provide any animations for this film, for anyone wondering what Disney's animated interpretation of Andersen's stories would look like, see Silly Symphonies shorts The Ugly Duckling (black and white in 1931 and a Best Short Animated Oscar-winning colour remake in 1939), The Little Mermaid (1989), 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' segment in Fantasia 2000, short The Little Matchgirl (2006), Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019). Do not, however, see either The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000) nor The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning (2008).

The film was Oscar nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Sound Recording, Best Costume Design and winning Best song 'Thumbelina' and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. It also has the record for being the first film to have a 'Behind the scenes making of' broadcast on television when on 13 Apr 1952, CBS broadcast a fifteen-minute segment on the production of the film's 'Ice Skating Ballet5'.

Review: Measuring the Marigolds

When Your Heart is Full of Love You're Nine Feet Tall

Hans Christian Andersen is a charming film that stands or falls depending very much on your opinion of Danny Kaye. It isn't quite a 'blink and you'll miss other actors' appearances', but no-one else in the film gets a chance to make an impact on the story. The film itself is very much a work of fiction and no attempt at a realistic biopic. In reality Andersen was apprenticed to a weaver and a tailor, not a cobbler, before he began a career in theatre as singer and dancer. Though Andersen did indeed leave Odense and travel to Copenhagen in real life, this was when he was 14 and not in his forties. The story of his unrequited love with a famous ballet dancer set in the 1830s seems inspired by a combination of two of the believed bisexual Andersen's love interests, opera singer Jenny Lind to whom he proposed in 1844, and Harald Scharff, a danseur for the Royal Danish Theatre in the 1860s.

Denmark was not realistically portrayed either, with the typical Hollywood insensitivity of steamrolling stereotypes across the screen shown. Reports from the time show that the Danish Foreign Office considered making a formal protest against the film due to its inaccurate portrayal of both Odense and Andersen. The song 'Wonderful Copenhagen' – Denmark's capital city that Loesser had never been to - was particularly controversial. The song uses the German pronunciation of 'Copenhagen'6 in 1952, shortly after the German invasion and occupation of Denmark (1940-45).

It also has to be said that the film is very much a Hollywood fantasy fairy tale. As such it has a 'Happily Ever After' ending typical of American interpretations of fairy tales, even though a close reading of the fairy tales actually written by Andersen implies that he did not know the meaning of the words.

1Born David Daniel Kaminsky.2Which involves Doro being slapped around the face, which would not be permitted in a family film today. Audiences in the 1950s would have considered this violence highly strung, passionate and artistic behaviour on both parties parts rather than an abusive relationship.3The prize was declared void by the House Un-American Activities Committee as playwright Abe Burrows had communist sympathies.4Confusingly Samuel Goldwyn's son Samuel Goldwyn Junior has also founded two similarly-named film companies, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, which merged with United Artists in 1999, and Samuel Goldwyn Films, created in 2000.5The ballet is set on ice and involves pretending to skate, no actual ice-skating takes place.6'Harr-gon' rhyming with 'jargon' rather than 'hay-gin' rhyming with 'Fagin'.

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