Candy Coated Life Lessons: Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre

Posted by Kells, September 12, 2008 11:25am | Post a Comment

Growing up a latch-key kid in the mid-eighties meant that I spent many hours every day after school in front of the tv. Adding up all that time well spent I estimate that had my pre-adolescent life been stripped of my cable network companions I might be a very different person indeed. That said, I’d like to direct a hearty “thank you” to Shelley Duvall and her quality family program Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre for instilling in me a healthy dose of common sense and propriety by way of deliciously thrilling fantasy entertainment. I’ll never forget my first viewing of this stellar program: Rapunzel starring Duvall herself as the o’er tressed damsel and Jeff Bridges displaying raw and regal sexual appeal in his portrayal as the ill-fated prince who happens upon Rapunzel’s secluded tower. I know that I squandered countless innocent daydreams pondering the exemplary portrait of Bridges’ male beauty while also wondering what the heck chocolate dipped radishes might taste like and why pregnant women risked the lives of their loved ones to procure them. I began to seriously consider future career paths ripe for the treading as a witch or princess or mermaid. Thanks to cable tv,  a VHS recorder and an insatiable appetite for all things fantastical, my life took on a weekly cycle of significance, punctuated at the ends by my favorite show. 


I have a lot of strange memories of my little-girlhood and few of these are as coded for memory loss as all of those connected to my once upon a time obsession for this particular Showtime network series, recently re-released as a deluxe DVD box set of all twenty-seven episodes complete with a book, games, including one “lost” episode. This is huge. There are some many reasons to revisit this broadcasting wonder and more if you multiply each reason by the number of kids you share your tv time with. Despite the sometimes cheesey-to-the-max, “high tech” visual effects and the occasional train wreck episode (one in particular being so tragic that director Tim Burton along with lead actors Leonard Nimoy, James Earl Jones and Robert Carradine fumble altogether as if they attempted to sprint through an eight-legged race), this long-lived television series possesses a bounty of redeeming qualities that tips the scales towards necessary viewing. 


For those who can’t remember, and for those who wish to know, the basic format of the show went pretty much like this: a framed shot of Shelley Duvall, often soft focused and dressed in a what-was-she-thinking ensemble, opened each episode with an introduction to the story of the evening. I always appreciated this gentle preface as I fancied Duvall a fancy fashion plate worth mimicking; she clearly had a thing for bateau tops, princess dresses and floral crowns. Then, for the hour following, viewers would be treated to well-written, creative  interpretations of fairy tales visually inspired by master artists (Klimt, Beardsley, Rockwell and Mucha to name but a few) and directed, produced, designed and played by a revolving door of amazing talents culled from Broadway to Hollywood to Monty Python. It has been said that Duvall, being the executive producer, host, and narrator, got the idea for the program after reading the Tale of the Frog Prince while she was filming Popeye with Robin Williams. She ran the idea by Williams, who must have approved, as he went on to star alongside Teri Garr in Faerie Tale Theatre’s first episode: the Tale of the Frog Prince. The rest is history and it is a history densely packed with magic moments. 

I managed to see only twenty of the twenty six episodes during the five years of the show's original broadcast and until recently, having now seen them all, I hadn’t realized how much of the show I really missed; which is to say, I am shocked at the heaping quantities of adult content that years ago flew like fairy-dusted magic carpets right over my little naive noggin. I am sure these sprinklings of naughty, oh-no-they-didn’t moments most likely ensured the shows' broad appeal and subsequent success. However, perhaps because of my prior innocence to such sexy subject matter, I felt at times during recent viewing of the program like cracking a window to let some of that titillating innuendo escape and let the double entendres cool off. In terms of childproof, hemmed-in sexuality, Faerie Tale Theatre might be right up there with the Golden Girls

