Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse
Filming "The Tales of Hoffmann"
By: Maud M. Miller
Photoplay; the Film Monthly, March 1951.
Tales of Hoffmann is probably the most "upside-down" film that has ever happened. To begin with, Hoffmann is really three stories set in a framework of one story - Hoffmann's search for his "love - his eternal companion."
It is a good thing that Pamela Davies, the continuity girl, is musically inclined. Instead of the usual kind of typewritten script in plain English, Pamela had to cope with and carry around a fat musical score, weighing about two and a half pounds, embroidered round the edges with a mixture of film and musical terms. To this she added her own form of music and ballet shorthand, to enable her to keep tabs on what was happening ... whether Robert Helpmann's macabre eyebrows were up, down or in the middle in the fourth "take" when he was trying to capture Hoffmann's soul in the mirror in Act Two ... or whether Moira Shearer had completed her "Dragonfly" dance at "X", "Y" or "Z" number of feet from the camera in "take three," Prologue.
Tales of Hoffmann is a "marriage" of music and ballet, with The Red Shoes as the "bride" and Sir Thomas Beecham in the role of "groom" ... to carry the similie further, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger might be called the "officiating ministers" of the ceremony.
The whole affair started when that small super-charged conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was recording the music for The Red Shoes for the same outfit. Sir Thomas conducted the first British performance, at Drury Lane in 1910, of Offenbach's opera, just thirty years after the composer had completed the score and he always has a sentimental regard for it.
Beecham has had little time for film work in his busy life, but he did find time to record the music for Victoria Hopper's film based on the life of Mozart, called Whom the Gods Love, in 1935. Years later his imagination was caught by the possibilities of expanding ballet technique which intrigued him in The Red Shoes.
"If you ever thought of putting opera on the screen as you have ballet," he told producer Pressburger, "you might well consider Tales of Hoffmann ... this would be an ideal choice ... you could tell the story in music and ballet."
Messieurs Powell and Pressburger thought about it, but not for long. They were making experiments in films, and the revival of interest in ballet, stimulated enormously by Ninette de Valois and her Sadlers Wells Ballet, had made the success of The Red Shoes almost a foregone conclusion. Their minds leapt to the realisation of Sir Thomas Beecham's suggestion.
Tales of Hoffmann goes further than The Red Shoes. Music and ballet and the miming that is an integral part of ballet tell the whole story. The singers sing, the dancers dance and mime, but there is not one word of actual dialogue in the film.
It could be that the scales of their decision to make Tales of Hoffmann were tipped, finally by the fact that Hein Heckroth, the Archers Art Director, learnt his job as a production designer in Germany, his own country, before the war, where he designed at least eight productions of Hoffmann.
Heckroth designs are imaginative and symbolical, rather than solid affairs of lath and plaster. Gauze draperies, he believes, can be as effective as solidity. For Olympia's bedroom in Act One he provides a swinging bed, set in the centre of a circular room, with walls of muslin, dyed an exqusite shade of pale yellow. His colour schemes were devised to help tell the story by defining the differing atmospheres of the three episodes ... frivolous effects of yellows, browns and iridescent cellophane for Act One, illustrating Hoffmann's love for the doll Olympia. For the Second Act, the Venetian sequence, he uses rich purples, golds and blacks, to symbolise the decadence of the times of the Borgias which form the background for Hoffmann's abortive love for Giuletta ... losing his soul in the process. Then, when Hoffmann's tragic love for Antonia, the dying consumptive girl, occupies the screen, Heckroth uses cool greys, and greens to heighten the dramatic effect of the climax - when Helpmann, as Dr. Miracle, hypnotically forces the girl to her death-song. [In fact Hein was later quoted as saying "On screen it says the first act takes place in Paris. This is not true - it takes place in yellow with, of course, some other colours to play against."]
