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The Mysterious House of Dr. C. (1976) is a rarely seen, reworked version of the 1966 Dr. Coppelius, a dance film based on the classic 19th-century Leo Delibes ballet "Coppelia."
This allegorical musical fantasy is the result of two very different artistic versions woven together through a complex back-story. Originally intended as an art film for adults, the movie was taken out of circulation after legal complications arose. Once these hurdles had been cleared, it was revamped for family audiences, losing its purity as a "ballet film" with the addition of a voice-over narration, lyrics and animated sequences.
The plotline is developed from two macabre stories by E.T.A. Hoffman of The Tales of Hoffman fame, Der Sandmann (The Sandman) and Die Puppe (The Doll). It concerns a scientist who creates Coppelia, a mechanical doll so beautiful and lifelike that both he and Franz, a swain from the local village, become infatuated with her. Swanhilda, Franz's jealous bride-to-be, poses as the doll, convincing the scientist that he is a great wizard who has given his creation the gift of life.
The original movie was produced at the Samuel Bronston Studios in Madrid, Spain, by Frank J. Hale; written and directed by Ted Kneeland; choreographed by Jo Anna Kneeland; and photographed in Eastman Color and the 70mm "Superpanorama" process, with the Orchestra of the Grand Theater of Barcelona recorded in six-track stereo. When Dr. Coppelius opened in the U.S. in 1968, Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, "The sets are ornate and aptly expansive, the color is perfectly beautiful and the Delibes music, stunningly transcribed on the sound track, never sounded better." The revised film was made available only in 35mm and mono sound.
The Romanian-born Bronston, who had once been dubbed "The King of Epics" after such successes as El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Circus World (1964), was in reduced circumstances by the time of The Mysterious House of Dr. C.. He wrote in publicity materials for the revised film that it was his idea to "doctor" the original. He had always regretted, he said, that Dr. Coppelius "used only the elements of music, dance and mime." So, in hopes of gaining a wider audience, he "persuaded" the Kneelands to insert dialogue and lyrics in addition to the narration and interpolated animation. Other sources indicate it was the Kneelands who approached Bronston with these ideas.
In both versions of the film, Dr. Coppelius is played by the portly Viennese character actor Walter Slezak, who enjoyed a long career on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood films and television series. Slezak, whose mastery of pantomime and visual comedy helped him land the role, executes a few steps with the dancers and later kidded that he had become "the fat Nureyev of the film world." Critic Eric Johns wrote that "Slezak obviously fell in love with Coppelius, and the audience in turn fell in love with him... His larger-than-life performance is something to relish."
According to publicity materials, Jo Anna Kneeland created a new ballet company especially for the original film, recruiting dancers from Great Britain, Sweden, France, Spain and the U.S. Dame Alicia Markova, the renowned English ballerina, choreographer, director and teacher, served as artistic consultant.
The role of Coppelia/Swanhilda is danced by Claudia Corday of New York's Harkness Ballet; and Caj Selling, a star soloist with the Royal Swedish Ballet, plays Franz. Dancer-comedienne Eileen Elliott is Brigitta, the girl who finally persuades Dr. C. that a human wife is more desirable than a doll. Guest artists in the original film included Carmen Rojas as the Spanish doll and Veronica Rusmin as the Roman doll, although their scenes were trimmed in the revised movie and replaced by animated sequences. In one of these, as Dr. C. dreams of being toreador, British comic actor Terry-Thomas provides the voice of the bull.
The Delibes ballet was first performed onstage at the Paris Opera House in May 1870 and has since become a staple of ballet companies worldwide. The Doll (1919), a German silent film based on the same story, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. "Coppelia" also has formed the basis for various television specials.
The Kneeland version had its origins in experimental workshop productions at Hale's Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, Florida. Professional actors including Jose Ferrer were integrated into non-dancing roles, while certain dancers were given training in dramatic acting.
The Kneelands made certain changes in the story, making Dr. Coppelius less a crusty old curmudgeon and more a lovable, mischievous rascal who enjoys scaring the gullible villagers with his inventions. They added a love interest for the good doctor in the form of the barmaid Brigitta, and a sequence where the villagers rebuild the broken doll for Dr. Coppelius.
In directing the original film, Ted Kneeland had made innovative use of a three-camera system commonly employed on television but not ordinarily used in wide-screen processes.
Dr. Coppelius had its world premiere at the White House in connection with a traditional Christmas party for the children of all the foreign ambassadors living in Washington, D.C. The kids would come in costume of the native lands and a Marine Band would play. Although this premiere took place during the Johnson administration, LBJ was in the hospital at the time and could not attend.
Following its opening in the U.S., the Kneelands' film of Dr. Coppelius became bogged down in the ensuing litigation of bankruptcy by Cinecom, the parent corporation of its distributor, Childhood Productions. After seven years of legal battles the couple reclaimed the rights to their film and, with Bronston serving as producer, created the revised version.
Ted Kneeland had a history of acquiring and revising failed films through his company International Co-Productions -- rewriting, re-directing and re-shooting some scenes, changing titles, etc. -- to try and make them successful in the U.S. and Western markets. Examples included Savage Pampas (1966) with Robert Taylor, Criminal Affair (1968) with Rossano Brazzi and Ann-Margret and The Family (1970) with Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas.
The various elements of the original version of Dr. Coppelius have been tracked down, and the film is expected to screen on TCM in the fall of 2011.
Producer: Frank J. Hale; Samuel Bronston (uncredited)
Director: Ted Kneeland
Screenplay: Ted Kneeland (screenplay and story); Vctor M. Tarruella (screenplay); Arthur Saint-Leon (text based on ballet libretto "Coppelia"); Charles Nuitter (libretto "Coppelia")
Cinematography: Cecilio Paniagua
Art Direction: Gil Parrondo
Film Editing: Juan Serra
Cast: Walter Slezak (Dr. Coppelius), Claudia Corday (Swanhilda/Coppelia), Caj Selling (Franz), Eileen Elliott (Brigitta), Marcia Bellak (Swanhilda's Friend #1), Kathy Jo Brown (Swanhilda's Friend #2), Clara Cravey (Swanhilda's Friend #3), Kathleen Garrison (Swanhilda's Friend #4), Chris Holter (Swanhilda's Friend #5), Sharon Kapner (Swanhilda's Friend #6).
by Roger Fristoe