Hans Christian Anderson was a beloved author of children's tales. In his life, he had many opportunities and benefactors. His stories were immensely popular, and he was even courted by royalty. 'Hans Christian Anderson', the 1952 film starring Danny Kaye, has nothing to do with any of that. In fact, the film opens with a disclaimer that it is not a telling of the man's life, but a fairy tale dedicated to the creator of so many classic fairy tales of his own.
Danny Kaye of the delightful 'The Court Jester' plays the title role, transformed into a small town Danish cobbler. He tells fanciful tales to the town children, often with a strong moral component. However, his story time conflicts with the kids' schooling. Eventually both the schoolmaster and a group of concerned parents decide that Hans should be kicked out of town. Overhearing the decision, Hans' apprentice, Peter (Joseph Walsh), convinces Hans to leave for Copenhagen that night and pursue his dreams in the nation's capital. While there, a prominent ballet company requests Hans' skills as a cobbler. Going to deliver the ballet shoes, he falls head over heels for the head ballerina, Doro (Zizi Jeanmaire). In the throes of love, he pens perhaps his most famous tale, "The Little Mermaid."
The name of the game for 'Hans Christian Anderson' is charm. The movie is mainly light and cheery, and Danny Kaye appears so effortlessly charming that you can't help but fall instantly in love with the whole production. It's so loveable that when the Danish government filed an official complaint against the film for not being shot in Denmark or featuring Danish actors, producer Samuel Goldwyn invited a representative of the Danish government to view the film. After seeing it once, the complaint was withdrawn.
The movie is buoyed by a set of original songs by Frank Loesser, composer for 'Guys and Dolls'. Unlike most musicals, the songs for 'Hans Christian Anderson' are quite enjoyable and memorable, with strong melodies that don't sound like typical Broadway fare. In fact, the musical numbers are some of the most underrated of the period, coming across as more understated than was typical for the time. The film doesn't stop with songs, also including an extended ballet drawing from Anderson's story of "The Little Mermaid," set to music by Franz Liszt. The movie was shot in Technicolor, so the whole thing looks vibrant and rich, but the production design and color scheme hit great heights during the ballet.
The script does a fantastic job of evoking the sense of wonder and merriment that Anderson's stories always possessed. In fact, by framing the story as a fairy tale instead of a literal biopic, the film gets away with a wide-eyed optimism that might seem hopelessly naïve today. Danny Kaye's broad performance similarly works within this context, but might seem terribly dated if the picture had been done straight.
The earnestness extends to the rest of the cast, especially Joseph Walsh as Peter. Acting as Anderson's anchor to reality and loyal confidante, Walsh does a good job of wearing his heart on his sleeve. Farley Granger, fresh off of 'Strangers On A Train', plays the ballet director in a role that is relatively thankless.
At the time of its release, 'Hans Christian Anderson' was an international hit, garnering six Academy Award nominations. In time, its star has faded compared to other musicals of the period, but that makes it ripe for rediscovery. The film is a minor gem, but a gem nonetheless, and worth catching if it should cross your path.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Brothers offers 'Hans Christian Anderson' as a digibook release. Bizarrely, despite the deluxe packaging, the disc itself is devoid of special features outside of a trailer.
'Hans Christian Anderson' is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 in this AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. The first thing that will impress you about the image is the Technicolor palette, which is bold and vibrant. In the opening scene, where Hans is talking to children near a bridge, the blue of the river and the greens of the grass pop off the screen. Fleshtones are very warm, sometimes veering toward red. The biggest problem I could see comes from the three-strip process Technicolor employed. When employed perfectly, it looks gorgeous. But here I noticed slight coloring errors around the edges of things, such as the hems of clothing or around the iris of people's eyes. Additionally, these errors contribute to a level of softness that one wouldn't expect for a three-strip Technicolor image.
Despite these problems, this is clearly a high-def image. There's enough detail that you won't confuse this for a mere DVD, even if there's less than there could have been otherwise. The extended ballet sequence looks particularly gorgeous. There's a very attractive layer of film grain that gives the transfer a very authentic filmic look. Almost a great job.
'Hans Christian Anderson' only comes with a mono DTS-HD Master Audio track. For movies like these, sometimes the original mixes are best, and I found that the film sounded quite good. The gorgeous music gets especially good treatment. Balance is reasonable, with the music and voices taking center stage. I didn't detect any hissing or distortion, making for a clean and smooth track. Imaging was necessarily limited and obviously the surrounds got no use at all. It's not a lot, but it's all the movie needs.
As mentioned above, the only special feature is a theatrical trailer, presented in standard definition. However, the disc does come in a digibook, which contains several pages of information along with many black and white and color photos from the production. The book isn't particularly in-depth, but it contains enough behind the scenes nuggets that you long to see a full retrospective documentary made for the film. This becomes especially true when you discover that Edward R. Murrow did the first behind the scenes look to promote the movie. Sadly, such treasures are nowhere to be found on the disc itself.
'Hans Christian Anderson' is a minor gem with a winning performance by Danny Kaye and some very memorable songs by Frank Loesser. The image is vibrant but does have a few flaws. The audio, while mono, sounds quite good and highlights the excellent score. While the film does come in digibook packaging, it contains no special features save a lone theatrical trailer. 'Hans Christian Anderson' is worth seeing, but unless you adore it, you might don't need to own it.