A Double Cast List
It may sound a bit confusing ... but nearly every character in the film is played by two people - a singer and a dancer, so that we have a double cast-list. This is another reason why the film was made back to front - all the music was recorded first, so that Hoffmann is a "composed" film, the cameras photographing the action as the characters danced, mimed or sang (in dumb show) to music previously recorded, and which flooded on to the set through the "playback" apparatus. [This let them film it without regard to extraneous sounds, the camera could move more freely without the usual "blimp" to mask it's noise and Powell could give directions freely during filming.]
Preparing the musical "script" was a colossal undertaking, and, with Beecham in charge, Offenbach's original was slightly streamlined, and condensed from three to two and a quarter hours. Powell and Pressburger used for their main guide a piano recording made by Beecham himself. There is one major change from the Offenbach original - Stella, an opera singer has become a dancer, Moira Shearer, who, instead of singing, dances an enchanting "Dragonfly" ballet with Edmond Audran [Ludmilla's husband, also seen as the cashier in Act 1].
Beecham also took charge of the musical casting, selecting his singers from a "world casting directory". Robert Rounseville (Hoffmann) and Ann Ayars (Antonia) are the only artistes to sing and act their entire roles. Both are from American opera. Others came from Glyndebourne, and the chorus work was provided by Sadlers Wells.
While Sir Thomas took care of this side of the film, Powell and Pressburger assembled their dancers, relying mainly on the same team that made The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and her husband, Edmond Audran, from France, and Leonide Massine, with Frederick Ashton as choreographer [Sir Fred is also seen as Kleinsach and Cochenille].
Massine, product of the old Russian School of Ballet, from which the purest form of ballet derives, was very enthusiastic. Talking about the film with him one day during the Edinburgh Festival, when he had put in an eight-hour day at Shepperton Studios, and then flown to Edinburgh to dance his famous role in Petrouchka, he said, that to his way of thinking, the Hoffmann technique is "ideal for the dancer ... the choreographer has a wider scope than on stage, the dancer must become more educated in music, since, in Hoffmann, each is a part of the other, and not separate art forms."
Fifty-five next August, Leonide Massine is an unforgettable personality. Slim, self-contained, with the dedicated look of your real Russian ballet dancer, even in repose, he gives the impression of graceful strength ... like a kitten, his every move is fluid, almost poetic in perfection. He arrived at the studios during Hoffmann every morning at six o'clock, to limber up and rehearse for three hours before going on the set. [When Robert Helpmann saw Massine doing this Helpmann jested that "The old boy was feeling his age". In fact Massine could put the younger Helpmann to shame with his agility & strength.]
In contrast to her role in The Red Shoes, where she spoke and acted the role of the heroine, Moira Shearer is in her own particular element as a dancer in Hoffmann. It is fairly well known that she was not too happy about her role in The Red Shoes, and vowed she would never make another film for this same reason, that she regards herself as a dancer rather than as an actress-in-dancer-role. She worked so hard on Hoffmann she wore herself to skin and bone, motivated by the same passion for perfection as Massine. For four weeks of her annual leave from Sadlers Wells Moira spent every waking minute at the studios, helping design her own costumes, and having sessions with Frederick Ashton, on the choreography of her dances.
In the wardrobe, at this time, too, "Operation Rush" was in progress. Terry Morgan, who made the masks for the dolls, modelled them from a plaster cast of Moira's features. [Terry also did the daemon masks for The Red Shoes] It happened to be vacation time, so Ivy Baker, of the wardrobe department, was able to collect a few art students [June Kirby and Brenda Gardner from Kingston School of Art, they spent 3 weeks of their vacation making the 22 foot-high puppets and their costumes] to help make the frilly net and organdie ball gowns for the "girl" dolls and the velvet coats for the "men" dolls - all puppets, manipulated by the South African puppeteer, John Wright.
High-water-mark of all this activity was the day Moira has four scenes in four different costumes. In the early morning she got into her "classic" ballet costume. While the unit relaxed over its "elevenses" she changed into the medieval dress of a court lady and back to the set. After lunch she turned "Dragonfly" and finished the day in her "doll" make-up and the frilly dress and pantaloons of Olympia.
It was gruelling work, but it was a great help to have her adoring husband "Ludo" Kennedy, on hand with a nice comfy car to take her home.