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A Night At the Ballet
Remind Me

Dr. Coppelius (1968)

With its beautiful dancers, lyrical music and continuous movement, ballet was a perfect match for the movies. Most often, filmmakers studied the world of ballet in pictures like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Swan (2010) or used ballerinas as leading ladies in everything from romantic dramas like Ingmar Bergman's Summer Interlude (1951) to Dario Argento's cult horror classic Suspiria (1977). Less often, the screen has featured complete ballets. For Hollywood, a brief excerpt was enough to provide culture for the masses before cutting to established film stars and more popular musical styles. But independent and foreign producers have done a lot to bring the world's great ballets to the screen. That's what happened in 1966 when husband-and-wife Ted and Jo Anna Kneeland filmed the Leopold Delibes classic Coppelia as Dr. Coppelius.

Coppelia had premiered in 1870 with 16-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi making her Paris Opera debut as both the animated doll Coppelia and the human woman, Swanhilda, who takes the doll's place to win back a suitor infatuated with the animated creature. Later notable Coppelias have included Alexandra Danilova and Patricia McBride. The ballet was based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, "The Sandman" and "The Doll," which also inspired the first act of Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which the animated doll, Olympia, is a coloratura role. When Michael Powell filmed the opera in 1951, Moira Shearer, star of his The Red Shoes, danced the role to Olympia's arias.

With renewed popularity for ballet in the '60s, particularly the almost fanatical fan followings for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev of the Royal Ballet, the time seemed ripe for a film version of one of the art form's most popular pieces. The Kneelands and producer Frank J. Hale formed two production companies, Copelia and Frank J. Hale Productions, respectively, to bring the work to the screen. They rented space at the Samuel Bronson Studios in Madrid and engaged dancers and the orchestra from the Gran Teatro del Liceo to perform the piece with the legendary Alicia Markova as artistic consultant. Both Kneelands collaborated on the screenplay, with Ted directing and Jo Anne choreographing. To adapt Florence Lustig's set designs for the Barcelona production, they hired future Oscar®-winner Gil Parrondo.

The Kneelands also very wisely cast Walter Slezak, an actor with strong connections to the classical music world, to play Dr. Coppelius, the mad inventor who creates dolls so lifelike the romantic male lead actually falls in love with one. Slezak was the son of legendary operatic tenor Leo Slezak, but only got into films when director Michael Curtiz spotted him drinking in a beer garden and convinced him to test for a movie he was making at Ufa. For most of his career, Slezak focused on non-classical work, starring in musicals and comedies on Broadway, where he won the Tony Award for the musical Fanny, and playing villains on screen, most notably as the Nazi U-boat captain in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). He only briefly followed in his father's footsteps, singing at the Metropolitan Opera in a production of The Gypsy Baron in 1959. In later years, he moved into more comic roles, including a spoof of his villainous image as The Clock King on the TV series Batman.

The Kneelands sold U.S. distribution rights to Childhood Productions, a company that had started promisingly by distributing Albert Lamorisse's children's classic White Mane (1953). By the '60s, however, most of their productions were mediocre, English-dubbed foreign films like The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1966), pushed into four-wall presentations and kiddie matinee showings for a quick pay-off. Dr. Coppelia was a big step up from that kind of film. The New York Times' Howard Thompson even gave it a rave, writing, "Once in a blue moon there comes a movie-feature ballet that scores straight down the line in taste, imagination and diversion. That is what happened yesterday...with a delectable and eye-filling 97-minute version of Coppelia...." Despite that vote of approval, the film got little distribution in the U.S.

Ten years later, the Kneelands tried to resuscitate their feature as The Mysterious House of Dr. C, a new version with narration, voice-overs for the characters, song lyrics and two animated dream sequences replacing the original's live-action dreams. It faded from sight quickly.

Producer: Ted Kneeland, Frank J. Hale
Director: Ted Kneeland
Screenplay: Jo Anna Kneeland, Ted Kneeland, Victor M. Tarruella
Story by Jo Anna Kneeland, Ted Kneeland
Based on the libretto of Coppelia by Charles Nuitter, Arthur Saint-Leon
Cinematography: Cecilio Paniaqua
Art Direction: Florence Lustig, Gil Parrondo
Score: Leo Delibes
Cast: Walter Slezak (Dr. Coppelius), Claudia Corday (Swanhilda/Coppelia), Caj Selling (Franz), Eileen Elliott (Brigitta), Marcia Bellak (Swanhilda's Friend #1), Terry-Thomas (Voice of the Bull).

by Frank Miller

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