Hello and welcome to Fairy Tale Friday. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.
This week we look at a 1978 made for television film of Cinderella entitled Cindy that features an entirely African-American cast. It was directed by William A. Graham, and is an urbanised retelling of Cinderella set in Harlem after World war II.
It boasts an exceptional cast with Nell Carter (known for the sitcom Gimme a Break and so much more) and Alaina Reed Hall (who played Gordon’s younger sister Olivia on Sesame Street for many years) as the spoiled stepsisters. The title character of Cindy played by Charlayne Woodard was a marvellous wide-eyed character full of childlike joy and wonder. I kept thinking she looked familiar. She was Tituba in that fairly dreadful adaptation of The Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder, but she was terrific in both the film Unbreakable and Glass as the mother of Elijah.
Interestingly, both Charlayne Woodard and Nell Carter were in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway. Both were nominated for a Tony as Best featured Actress in a musical, but the award went to Nell Carter.
I watched this film today (hence why this post is so late going out) and I really enjoyed it. The musical numbers were good albeit a bit strange. There is this New Orleans style jazz band that just pops up everywhere like through their apartment window or out of a cubicle in the hotel men’s room. But if you suspend your disbelief and just go with it, it is a very enjoyable ride. I also laughed out loud with a snort several times.
There was no handy summary of the film to fall back on so I have taken notes throughout the film.
After the war Cindy has moved from the south to live in Harlem with her newly blended family. Her father has married a woman with two grown daughters and has neglected to tell her that not only was he married before, but he also has a grown daughter whom he would like to live with them. He also makes the mistake of saying, “She makes your two daughters look like dog meat” which clearly doesn’t help his case.
The stepmother is not pleased and says if she’d have known she wouldn’t have married him, and he replies that is precisely why he didn’t tell her. She says that even though he has a good job as a hotel doorman at the Plaza, it is not enough to feed another mouth. I liked this because often we see a father allowing his daughter to be neglected and abused and you don’t know why. Here you see how henpecked he is with his hat in hand shuffling nervously. There is a very good reason for him to be nervous which we will discuss in a bit.
Cindy is seen jumping rope with some neighbourhood children on the street in a white pinafore dress and shabby worn out white Keds shoes. She has a childlike exuberance that makes her seem like a good person. We see them in various day to day scenes where the stepmother and sisters are abusive, and the father won’t stand up to his domineering wife.
There is a hilarious scene in church. The father warns her they are not in the south anymore. This is no Baptist church but an Episcopal one. He tells her that she can’t look like she enjoys it so much and should only amen if they ask you to. But as the hymn is sung slow and dreary, she gets the Holy Spirit and can’t hold it in any longer. She sings and dances up and down the aisle and gets the church to join in with some soul but it puts her in the doghouse with her stepmother.
There is a dance called the Sugarhill Ball coming up and she really wants to go. She is out on the fire escape singing and cleaning the ironwork when she meets Michael who is sleeping on the fire escape of the next building(it’s wartime and there is a housing shortage). He is a draft dodger who works as a chauffeur to the biggest blackmarketeer in Harlem. He explains that he is happy being a coward because cowards don’t fight or start wars.
The stepmother has made new dresses for her spoiled daughters (who are seen to repeatedly play tricks on the stepfather) but she refuses to make a dress for Cindy. Her father vows to go out and make enough money to buy her a dress for the ball that night. She thinks he can do it as he is the doorman of the Plaza hotel. But in reality, he is the men’s room attendant who dreams of a better career and a fancy red jacket with gold braid on it. He works hard all day with no break trying to get lots of quarter tips to have enough money to buy his daughter a dress.
Back at the house the stepmother and sisters are getting ready for the dance. Cindy wasn’t able to “pad both their brassieres” because they only had one box of Kleenex and she casually remarks she can’t wait to be fat enough to wear a girdle which makes them mad. She asks about what the Sugarhill Ball will be like and they break into song with the jazz band coming in through the window from the fire escape. This is an amazing number full of scat and fast wordplay.
The father returns home dejected because he didn’t earn enough money to buy her a dress. Cindy bears it bravely while her sisters laugh. The father refuses to go to the ball without Cindy and decides to stay home and get drunk.