I did develop some of my earliest celebrity crushes thanks to the show: Jeff Bridges' princely performance I mentioned before, but I’ll also never forget the Prince Charming incarnate of Christopher Reeves and the romantic, hundred-year-sleep relieving kiss he laid on the lips of Bernadette Peters in Sleeping Beauty or the way that Matthew Broderick's puppy-faced and major, major cute Prince Charming swept the dancefloor with a radiantly transformed Jennifer Beals in Cinderella. And if princes don’t do it for you, there are always the ladies, for example: Susan Sarandon as in Beauty and the Beast, Liza Minelli in the Princess and the Pea, Joan Collins in Hansel and Gretal, Elizabeth McGovern and Vanessa Redgrave vying for the tirtle of the fairest of them all in Snow White, Teri Garr in the Tale of the Frog Prince, Barbara Hershey in the Nightingale, Carrie Fisher in Thumbelina, and Mary Steenburgen as Little Red Ridinghood. There are also many top comedians of the time featured in the show: Paul Reubens as Pinocchio, Robin Williams in the Tale of the Frog Prince, Billy Crystal and Jeff Goldblum, an excellent Big Bad Wolf, in the Three Little Pigs, Alan Arkin and Art Carney in the Emperor’s New Clothes, and Howie Mandell in the Princess Who Had Never Laughed. And then also, as necessity dictates, there are the good (Ben Vereen, Gregory Hines and Alfrie Woddward in Puss ‘n Boots), the bad (as in badass --- Klaus Kinski in Beauty and the Beast, Beverly D’Angelo in Sleeping Beauty, and Karen Black in the Little Mermaid), and the ugly (Mick Jagger as Emperor of the Orient in the Nightingale, Christopher Lee and Frank Zappa in the Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers)---the list just goes on and on like a bottomless black hole of absurdly diverse eighties talent. Even Francis Coppola, director of the Rip Van Winkle episode, got into it. 


I also have several favorite moments: I enjoy Bud Cort’s wide-eyed comedic bafoonery very much and he embellishes more than one episode with it. I really love the stack of beds set featured in the Princess and the Pea as well as Van Dyke Parks' regular musical contributions; his acting ain’t too shabby either. Beverly D’Angelo’s Bjork-esque dragon costume in Sleeping Beauty is so shutting down the joint with its fashion ferocity, not to mention Carole Kane’s fabulous fairy fro. And I love, love, love the romance; for a family program, they really managed to capture some classy, stellar chemistry when it came to the happy endings.

 But in the end there can only be but one favorite episode, and for me it was one of the few I hadn’t seen until after I exceeded thirty years of age. No one is ever too old for fairy stories and so I think it fitting that my absolute favorite episode is one in which the moral of the story is directed expressly to the grown ups in the audience: the Pied Piper of Hamlin. In this episode Eric Idle rhymes his way into town and leaves leading all the village children on his heels in response to the shady dealings of the corrupt local government. What makes this episode so good is that it is so cleverly well done and so eerily portrays the ugliness of false promises as for once the adults are punished for their deficiencies instead of the children. Mr. Idle is obviously flourishing in his element here as the creepy piper and the vignette of the poetic tale within a bedtime story, a la Princess Bride, sticks the landing beautifully. So, to sum up, I say watch it for the kissing, the hissing and the dissing. 


Of course fairy tales exist to convey the importance or morals and life lessons to ears that are young and hard of hearing. Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater never shirked from mixing symbolism and embedded meaning with 1980’s pop culture within their weekly teledrama for the benefit of the youngsters who stared directly into their tv sets at home, whether or not they searched for answers to life’s queries. Of course I tuned in to fawn over the handsome princes, idolize the wicked women and pious princesses and the revel in the happily ever afters. I really don’t know how differently I’d see things if Shelley Duvall hadn’t ever made it big in show business, but I’m sure glad she did. Cheers to you Ms. Duvall and your Farie Tale Theatre, may they continue to live happily ever after for generations to come.


Relevant Tags

Shelley Duvall (3), Faerie Tale Theatre (1), Eric Idle (2), Christopher Reeve (1), Jeff Bridges (4), Robin Williams (3), Mick Jagger (9)