Wednesday, November 26, 2014


In a fairy-tale European village, the kindly but strange Doctor Coppelius spends his days alone in his mansion, creating life-size mechanical dolls that look so real, they can pass as human beings. He keeps nosy villagers away by setting off explosions from time to time, but he also likes some attention, so one day he creates a doll of a young woman (which he names Coppelia) and puts her out on his balcony, passing her off as flesh and blood. Sure enough, the young Franz sees her and is swept off his feet, which makes his girlfriend Swanhilda jealous. Soon, Swanhilda and her friends have snuck into the house and discovered the dolls; Franz comes after her and is rendered unconscious by Dr. Coppelius so he can use the young man in an experiment to transfer a human soul into the doll of Coppelia. Swanhilda poses as Coppelia and tricks the doctor into thinking the experiment has worked. Despite all this trickery, the story comes to a good-natured ending, with Franz and Swanhilda married, and even a love interest for the doctor.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this is all performed as a ballet, with no dialogue (though there is voice-over narration and some occasional voice-over thoughts from the characters). Based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the ballet, with music by Leo Delibes, was first performed in 1870 and has remained popular. As for this film, it was originally made in 1966 as a straight-forward ballet film with no voiceover and released as DOCTOR COPPELIUS. It got good reviews but was pulled from distribution when its releasing company got into financial trouble. In the mid-70s, the director, Ted Kneeland, re-edited the film with narration and two completely extraneous animated sequences involving the doctor's strange dreams, and released it under the current title, but it failed to get much attention and disappeared again, until now when Turner Classic Movies has resurrected it on cable. 

At over 90 minutes, this remains mostly of interest to ballet fans.  Had it been trimmed down to an hour or so and had some of the non-plot motivated dancing scenes removed, it might have become a TV standard for family holiday viewing. The movie looks fantastic with a bright and varied palette of colors used throughout. The sets are stagy but quite elaborate, and the whole thing has the feel of a beautiful childhood dream. The choreography is fine and no one is really called upon to stretch their acting muscles much, though Claudia Corday is quite convincing as Swanhilda and non-dancer Walter Slezak is in fine comic form as Doctor C. The animated sequence, with a voice by Terry-Thomas, features an angelic singing doll, a talking bull, and some space aliens, and is dreadful, but I found the rest of the movie to be a delightful curiosity. The Turner Classic widescreen print is almost pristine. One amusing line: Swanhilda, pretending to be Coppelia, dances with the doctor and thinks to herself, "Nureyev, he's not!" [TCM]

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