Michael (acting as magical helper here)shows up in his chauffeur's uniform which looks like a military uniform and invites her to the ball. He presents her with a beautiful dress. She says her mama always told her to never accept expensive gifts from men, but he replies that he stole it. She is outraged shouting, “What’s wrong wichoo?” But he explains it belongs to his boss’s wife and he just borrowed it for a few hours. His boss and his wife will be home at 12:30 so they have to get the dress back by midnight. She changes clothes in the back of his car and he acts like a gentleman by handing his hat on the rear view mirror so he won’t see her undressed.
The party is a hopping one and there are some funny antics with one of the stepsisters Kleenex coming out of her bra and her pretending to dab sweat off her brow to cover up her stuffing coming out.
Decorated war vet marine captain Joe Prince takes the stage as Cindy arrives. We see her lift her dress to climb the stairs and we realise she still has her white bobby socks and raggedy Keds sneakers underneath. Joe Prince makes his way around the room dancing with all the ladies, but really takes a shine to Cindy. He takes his distinguished service cross and tries to give it to her, but she refuses. At midnight she runs away leaving her dirty sneaker behind. Michael is afraid they won’t make it back in time and he will get fired, but they make it back safely.
Joe Prince employs a Private Investigator to find out who the sneaker belongs to. He visits every woman in Harlem to have every woman try it on which leads to a hilarious montage of trying on the sneaker. One of the stepsisters tries to use Vaseline to slide her foot in and the other rolls off the chair trying to jam her foot into it. Outside their house the PI runs into Michael who recognises the sneaker but is reluctant to give away Cindy’s details. The PI says that Joe Price is a fine upstanding soldier that“The Japanese think it is an honour to be killed by him,” but Michael feels he is equally worthy for her despite being poorer and a draft dodger.
We then see the stepmother take a taxi to the Plaza Hotel where she is shocked to find out that her husband has lied about his job. She storms into the men’s room to give him what for and he responds by standing up for himself in a jazzy song about he may only be a men’s room attendant, but he is the best one out there. Then the jazz band saunters out of a bathroom stall while white men pop up and sing over their cubicle doors.
They go home and find out that the rich Joe Prince wants to marry Cindy and then sugar wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Cindy goes out on the fire escape and finds out that Michael was fired for borrowing the dress and he is now enlisting. Joe Prince joins them on the fire escape and remarks “Why what a beautiful view. You can see all the way to the end of the alley.” Then he says something so bizarre—“I don’t really have a way with words as I am just a common leatherneck. But there is no one I would be prouder to have as my widow than you.” She asks to think it over and he says that there is no time for deliberation as he has a photographer waiting. He starts singing at her about how she shouldn’t say no (with the jazz band shown on the fire escape above), but she climbs down the fire escape and tracks down Michael who is at the recruitment office.
She finds him there and professes her love saying, “I’d rather starve with you than live in a palace with that captain.” The military man turns on a portable fan so the flag will wave while the jazz band just casually walks in on the swearing in ceremony and nobody seems to notice. Michael is sworn into the military and they vow to write six letters a day and they leave—him to go to basic training and her skipping away with him to see him off at the train station and then presumably to go home and have to face her family. I worried greatly at this point that her greedy, selfish family (which includes her father) would be horrible to her for turning down a rich offer for a true love match, but a Military Policeman comes out of the building and assures me that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE he barks) lived happily ever after.
It ends with an epilogue where you see what happened to everyone:
Cindy’s father finally gets promoted to doorman and gets to wear a red coat with shiny gold trim.
The stepsisters became famous as tag-team women’s wrestlers.
The detective ended up opening a shoe store and got to put shoes on pretty women’s feet forever.
Joe Prince spent the years after the war posing for recruiting statues.
The stepmother became a happy step-grandmother when Michael and Cindy had a baby girl.
Michael was the happiest of all—he got the girl.
It ends with Cindy singing about how she got everything she wanted—to be loved.
This film is well worth watching. You can watch it here:
Stay tuned for the last two weeks of Fairy Tale Friday Cinderella as we look the Disney versions.