After the artistic and commercial success of The Red Shoes, director Michael Powell aspired to create an even more “composed” film, a marriage of music, dance and cinema. That film became The Tales of Hoffmann, the adaptation of the Jacques Offenbach opera that Powell and his creative partner Emeric Pressburger released in 1951. I wrote about the film and its production for the Turner Classic Movies website.
The film opens with the atmosphere of a live performance, the sounds of orchestra tuning over the credits, and then the score jolts to life and the camera takes us into the highly stylized set of the framing sequence, a ballet performance (featuring Moira Shearer) with a smitten Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) in the audience. When the curtain falls, our lovestruck hero retires to a lively beer garden with his school chum, Nicklaus (Pamela Brown), and tells three tales of doomed, devilish loves: a poet tempted by a life size doll (Moira Shearer) brought to life by clockwork mechanics, a courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) who helps her lover steal souls with a magic mirror, and a terminally ill woman (Anne Ayars) who will die if she sings. It’s not a slavish adaptation of the opera, but a creative reworking to marry opera, ballet and cinema (the part of the living doll was changed from a singing to a dancing role) and musical director Beecham was a dynamic partner in the collaboration, shifting music around to match Powell’s narrative changes and cinematic inspirations. Powell paid tribute to Beecham’s contribution by ending the film on Beecham himself conducting the final bars of the score.
There is no dialogue, only a sung libretto, and the entire score was prerecorded. Rounseville and Anne Ayars were the only cast members to record their own vocal performances but all of them lip-synched to the playback for the camera. “We were virtually making a silent film,” wrote Powell in Million Dollar Movie, the second volume of his autobiography. It’s an apt description for a production where the performances are entirely in dance, mime and song, all stylized expressions closer to the expressionistic qualities of silent cinema than the realism of even the most fantastic sound films. Even the special effects were accomplished with simple techniques that recalled the glorious imagery of silent fantasies.