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Submitted by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe

The Tales of Hoffmann

Extract from: Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton by Julie Kavanagh

    Ashton had worked with Moira Shearer the previous year, in Michael Powell's The Tales of Hoffmann, also a story of three loves told in a fantastical synthesis of three genres: opera, dance and cinema. It was a daringly uncommercial venture, made possible only by the huge success of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. The Tales of Hoffmann reassembled the main players from the earlier film, and Ashton, who was brought in as both choreographer and a performer, felt something of an interloper, 'edged out' by Massine and Helpmann.

They loathed each other and were always fighting for the best position. I'd ask Bobby where I was going to be and he'd say, 'There' (with my back to the camera). I'd agreed to do the choreography on condition I didn't have to do Massine's dances. He was supposedly one of the greatest choreographers and I felt I couldn't possibly. I'd been his pupil. So I did all the other parts, which of course he resented, but Michael Powell didn't want him to. He wanted him as an artist.
    Powell was aware of the rivalry between Massine and Helpmann, but, as a fan of both, was happy to indulge them. 'Massine took charge of the whole production. I was his camera man', while Helpmann, 'knowing which parts Massine would grab for himself ... made a clean sweep of all the villains.' Ashton, on the other hand, 'had better manners'. Unlike his two colleagues, he appears only in the first third of the film, in two character roles, each spiked with self-parody. As Kleinzack, he is the hunchback jester, with a potbelly and Cyrano nose, who is enamoured of a disdainful medieval beauty (Moira Shearer). Her obsession with her reflection recalled Pearl Argyle's in The Lady of Shalott; and another echo from an Ashton ballet is evident when Kleinzach, holding the woman's train against his cheek, mimics the Jester in Cinderella. But the main interest of the role is its caricature of 'La Bête Ashton', a persona he had mocked in letters to Dick Beard: 'I am diffident, stunted, middle aged and unattractive and you are all the beauty radiant, upstanding and aloof.'
    The puppetmaster, Cochenille, impersonates Ashton the choreographer, responsible for setting the dancers in motion. With his painted, pouting lips and tripping hobble walk, it is a performance of 'inspired stupidity', a foil to the effete exhibitionism of Spalanzani, played by Massine. Ashton would mock Massine's 'proud, peacocky' behaviour off camera, but, having endured his mentor's constant upstaging, he gets his revenge through Cochenille, who pokes out his tongue at his overbearing master. Like the puppetteer, whose role it is to wind-up the clockwork doll, Ashton was responsible for her dance, a solo in which Moira Shearer performs ballet's equivalent of coloratura: scintillating footwork and virtuosic fouetté turns. A more unusual contribution is the Dragonfly ballet which opens the film: a flitting, fluttery dance, made in homage to Pavlova's famous solo, which also borrows speeded-up images from Swan Lake, conflating them with modern contortions. In a bizarre ending, the dragonfly suddenly transforms into a Petit-like sexual predator, aggressively miming the murder of her mate, who is left undulating, like a reed in the water, as she dances off into the night, silhouetted against the moon.
    As choreography for the camera, neither piece is particularly impressive. Movements are not adapted for high angles, and the dance is mostly shot full length, tracked by a camera that is frequently taken by surprise. Powell claimed that Ashton showed a keen, but limited sense of cinema. He did not sit in on the editing and had little enthusiasm for trying new resources available to him.
I'd say to Freddie, 'Would you like a guide track?'
'Well, Michael, I don't think I do, if you don't mind.'
At the time of its release, The Tales of Hoffmann was not a critical or box-office success, although it has since acquired a certain cult status, mostly owing to the fact that Martin Scorsese claims the film influenced him more than any other.

End of extract:
Julie Kavanagh, Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton.
London: Faber, 1996. pp 394-96.
ISBN: 0571143520

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