Fella (Jerry Lewis) is the heir to a vast fortune left to him by his millionaire father, but unfortunately for the young man he also has a wicked stepmother (Judith Anderson) who took over the family's affairs when his father passed away, and it is she and her two sons, Fella's stepbrothers Maximilian (Henry Silva) and Rupert (Robert Hutton), who hold sway over the inheritance. Nevertheless, there is supposedly a hoard of coins hidden away somewhere in the mansion or its grounds, and Fella is wont to talk in his sleep about its location, unable or unwilling to speak about it when awake. This means his stepfamily keep him around, but they still don't treat him well, preferring to see to it that he acts as their personal slave...
The celebrated, indeed rather ancient Cinderella story has undergone many a variation down the years on television and in the movies, not to mention pantomime, and this was director Frank Tashlin (who in addition penned the screenplay) and his favourite star Jerry Lewis's take on it. It sounds obvious as a choice for them both, make a wacky fairy tale where Lewis could do his downtrodden but zany manchild bit, familiar from their other collaborations, and Tashlin could dream up gag after gag for him to bloom with, yet oddly it didn't work out that way, so when Cinderfella was released the reaction was lukewarm. Indeed, some regarded it as one of the worst comedies ever made.
That was seriously overstating how bad it was, but it was true enough the laughs were thin on the ground when Lewis's tendency towards the maudlin was not kept in check by his director as it usually was. As if the fable basis for the plot had dulled the two men's comedic sensibilities and the star wanted to play up the Charlie Chaplin ambiitions to his career, there were far too many passages here that lent on pathos for their effect when what his audience wanted to see were those incredibly innovative and complex routines this duo had made their name with, in the projects they worked on together at any rate. Certainly there were a few flashes of their ingenuity, such as the scene where Fella mimes the entire Count Basie Orchestra in his kitchen, yet there were damn few of those.
With Lewis in almost every scene, his tendency towards egomania was plain to see, which was not necessarily as damaging as it might have been to other comedians' output, as he was very aware through unbelievable amounts of hard work and dedication what was best for his screen persona and what was not. That canny talent would start to desert him at the end of the sixties as the kid audience who idolised him grew up and left him behind, leading him to experiment further and more disastrously for what fans he had remaining, and before long it was his telethons a whole generation of Americans knew him for, that and the supposed fact the French loved him and he had made a concentration camp movie many were desperate to see though he was determined it would never be released.
If nothing else, you could see the seeds of Lewis's masterpiece The Nutty Professor in the plot of Cinderfella - both protagonists undergo fantastical transformations to become what they think the woman in their lives wants from a man, though while the later film would be rich in its themes and complexity, when Fella's Fairy Godfather (Ed Wynn) lays out the details of why a male Cinderella is a good idea, it's a fatally confused item of gender politics that has no place in a fable, some guff about everyone being content with the partner they have rather than looking elsewhere for someone better. Pretty rich coming from a womaniser like Lewis, but by switching the sex of the lead to male, the women were either represented by Anderson's imperious stepmother or the too-briefly glimpsed Princess Charming (singer Anna Maria Alberghetti, here given a barely-whispered tune at the end) who rather than enjoying a position of power winds up subservient to Fella when she falls for him after a couple of minutes of dance. Still, Jerry's big entrance at the top of the ball's staircase was impressive. Music by Walter Scharf.
American director whose films were heavily influenced by his years spent working in cartoons. In his 20s and 30s, Tashlin worked at both Disney and Warner Brothers in their animation studios, before moving into comedy scriptwriting in the late 1940s, on films like Bob Hope's The Paleface. Tashlin moved into directing popular live-action comedies soon after, with Hope in Son of Paleface, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, and most notably Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? These films were full of inventive, sometimes surreal touches, and used many of the techniques Tashlin had learnt as an animator. Continued to work during the sixties, but without the success of the previous decade.