This is a story about the famous writer of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen (Danny Kaye), but in the spirit of the man’s work it is a fable based on his life and stories. It places him in a small town somewhere in Denmark, where he has a job as a cobbler but his heart is actually in storytelling and the local schoolmaster (John Brown) is increasingly frustrated with his pupils for being late for classes because they would rather listen to Hans spin his yarns. Today, for example, he illustrates the one about the King who had no clothes when a couple of conmen fooled him into thinking they had created a wonderful suit that didn’t actually exist with a song that the children are delighted to join in with, laughing away until the schoolmaster arrives with the assistance of various unimpressed parents to tell Hans to cease his distractions…
There was a problem with turning the life of Andersen into a film, mainly because while he was a very talented writer, he was also a complete weirdo, especially by modern standards (for example, check out the infamous Charles Dickens encounter), and that would be offputting for anyone trying to capture the magic of his imagination in movie form. They solved that by completely ignoring the facts, something the film admits right upfront, for this extravaganza and inventing something different that placed him in a more sympathetic light, though that did mean that when Hans wasn’t relating his tales, he was a complete and utter loser who was the victim of almost everyone he met, which may have thrown the fictions he crafted into sharper relief, but did not do much for rendering a cheery story of a creative talent. Only being good with kids proves his sole redeeming feature with those willing to treat him kindly.
Indeed, there wasn’t much cheery about this at all, as Kaye fought manfully to bring a rather moribund script to sparkling life, and the only thing really supporting him were the songs which he was naturally born to deliver. These were penned by Frank Loesser and were really rather lovely retellings and adaptations of Andersen’s most celebrated works, many of which had notably downbeat endings glossed over here, or it featured a few at any rate, so in the scenes where the star exhibited his skill with delivering a tune and deft lyrics we were in for a treat that the rest of the film failed to live up to with its themes of escapism in the face of an uncaring world, and a little spousal abuse added for extra poignancy. Not that Hans has a wife to victimise, he lives with the orphan boy Peter(Joseph Walsh) he is teaching the tricks of the cobbling trade to, it’s the woman he falls for who provided his unreciprocated, “never gonna happen” love interest.
She was a ballerina called Doro, and played by the legendary dancer Zizi Jeanmaire, as mentioned in the song Where Do You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt who you had to assume had seen this film as a child and been duly impressed. She lit up the screen, certainly, and danced well, but perhaps the original concept of presenting the fables as cartoons might have been a better one as the ballet came across as an attempt at classing up the production when it actually offered it a more rarefied air that was difficult to connect with, especially when Doro and her director husband (a reportedly very reluctant to be there Farley Granger) were often fighting which gave Hans the hopeless need to rescue her when she didn’t really want to be rescued. Also, the centrepiece Little Mermaid ballet designed to make that sad tale palatable through dance stops the action in its tracks, with hard luck Hans imagining it while locked in a cupboard by the irate director (!). Still, there were always those songs, from Wonderful Copenhagen and Inchworm to the unforgettable Ugly Duckling, which became more famous than the film itself thanks to huge sales of the soundtrack album and providing inspiration for at least two generations of schoolteachers seeking to brighten their own classes. Otherwise, it was kind of morose, in spite of the bright arrangements.