Disney’s Cinderella has always been the, pun intended, red-haired stepchild of the animated kingdom. It never really received the hype the other classics or the Renaissance films tend to get, so it comes as a surprise to people when they learn that the film actually saved the company from bankruptcy when it first came out in the 1950’s. Even today, despite legions of critics trying to tear it to shreds before it even got out of the house, pun intended, again, the 2015 remake, starring Lily James, turned out to be a massive sleeper hit. But would you believe that Disney’s success came at the expense at another animated Cinderella movie, who fought not just Walt Disney, but Francisco Franco, released the same year?
Titled Erase Una Vez, or Once Upon a Time, Spanish film company Estela Films attempted to tell the story of La Cenicienta, or Cinderella, as an animation the same year that Disney released theirs. For years, it was considered to be a lost film, but a black and white version of the original Cinefotocolor film has been uncovered and clips have been released on YouTube. Coincidentally, both films heavily used rotoscoping (the practice of drawing over live film) to produce life-like animation, as seen below.
From what we can gather, the film is a bit more faithful retelling to Perrault than Disney, except in one obvious detail. Disney kept the story in its native France, but our Cenicienta lived in Renaissance-era Spain, which will become more important later on. Instead of Lady Tremaine, we have Doña Facunda; Anastasia and Drusilla’s counterparts become Clorinda and Rebeca, the former’s name likely an allusion to Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Instead of legions of talking mice, Cinderella’s helper in this version is her pet cat, Ulises, who, accordingly, “is the alter ego of the fairy godmother, while in the Disney’s film, Lucifer the cat has as good intentions as mild connotations has its name.” To flesh out the story, subplots were added concerning the household pages taking pity on Cinderella and trying to help her from her stepmother and stepsisters; in one scene, they disguise themselves as ghosts in an attempt to scare them off, as seen below.
When it was released, it won a ‘Menzione d’honore’ in a Venetian Film Festival where it was said to be recognized as best children’s film. It was also deemed worthy of national interest. However, Disney’s success globally eclipsed the ambitious little picture. Even Spanish critics thought Disney’s version had better technical animation and it was unable to make up its budget of 5 million pesetas. The failure is believed to have killed Estela Films’ animation department, cancelling an upcoming film called Viaje Fantástico.
It’s a little unclear just how aware Disney was of the competing film. The reason the picture was called Erase Una Vez, instead of La Cenicienta, was because Disney had already copyrighted the name for the Spanish dub of their film; in fact, concept poster art depicts both names, as seen above. This wasn’t even Disney’s only issue with Europe’s budding animation industry in the 1950’s as there were earlier issues with a Franco-British stop-motion, Alice in Wonderland, in 1949. But Disney was not really the main force our Spanish Cinderella had to contend with.
The film had actually gotten into trouble with the Spanish government due to the film’s decision to set the story in Spain, with a clear Catalan influence, instead of France, with many real-life places appearing in the film, like la Plaça del Rei o l’Ajuntament de Barcelona (or Barcelona’s City Hall). The Franco regime, which was in power at the time of the film’s release, banned Catalan influence in mass media, as well as in language and institutions. Despite such an animated film initially gaining public interest, the film was denied government funding, and it was ultimately deemed “politically permeated,” or “alta-politica,” by Franco’s government. An earlier Spanish film, Garbancito de la Mancha, a portmanteau of Tom Thumb and Don Quixote, had received funding in order to promote Spanish interest, which highlights the severity of the censorship.
The story is going to have a happy ending, of sorts, it would seem. A documentary, fittingly titled, “Alta Politica,” is said to be in the works detailing what the film went through, and the Filmoteca de Catalunya is believed to be going to release a restored version of the film this year.