The Tales of Hoffmann (film)

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For the 1916 silent film, see Tales of Hoffman (film).
The Tales of Hoffmann
Tales of Hoffman poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Written by E. T. A. Hoffmann (stories)
Jules Barbier
(opera libretto)
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Dennis Arundell
Starring Moira Shearer
Robert Helpmann
Léonide Massine
Music by Jacques Offenbach
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Edited by Reginald Mills
Distributed by British Lion Films (UK)
Lopert Pictures (US)
Release dates
4 April 1951 (New York)[1]
17 May (UK trade)
26 November (UK gen.)
13 June 1952 (US gen.)
Running time
128 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office £105,035 (UK rentals)[2]
$1.25 million (US rentals)[3]

The Tales of Hoffmann is a 1951 British film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, written, produced and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger working under the umbrella of their production company, The Archers.

The opera film stars Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, and features Pamela Brown, Ludmilla Tchérina and Ann Ayars. Only Rounseville and Ayars sang their own roles.

It uses a soundtrack recorded for the film conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham; principal singers apart from Rounseville and Ayars were Dorothy Bond, Margherita Grandi, Monica Sinclair and Bruce Dargavel; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays. The film's production team includes cinematographer Christopher Challis and production and costume designer Hein Heckroth, who was nominated for two 1952 Academy Awards for his work.

A German-language version of the same recording was also made, with singers such as Rudolf Schock, Josef Metternich, Rita Streich and Anny Schlemm.[4]


In the prologue, Hoffmann is in the audience at a performance by Stella, a prima ballerina. Stella sends Hoffmann a note asking him to meet her after the performance, but the note is intercepted by his rival, Councillor Lindorf. Not having received her note, Hoffmann goes to the tavern in the interval, where he tells the story of a clown, Kleinzach and three stories of his past loves — Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia, and gets drunk.

In the first story, Olympia is an automaton created by scientist Spalanzani and magic spectacle maker Coppelius. Hoffmann falls for the doll, ignorant of her artifice and is mocked when he finally discovers she is 'automatic'.. In the second, Hoffmann in Venice falls for Giulietta, a courtesan, but she seduces him to steal his reflection for the magician Dapertutto.. In the third story Antonia is a soprano suffering from an incurable illness and must not sing, but the evil Dr Miracle makes her sing and she dies, breaking the hearts of Hoffmann and her father, Crespel.

Finally Hoffmann explains that all three women are all aspects of his love, Stella, who then appears in the tavern and, seeing Hoffmann drunk and incapable, is led away by Councillor Lindorf.


Though the original French libretto is presented in English translation, the film is relatively faithful to the traditional adaptations of Offenbach's last opera, and incorporates his unfinished score with the thread of the plot. However, certain important changes were made in the process of adapting the story to film. In the prologue of the film, all of Lindorf's music is deleted, making him a silent character. Also, Stella's profession is changed from an opera singer appearing in Mozart's Don Giovanni to a ballet dancer. "The Tale of Antonia" is shortened, ending with the powerful trio for Antonia, the Ghost of her mother, and Dr. Miracle rather than Antonia's death scene. The role of Nicklausse is abridged, though Nicklausse (as played by Pamela Brown) still appears.


Role Actor Singer
Hoffmann Robert Rounseville Himself
Stella/Olympia Moira Shearer Dorothy Bond
Antonia Ann Ayars Herself
Giulietta Ludmilla Tchérina Margherita Grandi
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Dr Miracle Robert Helpmann Bruce Dargavel
Nicklaus Pamela Brown Monica Sinclair
Schlemil Léonide Massine Owen Brannigan
Spalanzani/Franz Léonide Massine Grahame Clifford
Kleinsach/Cochenille Frederick Ashton Murray Dickie
Crespel Mogens Wieth Owen Brannigan
Pitichinaccio Lionel Harris René Soames
Luther Meinhart Maur Fisher Morgan
Stella's partner in Dragonfly ballet Edmond Audran
Andreas Philip Leaver
Nathaniel John Ford (uncredited)
Hermann Richard Golding (uncredited) Owen Brannigan
Antonia's Mother Joan Alexander


In the later years of their partnership, Powell became interested in what he termed "a composed film", a marriage of image to operatic music. The finale of Black Narcissus and the ballet sequence of The Red Shoes were earlier steps toward his goal.

The Tales of Hoffmann is an achievement of this ideal, as the entire opera was pre-recorded to create the soundtrack, and the movie was edited to the rhythms of the music. The production is completely without dialogue and, with the exception of Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, none of the actors did their own singing. Some of the singers had established careers in Britain at the time. Grahame Clifford, for example, had been a leading comedian with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for several years, and Monica Sinclair was fast becoming an audience favourite at Covent Garden; she would later become one of the company's most popular artists of the next two decades. The acting (especially by Helpmann) is highly stylised and similar to that of the silent film era.

