The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1955)


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Storyline

In a ballet rendition of this classic tale, a young inexperienced apprentice of a powerful wizard tries to use magic to get through her chores.

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A few corrections to previous review

Many thanks to Boblipton for his earlier review. For the most part, I agree with his final evaluation. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” makes an interesting footnote to Powell’s career, but it is in no way essential viewing. Criterion have indeed included it as an extra on the excellent release of Powell and Pressburger’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” which is about all anyone could expect. However, I want to offer a few corrections/additions to Boblipton’s review:

1.) The cinematographer for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was NOT Freddie Francis; it was Christopher Challis, who was also the cinematographer for “Tales of Hoffmann.” (In fact, Powell was largely successful in reassembling his crew from “Hoffmann,” including Challis and editor Reginald Mills and production designer Hein Heckroth.) Francis merely served as camera operator — a job he filled on both films.

2.) The music for these version of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is NOT the famous score composed by Paul Dukas (which most people know through its use in Disney’s “Fantasia”). A relatively obscure German composer named Walter Braunfels created the score for this ballet. Even IMDb gets this one wrong….

3.) Part of the reason that this film lacks the panache of “Hoffmann” is that Powell was brought in to direct the English-language version of this ballet, which had been created primarily for German television. (It was, in fact, production designer Hein Heckroth who asked Powell to get involved.) Powell didn’t really have much input and probably took the job while on a brief hiatus from his partnership with Pressburger, which was still active in 1955-56. Thus I attribute the lack of the typical Michael Powell flair to his being called in after the fact instead of being involved from the conception stage onwards.

4.) Sadly, we’re still missing about 16 minutes of footage from this film. It originally ran about 30 minutes — no doubt due to its television origins. But it was cut to 13 1/2 minutes before it was widely distributed and then stored in the BFI archives. I doubt that the missing 16 minutes would add much; we still get the full basic story. But the fact that so much was cut helps explain why the film seems so choppy.

Not a Movie

This 13 minute ballet performed to Dukas’ “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” is included in the new DVD of the Powell-Pressberger TALES OF Hoffman. Powell did a movie of it, using the brilliant Freddie Francis as cinematographer. It provides a telling counterpoint to that movie and clearly illuminates why TALES is a great picture.

First and foremost, in TALES, camera angles vary in wild and dazzling method. That lends an excitement, movement and sense of weirdness that Francis’ excellent but far more conventional camera placement in this piece lacks.

Powell started out in silent movies as an assistant to Rex Ingram, and visually he continued the traditions of silent film. No one except Minnelli ever used colors as boldly and effectively as Powell and Pressberger, in works like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and especially TALES. Here colors are used far more prosaically. And finally, Powell and Pressberger knew how to use sound for its emotional content — think of the wind in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING. Here, the music serves to direct the action.

In net, this is a jazzed up record of a ballet. A good one with a fine prima ballerina, but nothing more. But watched immediately before TALES — watching it afterwards is impossible — it lets one see how brilliant the Archers were.

A MONTH LATER: I must’ve been asleep when I wrote the review. Thanks to the other reviewer for correcting my foolish errors, which I leave here so that anyone reading this can enjoy a good horselaugh here at my expense.

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (Michael Powell, 1955) **1/2

This is a ballet short by Michael Powell – “devised and designed” by Hein Heckroth – in the style of THE RED SHOES (1948) and THE TALES OF Hoffman (1951). During the Audio Commentary for the latter, it was stated that Powell was very much influenced by the animated films of Walt Disney; this short is certainly evidence of that, since the Disney Studios had tackled the same Goethe story in the most famous segment from FANTASIA (1940) – though the celebrated Paul Dukas score that’s become synonymous with it wasn’t utilized here!

Despite the considerable talent on display, however, the overall concept of the short is too modest to favorably compare – and, perhaps, it shouldn’t be – with the boundless imagination that is afforded by a cartoon, or the sheer charm of the Disney classic itself. The film is, in any case, compromised by the unsuitable widescreen format and the fact that it was shortened from 30 to 13 minutes!