Kim Newman on... The Singing, Ringing Tree
RT Obscura 8: Seasonal offerings by way of an evil dwarf and a prince who's a bear.
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his eighth, and especially seasonal, column, Kim unearths The Singing, Ringing Tree a macabre tale of a princess, a dwarf, a bear/prince and a tree that sings.
From 1964 to 1969, BBC 1 aired a series called Tales From Europe in a weekday teatime slot for children, which ran foreign films parcelled out in twenty-five-minute episodes. Most were fairy tales, but I remember a Swiss version of Heidi and several other kids' adventure-type stories. Since you can find everything baby boom-related on the web, it's no surprise that someone has posted a useful episode guide to jog memories.
Rather than use subtitles (and alienating viewers who were still learning to read) or dubbed dialogue, these presentations were narrated in a deceptively calm manner which somehow added to their frequently macabre tone. The one particularly festive serial everyone remembers from the show is The Singing, Ringing Tree, and now it's on DVD.
Catching up with the feature version of this 1957 East German Grimm Brothers adaptation after all these years, I opted for its 'narrated' form and was surprised by how skilfully the trick is done. Sometimes, the male narrator (Gabriel Woolf? Gary Watson?) puts on voices to do characters' lines; at others, he gives a precis of the action; and the original German soundtrack can be heard, so you even pick up a few words and phrases by comparing the spoken lines with the translations. Given that fairy tales are supposed to be told, the narrator even takes over the function of the Grimm authorial voice, which is alternately comforting, nagging and terrifying.
The story is a variant on Beauty and the Beast, and offers moral lessons about not being arrogant and cruel -- but, somehow, what all viewers remember is the sheer malevolence of the Wicked Dwarf (Richard Krüger, earning screen immortality with a single role and purportedly inspiring a generation to dwarfphobia).
For most of the story, like Rumpelstiltskin, the Dwarf can almost be seen as a moral manipulator: he could simply be giving the spoiled princess (Christel Bodenstein) chances to resume her original gorgeous looks after she has been blighted with a blob nose and green hair for her misdeeds. After all, if the Dwarf didn't put animals in danger, she couldn't redeem herself by saving a dove with a broken wing, an icelocked goldfish and an antlered horse. However, in the last reel, he turns out to be a complete bastard, and relishes every chance to stop the now-reformed heroine from rescuing her Beast -- a handsome prince (Eckhart Dux) who has been transformed into a bear because he bet the Dwarf that if he gave the eponymous tree to the princess she would love him.
Besides the scare stuff, the film has a magic moment that'll melt the heart of even the most jaded old cynic as the tree finally rings and sings -- which we have been told it will only do if the princess realises she truly loves the bear/prince. It may be down to stolid Germanic effects, but many children were frightened by creatures who are supposed to be benevolent -- the giant, smiling goldfish and the gentle, transformed bear (whose facial make-up seems copied from Lon Chaney's Wolf Man). In the 1960s, of course, we saw this in black and white; the current DVD release shows the glorious colour processing and effectively pantomimic art direction (note the tastefully minimalist palace), which effectively create a studio-bound magic kingdom.
The sternness of the performances -- this arrogant princess is a lot more arrogant and unpleasant than she would be allowed to be in a Disney version -- also adds to the off-kilter, shivery-cum-preachy tone of the enterprise. It'd be stretching things to see any ideological aspect beyond the suggestion that wealthy, titled folks aren't necessarily nice people (even the dwarf is a king, and the heroine's mostly noble father breaks a vow when it inconveniences him).
Mostly, though, this artefact from a country that no longer exists, transformed into a specifically British nostalgia item by the kind of TV programming nobody would countenance, stands up as a kids' classic, and will serve as this column's pantomime offering of the season.
A Merry Christmas to all our readers!