Each tale is marked by its own individual primary colour, denoting its theme. "The Tale of Olympia", set in Paris, has yellow contours highlighting the farcical nature and tone of the first act. "The Tale of Giulietta" is a hellish depiction of Venice, where dark colours, especially red, are used. The final tale, set in Greece, uses different shades of blue, alluding to its sad nature. The set design is deliberately made to look artificial with the costumes similarly stylised. The opening scene of the "Tale of Giulietta" (where Giulietta performs the "Barcarolle", the most famous theme of the opera) is staged on a gondola which moves through deliberately artificial Venetian canals, although it does not seem to actually move on the water.

The Tales of Hoffmann was in production from 1–16 July 1950[5] at Shepperton Studios in Shepperton, Surrey, in the UK[6]

Critical reception[edit]

Following its world premiere in New York City, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:

[D]espite its opulence, coupled with a brilliant rendering of the score by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham's bristling baton and some masterly singing of the libretto (in English) by a host of vocal cords, this film version of the opera is, in toto, a vastly wearying show. And that is because it sates the senses without striking any real dramatic fire ... The inevitable question about this picture is how close does it come to matching the beauty and excitement of the same producers [sic] The Red Shoes? Although the two films are basically different, a comparison is fair to this extent: The Red Shoes had warmth and vitality, Tales of Hoffmann is splendid and cold.[1]

Reportedly, Cecil B. DeMille sent a letter to Powell and Pressburger, saying, "For the first time in my life I was treated to Grand Opera where the beauty, power and scope of the music was equally matched by the visual presentation."[7]

For the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, George A. Romero called it his "favourite film of all time; the movie that made me want to make movies".[8] Three years earlier, Romero had introduced the film as part of the "Dialogues: Talking with Pictures" programme at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.[9] Romero later taped an interview for the Criterion Collection edition of the film, discussing his love of the film and its influence on his career. Additionally, Martin Scorsese, an ardent fan of Powell and Pressburger, provides an audio commentary track on the Criterion edition.[10]

In a book on the British cinema, André Bazin is quoted as saying:

The cinema thus creates here a new artistic monster: the best legs adorned by the best voice. Not only is opera liberated from its material constraints but also from its human limitations. Lastly, dance itself is renewed by the photography and the editing, which allows a kind of choreography of the second degree where the rhythm of the dance is served by that of the cinema.[11]


At the 24th Academy Awards, The Tales of Hoffmann received two nominations, both for Hein Heckroth, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Best Costume Design, Color; the awards in both cases went to the crew of An American in Paris.

Powell and Pressburger were nominated for the Grand Prize of the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Exceptional Prize.[12] They also won the Silver Bear award for "Best Musical" at the 1st Berlin International Film Festival.[13][14][15]


Beecham's version of the opera recorded for the film was released on CD by SOMM Recordings, a classical music label, as part of their Beecham Collection. When the soundtrack was first released on LP by Decca Records in 1951, Beecham, who had conducted the British stage premiere of the opera in 1910, sued in an effort to prevent the release, which he had not approved. Because of the changes made to the music, Beecham stated that the opera as performed in the film did not truly represent his views of the score.[citation needed]



  1. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (5 April 1951). "Tales of Hoffmann Arrives; Lavish British Picture, With Huge Cast of Entertainers, Makes Bow at Bijou". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Vincent Porter, 'The Robert Clark Account', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20 No 4, 2000 p495
  3. ^ 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, 7 January 1953
  4. ^ ArkivMusic. Retrieved 27 July 2014
  5. ^ IMDb Box office/Business
  6. ^ IMDb Filming locations
  7. ^ DeMille, Cecil B.. "Fan Letter". Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "George A. Romero: Top Ten". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 26 October 2002. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  9. ^ Berardinelli, James (9 September 1999). "1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #1: "And They're Off..."". Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  10. ^ Collection, Criterion. "The Tales of Hoffman". Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  11. ^ Bazin is quoted (and translated) in Kimmer, Leila (2009). Cross-channel Perspectives: the French Reception of British Cinema. Peter Lang. p. 54. ISBN 978-3-03911-360-6. 
  12. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Tales of Hoffmann". Retrieved 16 January 2009. 
  13. ^ "1st Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  14. ^ IMDb Awards
  15. ^ Allmovie Awards


  • Gibbon, Monk. The Tales of Hoffmann: A Study of the Film. London: Saturn Press, 1951. 96pp (illus)
  • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1985. ISBN 0-571-16271-1. 163pp (illus. filmog. bibliog. index.)
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • Germano, William: Tales of Hoffmann: London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan: 2013.
  • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6.

External links[edit]