The Power of Understatement in 1950 Disney Cinderella – The Stepmother


“The slightly befuddled benevolence of the Fairy Godmother offers a striking contrast with the icy, calculating stepmother.  The new generation of animators praises the character as one of Disney’s most frightening villains.  They point to the way Frank Thomas underplayed the animation to heighten the drama of her first enounter with Cinderella.  Although Thomas described the assignment as a ‘terrifying chore’ that was ‘very difficult to do and not much fun,’ he felt the character was ‘the thing that made the whole picture work.’


‘A sequence that I try to analyze to learn why it’s so powerful is when the stepmother is in bed, stroking her cat, and Cinderella comes in,’ says Deja.  ‘There really isn’t much happening.  She’s just sitting there.  Her body is a held drawing and just the hand is animated, so you can really take in her stare.  The tilt of her head.  The expressions.  What the eyes do.

cinderella3 Mary Blair – Concept Art

” ‘I asked Frank [Thomas] how he came up with that, and he very modestly said he probably got it out of the live action,’ Deja continues.  ‘He probably did, but you still have to know how to make that read:  a subtle action, like a flare of the eye; how you bring everything down so that it reads.'” Solomon, A Wish Your Heart Makes, p. 56.

” ‘The stepmother is so fantastic in her subtlety: the most natural villain we’ve had.’ agrees Mike Gabriel.  ‘Nothing supernatural, no magical powers, nothing but the ability to take away what the heroine wants.  That’s what gives her all of her power, and she uses it so well.’ ”  Solomon, A Wish Your Heart Makes, p. 59.


” ‘She conjures up powerful emotions in everyone watching because we all felt at times that our moms were mean to us,’ Gabriel notes.  ‘But the little subtle thaings she does fell like a mean mother or someone you would know in real life.  She just sends a chill up my spine.’

071440fc441b1a5fc4ad70b9c5b38796 audley

[Eleanor Audley was the voice and live-action actor who played the Stepmother.]

_CinderellaFotos22adj CinderellaFotos23adj

“Animator Randy Haycock, who worked on the title character in Pocahontas, notes that the subtle animation of the charcters plays off Eleanor Audley’s understated vocal performance.  ‘The stepmother doesn’t yell because she’s powerful.  She doesn’t have to move a lot because she’s powerful.  I don’t know how m;uch fun that would’ve been to animate, but Frank Thoman showed a huge amount of restraint by having her move so little.


” ‘Even when everything is chaos around her, she’s always in complete control,’ Haycock adds.  ‘A character who’s really powerful and knows it [p.59] isn’t going to show off that power.  She doesn’t have to.’

“Audley said, ‘My radio training helped more than the theatre.  Having been in the theater for twenty-five years, I learned things about  projeting that I had to unlearn for radio–or animation.  Acting is acting:  with animation you are more aware of your voice and you tend to look for constraints wherever you can find them.  In think Cinderella is the best thing I ever did outside of the theater.  The stepmother had more chances to be sarcastic and sweet and venomous.  There was more chance to get different ranges and play with it more:  I didn’t play with Maleficent.’ ”  Solomon, A Wish Your Heart Makes, pgs. 59 – 60.

audley eleanoraudley

“Pixlar designer Ralph Eggleston notes that the lighting and setup of her initial encounter with the heroine heightens the intensity.  ‘You see that slice of light cross over the room; Cinderella comes in, shuts the dor, and it’s dark,’ he explains.  ‘She moves forward, and you see the glow of her eyes.  She’s sitting, calmly petting the cat.  That’s one of the scariest things ever!’ ”

1068543_1341516805049_full (1)

[A similar use of lighting – my note]

“Eggleton adds that the stepmother reminds him of Bette Davis’s Oscar-nominated performance as the devioius matriarch Regina in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941).  ‘She kind of looks like Bette Davis,’ he says thoughtfully.  ‘Her eyes are certainly the same.  The way she sits, the way she poses herself.’ “


About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
This entry was posted in A Wish Your Heart Makes Charles Solomon, Eleanor Audley, Frank Thomas, Mary Blair Concept Art, Power of Understatement, Stepmother and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Power of Understatement in 1950 Disney Cinderella – The Stepmother

  1. Joanna says:

    Hi Jacki! This is GREAT information! I am working on a short film that involves characterization through use of light and shadow. I thought of Cinderella because I remembered watching is as a kid a being creeped out by stepmother. I’m happy that I finally figured out why. Keep up the great work!


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