Tales of Hoffmann (1951) **** Mubi

January 11th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars, Robert Rounseville, Leonide Massine

UK 1951, 138 min.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann was his final, unfinished work, his only serious opera. After the success of THE RED SHOES, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger looked for another ballet related project; in particular Pressburger, whose first love was music, wanted to realise the idea of “a composed film”. Although Moira Shearer, the star of The Red Shoes. had made clear she was never going to act in another film, Pressburger eventually talked her into appearing in The Tales, which was introduced as an ‘Archers’ production in October 1949; Alexander Korda’s ‘British Lion Film’ would distribute.

The poet Hoffmann (Rounseville) falls in love with Stella (Shearer), a ballerina. Watching her on stage, his leaves and wanders into a tavern where a group of students ask him to tell them stories. His three stories are all connected by disappointed love: Olympia (Shearer) turns out to be a mechanical doll, Giuletta (Tcherina) wants to steal Hoffmann’s soul, and finally, Antonia (Ayars), a consumptive opera singer, dies while singing an aria. Hoffmann himself collapses at the end of his last story, just when Stella enters the tavern. She is lead away by Hoffmann’s eternal rival. But the muse of Poetry appears, and beckons Hoffmann to chose a life in the service of literature.

The film’s music is conducted by Sir Thomas Beeacham; of the cast, only Ayars and Rounseville sang. This was not a problem, since the film was shot entirely as a silent film (later to be dubbed in a studio), on the old silent stage at Shepperton studios, the largest in Europe, which had been constructed for Things to Come in 1936. Shooting took place from July to the end of September 1950. When Korda was first approached by Powell and Pressburger about the project, he asked (innocently) if any of the film makers had actually seen a stage version. Powell admitted he hadn’t, while Pressburger could claim to have played the second violin in the orchestra during performances in Prague, but “from where I sat, I could not see much”(!). Korda duly bought them tickets for a performance of the opera in Vienna, but their plane was delayed, they landed in the Russian zone, and had to wait for visas into the British side, where the performance was being held – they entered the theatre finally as Antonia was giving up her ghost.

The film was premiered on 1st April 1951 in New York, and seventeen days later in London, Queen Mary, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart being in the audience. Critical acclaim was great, but the film just recouped its production costs, being only shown in selected cinemas. On April 20th, it graced the Cannes Film Festival line-up where it won two awards.

According to Powell, he had a fight with Korda and Pressburger, who both wanted to cut the third act to enhance its chances of winning the Palme d’Or. Since there were only two days between the London and Cannes performance, there wa hardly time for a recut – and Kevin Macdonald, who wrote Pressburger’s biography, claims “Powell wanted to see things as he saw them, not as they happened”. But The Tales of Hoffmann was the beginning of the end for the working relationship of the Powell/Pressburger duo, they seemed to have been a lack of trust, and they went their own separate their professional ways. AS

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