Hans Christian Andersen is a highly fictionalized family musical from independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and Director Charles Vidor about the life of the famous Danish author and poet. A gently charismatic performance from Danny Kaye, a score filled to the brim with memorable Frank Loesser songs, and gobs of eye candy production design help to overcome a plot that frequently meanders and stalls. It is presented on Blu-ray with a bright and detailed transfer derived from an element with occasional registration issues. The only on disc extra is the film’s theatrical trailer, but the 40 page book with which the Blu-ray is packaged includes a good deal of informative text and behind the scenes photos and art.
Directed By: Charles Vidor
Starring: Danny Kaye, Farley Granger, Jeanmaire, and Joey Walsh
Studio: Warner Bros.
Film Length: 112 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: December 18, 2012
The Film ***½
Hans Christian Andersen is a highly fictionalized (to the point where the opening title card flat out cops to it) film about the life of the title character (Kaye), a famous 18th century poet and author. Hans works as a cobbler in the city of Odense, where his propensity for turning every situation into a pretense for a fairy tale endears him to the local children and runs him afoul of some of the local authority figures. After overhearing plans by some of the locals to have Hans kicked out of town, his young apprentice, Peter (Walsh), convinces Hans to pack up and move to Copenhagen before that can happen. Upon arriving in Copenhagen, Hans begins to enchant the local children with his stories which leads to some success as an author as well as a cobbler. He also becomes enamored with Doro (Jeanmaire), a local ballerina for whom he is commissioned to produce slippers. Hans is shocked to learn that she is married to the hard-nosed ballet master Niels (Granger) with whom she frequently has very public arguments, occasionally coming to blows. Hans becomes determined to save Doro from Niels, and Peter’s discouragement of Hans from interfering in their marriage eventually drives a rift between them.
Hans Christian Andersen, as much as any film I have ever seen, gets by on the charm of its music and its star. The Frank Loesser songs amount to one fabulously entertaining earworm after another that will persist in viewers’ minds and imaginations long after their memory of the film’s scattershot screen story will have evaporated. These songs are cleverly woven throughout the film’s score by musical director Walter Scharf so that even during the less interesting dramatic passages between the diverting musical set-pieces, the viewer will be constantly reminded of their appeal.
Danny Kaye embodies the title character with a guileless charm that wins the viewer over in much the same way that Hans enthralls the on-screen children with his songs and stories. Kaye bravely sets aside most of his trademark schtick and portrays Andersen as a man with a very thin line between his conscious and subconscious mind. Hans is the kind of guy ideally suited for dreaming up stories, but not someone you would want driving a truck or operating heavy machinery. This helps to rationalize some of the reckless and ill-advised behavior required of him in the film’s problematic romantic subplot.
The romantic subplot involving Hans and Doro is by far the weakest element of the film. It seems to have been conceived almost exclusively to create an excuse for a prestige extended fantasy ballet sequence fashionable in musicals of the era. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly good excuse. There is almost no dramatic movement in the story, as Hans’ affection is completely one-sided, Doro is happy in her marriage despite her constant fighting with Niels, and Niels remains oblivious to it all. Since nobody has any inclination to change, the best viewers can hope for is an anticlimax.
A plot development where Hans writes a story illustrating his anger at the treatment of Doro by her stern husband/ballet-master which is later adapted into a ballet of The Little Mermaid seems a little too directly reminiscent of Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes from four years earlier. There is a lot of thematic overlap between Andersen’s The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid stories, including the idea of being careful of what you aspire to lest it destroy you, but framing The Little Mermaid ballet with a story so similar to that from the previous film invites comparisons that are not favorable.
That being said, the actual extended ballet sequence, set to music adapted from Franz Liszt, is wonderful despite the inelegant pretext by which it is shoehorned into the movie.
The Video ***
This 1080p AVC-encoding is windowboxed to 4:3, approximating the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio. Grain is coarse and consistent. Colors are deeply saturated, frequently right to the edge of blooming, with facial tones tilted slightly red. The element used for transfer of this three-strip Technicolor production has occasional issues with registration that result in color fringing along high contrast edges. (Check out the edge of Hans’ shirt in the scene where Peter is trying to convince him to leave for Copenhagen). Contrast buildup results in slightly crushed blacks and (less frequently) blown out bright areas of the image. While the slight registration issues result in more softness than one would see in a Warner Ultra-Resolution presentation derived from original three strip materials, I was still impressed by the degree of texture apparent, particularly in the costume fabrics. Despite the handful of flaws listed above, this high-definition encoding attractively conveys the film’s eye candy production design inclusive of the fairy tale-like "soundstage Denmark" sets and the phantasmagoric ballet sequences.
The Audio ***½
The Blu-ray's one and only audio option is the film's original English language sound mix provided via a DTS-HD MA lossless mono encoding. The chief beneficiary of this lossless encoding is the wonderful music. While there is a little roll-off in the high frequencies, I was generally very impressed by the dynamics and bass extension coaxed from this vintage mono track. Noise reduction is applied tastefully with surprisingly few artifacts.
The Extras *
The only on-disc extra is the film’s Theatrical Trailer which runs two minutes and 43 seconds and is presented in 4:3 AVC-encoded standard definition video. The lack of on-disc extras is somewhat compensated for by the graphic and text material in the Blu-ray book which is discussed in the “Packaging” section below.
The Blu-ray disc is enclosed in a deluxe “Blu-ray Book” case with cover art derived from the picture of Kaye hugging a child that has been used for most recent video releases of the film. The disc is housed on a hub on the inner back cover, and between the covers are 40 colorful pages including a mix of production stills, behind the scenes photos, and reproductions of original promotional art. Every couple of pages includes a paragraph or two of text with the following headings:
Once Upon a Time: An introduction discussing Samuel Goldwyn’s efforts to bring the project to the screen as far back as 1938.
The Songs: Discussion of Goldwyn’s hiring of Loesser and Loesser’s résumé
The Screenplay: How Moss Hart was hired to meld elements of a 1938 screenplay with Loesser’s songs.
The Stars: The Film’s casting
The Ballets: Discusses Goldwyn’s initial intent to hire George Balanchine and Moira Shearer before eventually hiring Roland Petit and Renée Jeanmarie
The Costumes: The Academy Award-nominated efforts of Mary Wills, Antoni Clavé, and Barbara Karinska
The Director: Charles Vidor’s résumé and how he came to be hired by Goldwyn
The Sets: The design work of Richard Day and Antoni Clavé
The Promotion: Some of the unique promotional techniques Goldwyn employed to sell the movie, including the creative exploitation of a number of television outlets.
The Danish Protest: The story behind a complaint about the film that was initially filed and later withdrawn by the Foreign Office of Denmark
Biographical Pieces on:
Producer Samuel Goldwyn
Danny Kaye (“Hans”)
Renée Jeanmaire (“Doro”)
Farley Granger (“Niels”)
Choreographer/Dancer Roland Petit
Songwriter Frank Loesser
Hans Christian Andersen
...And They Lived Happily Ever After: A final word with discussion of the film’s success and a relevant quote from Samuel Goldwyn