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The Cinerama film process made its debut in 1952. One of numerous technical innovations (including 3-D) meant to combat the threat of television and get people back into movie theaters, it employed three cameras running simultaneously to create a 146-degree projected picture. The first Cinerama films, such as This Is Cinerama (1952), were little more than elaborate documentaries made to showcase the technique. By the early 1960s, however, the MGM-Cinerama unit was looking for full-scale fiction stories to produce in the wide-screen process. By luck, producer Sol Siegel remembered a script that had been laying on his desk that would combine a biography of the 19th-century Bavarian fairy tale writers, the Brothers Grimm, with sequences based on their stories. And, as luck would also have it, the script was attached to George Pal, the multiple Oscar-nominated special effects expert who had created a puppet-animation series known as "Puppetoons" in the 1940s, employing a new technique.
Pal was a natural for the project. A Hungarian by birth, he was more than familiar with the middle-European world created in the Grimms' fantasies. Pal was the creative force behind a number of animated shorts as well as such epic effects films as The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960), and Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961). Pal's script intercut the biography with six of the brothers' tales (shortened to three in the final version due to the excessive running time). Within their attempts to write the story of a local squire's family, the brothers also relate some of their best-loved fairy tales: "The Dancing Princess" (a king offers his daughter's hand to anyone who can solve the puzzle of why she wears out a pair of shoes every day); "The Cobbler and the Elves" (a down-and-out shoemaker is helped by the wooden elves he has carved for the children of the village); and "The Singing Bone" (a dragon-killing servant gets revenge on his evil master).
Pal realized the picture was too big to handle himself and hired Henry Levin to direct the biography sequences while Pal oversaw the fantasy segments. Levin was no stranger to this kind of project; he had directed the Jules Verne fantasy Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and an Italian film, The Wonders of Aladdin (1961). Pal wanted to cast Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness as the brothers, but the studio opted for contract players Laurence Harvey and Karl Bohm, the German actor who had appeared in the British shocker Peeping Tom (1960) and later made several films with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Pal did get his way on one demand for authenticity, he insisted on shooting in the Grimms' homeland. But plans to shoot in Kassel, the village where they were born, were stymied when he discovered it had been bombed out in World War II and rebuilt as a modern city. So the production moved to two tiny Bavarian villages and the famous castles at Neuschwanstein and Weikersheim. Many locals were added to fill out the large cast of well-known performers, ranging from ingenue Yvette Mimieux to character actors Oscar Homolka and Walter Slezak to comedian Buddy Hackett.
Once location shooting was complete, however, there was still extensive work to be done in the studio stateside. Here Pal and his son David's specialty really shone in the painstaking process of creating the Puppetoon elves for the cobbler story and the dragon slain in "The Singing Bone."
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm wasn't completed in time to be the first dramatic story film exhibited in Cinerama. That distinction went to the epic all-star Western How the West Was Won (1962). But Pal's film did make an advance over the earlier attempt. The Western was filmed in the original three-camera Cinerama technique but Pal shot the Grimm piece with a single camera using 70mm film. This eliminated objections raised by viewers of the old process, such as image overlap and synchronization problems. Both films, however, were projected on the gigantic curved screens designed especially for the technique.
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction, and Best Music Score Adaptation. It won the Oscar for Best Color Costume Design.
Producer: George Pal
Directors: George Pal, Henry Levin
Screenplay: Charles Beaumont, based on the stories of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: Walter Thompson
Production Design: Edward Carfagno, George Davis, Henry Grace, Richard Pefferle
Special Effects: David Pal, Tim Barr, Wah Chang, Robert Hoag, Gene Warren
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Principal Cast: Laurence Harvey (Wilhelm Grimm/The Cobbler), Karl Bohm (Jacob Grimm), Claire Bloom (Dorothea Grimm), Barbara Eden (Greta Heinrich), Yvette Mimieux (The Princess), Jim Backus (The King), Russ Tamblyn (The Woodsman/Tom Thumb), Buddy Hackett (Hans), Terry-Thomas (Ludwig), Beulah Bondi (The Gypsy), Ian Wolfe (Gruber).
C-136m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon