adaptation, animal friends, animals, baby, brothers grimm, castle, elf, emil ardolino, fae, Faerie Tale Theatre, fair folk, fairies, fairy, fairy tale, grimm, guess, hervé, hervé villechaize, imp, King, legends, little people, little person, miller, miller's daughter, name, nc wyeth, ned beatty, paul dooley, riddle, royal, rumpelstiltskin, shelley duvall, spin, spin straw into gold, spinning wheel, straw, straw into gold, straw to gold, three days, unicorn, wyeth
“I give you three days […] three days to find out what my name is.” “What is your name?” “It’s…that’s what YOU have to find out!”- An impossible deal struck by a desperate mother and one of the most mischievous imps in all fairy tales
Names have a power of their own in fairy tales. If you know the true name of a magical being, you can have complete control over them – and the same goes vice-versa. It’s a trope that comes up often in stories about the fair folk. Now, fairies in the old stories aren’t the sweet wish-granting Tinkerbell clones that you see these days. They’re immortal, powerful beings with control over nature and magic, and they view their human mortal neighbors as funny playthings to trick, punish or reward as they please. They could pay you for your services with a bag of gold that will turn to acorns come dawn. They can invite you to their place for a christening one weekend and when you return home you’ll find seven years have passed. They switch human children with changelings just for laughs, and cut deals that seem beneficial to you at the start – and this is where Rumpelstiltskin comes in.
Yes, Rumpelstiltskin is by all accounts a fairy. Knack for striking magical bargains? Check. Wants to steal a child for no other reason than just because? Check. Sees others’ struggle between life and death as nothing but a game? Check. Heavily reliant on the Rule of Three? Triple check. Though dear old Rumple managed to stand apart from his fairy kin on account of having a proper name, his story never seemed to quite reach the same level of ubiquity as fairy tale characters like Snow White or Cinderella. Ironically, it probably would have stayed that way were it not for the Snow White-heavy series, Once Upon A Time.
Robert Carlyle’s dual performance as the hammy, conniving Rumpelstiltskin and his civil but duplicitous real world alter-ego Mr. Gold is a highlight of the show – at least for the first few seasons. The character(s) are reinterpreted as a sort of Faustian devil figure, offering characters both good and evil their hearts’ desires at a steep cost. He was a master manipulator and plotter, always one step ahead of everyone and twisting his words so his bargains seemed like the only logical choice, punctuated with that perfect line “All magic comes with a price”. For a series where the Evil Queen was the main antagonist, he well and truly earned being called The Dark One. But Once Upon A Time was heavily inspired by Lost, and much like that show, it went from a fun re-imagining of a not entirely unoriginal scenario to a total mess the writers had no clue what to do with. Things got too complicated, convoluted and inconsistent the longer it went on; Rumple/Gold’s character and motivation began flip-flopping every other week until he became nothing like his devious deal-making literary counterpart. “I’m going to manipulate Regina into cursing the kingdom because I am the Dark One! No, I’m only doing it to rescue my son who I banished to New York! No, I am going to get rid of my Dark One persona for the good of everyone I love! No, I am going to try to stop being the Dark One but hold on to my powers because I like having power! No, I LIKE being the Dark One after all! No, I only became the Dark One because my dad’s Peter Pan, my wife slept with Captain Hook, and my mom, the anti-Blue Fairy, is killing children as part of an elaborate prophecy involving me sacrificing myself to destroy her, hehehehehee!!”
By, the way, didn’t make a word of that last sentence up. This show went in some weeeeeird directions.
But to get back on topic, I have a bit of a soft spot for the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin as I grew up with a “sound” storybook that that told this particular yarn. If you were a 90s kid, you probably had at least one, those books with the buttons that you were prompted to press as you read through and made the different noises; the sound of our titular imp muttering “Fiddlesticks!” is still ingrained in my brain to this day. For all the havoc he wreaks on the young heroine – not to mention the precarious situations the other men in her life put her in – she ultimately pulls through using her wits and whatever means at her disposal, showing an inner strength and courage that few traditional female fairy tale protagonists have. But how well does this translate to Faerie Tale Theatre?
Our story begins with an unnamed King (Ned Beatty), who’s feeling inexplicably sad, discussing his unhappy state with his court wizard.
The Wizard reminds him that there are princesses all over vying for his hand, but none of them has captured the King’s interest because they’re from smaller, poorer kingdoms. The Wizard throws up his hands and tells the servants to spread the word throughout the land that the King is feeling unhappy (ah, medieval Twitter). Despite feeling down, the King permits his subjects to appear before him with their monthly tribute, starting with the humble Miller. Despite bluntly stating how stupid the Miller looks, the King suddenly goes off on the Wizard, saying he could probably get better advice from the Miller on how to cure his depression than he ever got from him; some cajones on the King, talking like that to a guy who could turn him into a frog. The King approaches the Miller, telling him he’s looking for a queen and brings up the subject of marriage.
The Miller, ever the opportunist, mentions that he has a daughter, a humble beauty who loves running in the woods with the animals and
can spin thread can spin thread into tapestries that resemble gold can spin actual gold can spin straw into gold. This excites the King and he asks to see the girl at once. The Miller returns to his humble cottage to break the news to her.
And now ladies and gentlemen and peoples of the nonbinary persuasion, I give you a landmark moment in Faerie Tale Theatre history…the first ever scene on an obvious green screen set!
Ah yes, though there’s a couple of sets for some rooms in the castle, there’s even more scenes both indoors and out shot on blatantly chroma-keyed backdrops. Despite how distracting it is I don’t have that much of a problem with it considering the early limitations of this method. What does bother me is how the artists didn’t really take the scale of the actors into consideration when designing these backgrounds. They look positively giant even as they’re supposed to be moving far away from the foreground.
But on to the subject of the miller’s daughter. She’s played by Shelley Duvall, the first starring role she gives herself in this series. She imbues the part with a blithe playfulness that’s almost childlike, very sweet and endearing, radiating classic Walt Disney-era princess vibes. Had the studio made another traditional fairy tale feature in the 80s before The Little Mermaid she would have felt right at home as the heroine. The one downside to her character, and this is more of a nitpick on my part, is that she doesn’t have a name; hell, the sound book I previously mentioned has one over on this episode because they christened the heroine Mara. So for the sake of consistency let’s just call her MD.
The Miller tells MD the King wants to meet her and learn more about her extraordinary talents, which comes as a surprise to her since all she’s good for Dr. Doolittling her way through the day. She returns with him to the palace regardless, and the King is “pleased” with how pretty she is. He takes MD to a room with a spinning wheel and a pile of straw and she learns the daunting task her father’s set her up for. But the King makes it clear that failure will not please him, and not pleasing the King means she will die. The most disturbing thing about this is how pleasantly he states it. The King’s dialogue thus far gives the impression that he’s just another sheltered ruler used to having his way all the time without considering others, and this all but cements it.
Anyway, MD is locked in and she tries to spin but to no avail. As she breaks down, a mysterious little man pops up from the straw.
Meet our titular character, played by Hervé Villechaize. He was a prolific actor at the time, mainly known for his roles in The Man With the Golden Gun and Fantasy Island. Anyway, the little man just can’t stand to see a woman cry because it makes him cry (same with me and puppies). He deflects the questions about who he is and gets down to brass tacks: he’ll spin MD’s straw to gold, but for a price. He judges her necklace as worthy compensation and gets right to work. When MD awakes the next morning, the straw is spun and the little man is gone.
The King is thrilled to see the task is complete, but instead of rewarding MD or letting her go, he and the Wizard drag her to a larger room full of straw – same demands, same threats. Once again MD seeks the aid of her previous rescuer among the bales, momentarily rousing the Wizard’s suspicion. It’s only after she fails at spinning it again that the little man reappears. MD gives him the only thing she has left of value, her mother’s ring, in return for his help. Come sunrise, the room is full of gold.
The King brings MD to one last straw room, and it’s the biggest room of all. He tells her that after she spins it all, he will marry her. But, in a rare moment of perception, the King notices how unhappy MD looks and asks if she wants to be queen. MD, at a loss for words, says she never entertained the thought before – not that I blame her; she’s got bigger things on the mind lately, like avoiding the chopping block. The look on the King’s face is somewhere between shock and hurt; not only is it the first time someone has said no to him, but here he is apparently opening his heart to someone only to get shot down fast. It’s enough to almost make you feel sorry for him, though I attribute that to Beatty’s acting more than anything else. The King doesn’t say she’ll die if she fails this time, but his silence as he leaves speaks volumes.
Honestly, I’m on the fence about this relationship they’re trying to build up between the King and MD. I’m all for a couple each on different levels of childish naïvete learning to love each other, but not when one is actively threatening to kill the other for not making enough money. I don’t know, maybe I just have PTSD from living four years under a ruler with the emotional maturity of a used sock. This is why I prefer other versions of Rumpelstiltskin that either have the miller’s daughter marry the King’s son, who’s usually an innocent third party in all this, or have the King learn a lesson about how love is greater than gold or something like that.
MD beseeches her rescuer from the previous two nights for help, but he’s not interested until she blurts out that the King wants to make her his Queen. The little man asks if he were to aid her one more time, and she became Queen, if she would give him her first-born child in return. MD is cornered – on the one hand, her life is on the line; on the other, the life of her future child. She still hardly believes the King was serious about wanting to marry her but doesn’t want to risk his anger either. Feeling like there’s not much of a choice, she agrees and the little man gets to spinning.
The next time we see MD, she’s officially royalty and the King is finally happy. Queen MD spends her days skipping down the skewed-perspective castle halls until she gives birth to a baby boy, which brings her and the King closer together. The peace is broken by the return of the little man in the creepiest way possible: one moment she’s rocking in the nursery humming a lullaby with a bit ominous underscoring, the next he suddenly appears outside the window complete with a horror movie music sting.
The little man climbs into the room demanding the baby. She refuses to hand over him over. Her offers of her crown and all the riches in the kingdom are turned down; he will only be satisfied when he gets what he came here for. MD bursts into tears and faster than you can say “No Woman No Cry”, the little man is moved to pity. He proposes another deal: if she can guess his name in three days, then all child rights will revert back to her. The thing is, he never said who he was during his previous visits.
Now this is where the Rumplestiltskin story goes in one of three directions:
- The Queen tells the King the truth despite fear of retribution, only for him to reveal that he truly loves her and works with her to figure out a plan. He sends out all of his horses and all of his men to scour the countryside for names both plain and unusual. When his best efforts fall short, the Queen steals out of the palace looking for answers herself and earns girl boss points by being the one who solves her predicament.
- Same as above, except one of the King’s men stumbles upon the little man’s hut where he overhears him boasting about it; the day is saved, but at the cost of the Queen’s agency.
- The Queen keeps everything a secret, but manages to figure things out for herself with no one the wiser about her shady dealings.
This episode goes for #3 with a bit of #1 thrown in. MD compiles and reads off a list of names to the little man day after day; each one is met with a resounding “no”. Other Rumpelstiltskins I’ve seen get bored or play it as a cruel joke, laughing at the Queen’s mounting failures as the days pass. Hervé, on the other hand, is brusque and impatient, biding his time as a formality until he gets what’s owed to him. MD calls on the pages and the Wizard for name-gathering assistance – but notably leaves out the King in all this.
Two days come and go, and MD is no closer to learning the imp’s name. The search is seemingly fruitless, until the Wizard mentions they didn’t check the Dangerous Woods because it didn’t get a name like that from whoever discovered it (that would be Merryweather Safe back in 1805). This comes as news to MD since she used to frolic there at all hours and always came out perfectly fine, that one run-in with poison ivy notwithstanding. She sneaks out when it’s dark and meets up with some of her forest friends to get the dirt on her diminutive deal-maker.
A unicorn leads MD to a cottage built into the roots of an old tree. A quick peek through the window shows their main man hosting a gathering of other little people like him.
The man leads them all in a celebratory song about his impending triumph over MD where apparently his name keeps being drowned out over the chorus, but I can hardly understand a word Hervé is singing with that thick French accent to begin with. Iggy Azalea’s raps are more coherent than than this number. But as the soiree ends and the little people leave, MD overhears one guest wishing his host good night by name – Robert Mapplethorpe.
Oh come on, do even I need to say it?
The following morning Rumpelstiltskin is waiting anxiously in the nursery for MD to arrive. She graces him with her presence, clearly enjoying drawing out his torment. After casually tossing around a few random monikers, she namedrops…his name. Rumpelstiltskin works himself up into a fury, demanding to know who ratted him out before he gets so mad that he…
…wipe-transitions himself out of existence.
Okay, there’s a legitimate explanation for what’s going on here, though it’s still a bizarre one.
Most Rumpelstiltskin adaptations play around with the irate imp’s fate. Some have him stomp the ground so hard that he falls into the center of the earth, some just have him leave in a huff. This one follows the original fairy tale’s ending, where Rumplestiltskin stamps his foot until he gets it stuck in the floor and then tears himself in half trying to pull it out. Due to the graphics at the time, however, the best they can do is show him trying to get his leg out before having him just give up and scream as the fade sets in to represent him splitting up. Despite the shortcomings, it still looks like a very painful thing to put himself through.
A terrified MD flees to the throne room to find her baby safe and sound, and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.
There’s not much else I can think of to say about this episode. While the performances are decent, it doesn’t have anything like The Frog Prince’s wit, humor or style to make it stand out. It’s not awful, it’s not even boring, but I can’t say I loved or even really liked it. It’s only the second episode, so maybe I can chalk this up to the series still trying to find its footing. This Rumpelstiltskin is perfectly serviceable in how it tells its story – yes, serviceable feels like the appropriate word here. It does exactly what it sets out to do, replays a familiar old tale with little flash and bang, no more, no less. At least I won’t have to give up my first-born in exchange for watching it.
- At thirty-nine minutes, this is the shortest episode of the series; however this is due in part to a good chunk from the original tapes being left off the DVD. While it establishes MD’s flighty nature, her strong friendship with the animals, and why she’s introduced carrying a chicken out of the house, it’s five whole minutes of Shelley Duvall prancing about reminding us of what we already know and singing “Make New Friends But Keep The Old” over and over. I can see why it was cut from future re-releases. You can watch it for yourself here, albeit in poor quality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WknYZ53AdJo
- So far it’s been two episodes in a row where they haven’t bothered to give the female lead a name. Looks like that trend will hopefully come to a halt next time…
- The King must have the ability to hear and control the soundtrack; he opens the episode yelling at the music to stop (which it promptly does) because it doesn’t make him happy, and then calls for it to restart and pick up the tempo as he happily awaits his next room full of gold.
- Speaking of the soundtrack, I like how a scratchy, off-key fiddle plays when MD tries to spin, emphasizing her desperation and nonexistent skill with the wheel. When Rumplestiltskin tries his hand at it, the violin returns but in quick, melodious form, musically showcasing his dexterity yet also his sinister nature; in fact, the music that plays is taken straight from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
- By the way, I’ve been dancing around this fact for the whole review, but the Wizard acts very possessive of the King, is far too eager to please him and. is hurt when he puts him down, isn’t at all happy when the King announces he plans to marry MD and takes great joy in hanging her fate over head, and acts with a certain cadence and mannerisms that, well…let’s just say he and Mr. Smithers would have several things in common. It’s not as bad as the jokes about Prince Robin’s gay brother in the previous episode, but once you notice it you can’t un-see it. The Wizard learning that the Queen lied about her straw-spinning abilities and jeopardized the King’s only child would make for some juicy tidbits to tell the King just to spite her, but perhaps his loyalty to the kingdom and royal family as a whole outweighs whatever grudges he carries.
- Yes, my family finally got HBO Max, and the first thing I did with it was binge-watch Infinity Train. It’s just as great as everyone says it is and deserves infinity more seasons than what we’ve got.
Hey, Was That…: This episode was directed by Emil Ardolino, best known for directing films such as Dirty Dancing and Sister Act. Jack Fletcher, The Wizard in the first televised recording of Once Upon a Mattress, plays the King’s equally flamboyant Wizard. Returning to Shelley Duvall’s Popeye connections, Paul Dooley, who plays the Miller, was Wimpy in that film – I mean he played the character named Wimpy, he wasn’t wimpy…oh forget it. And while not exacting a big name, the unicorn was played by the world’s smallest horse at the time, “Smidget”.
Who’s The Artist?: N.C. Wyeth, an American illustrator who, in addition to painting Western scenes that define what we think of the Old West, has created work that’s graced myriads of myths and classic novels like Robin Hood and Treasure Island. Although The Wizard looks almost exactly like the wizard on his cover illustration of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and the forest scene resembles some of his forest settings a little, I must confess I don’t see much of Wyeth’s influence throughout the episode.
While researching Maxfield Parrish for the previous episode, I came across a certain painting Parrish did of Snow White where the featured dwarf looks very familiar…
Better Or Worse Than…?: Faerie Tale Theatre’s Rumplestiltskin just kind of…exists. Like I said, it’s not awful, but it doesn’t differentiate itself from the small pool of Rumple retellings. The Cannon Movie Tales version is cheap and incredibly cheesy, though it’s significantly elevated by a scenery-chewing Billy Barty in the title role. The HBO animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child moves the story to the West Indies and makes Rumplestiltskin a Rastafarian reggae rapper, which is a lot of fun, as is the one played out by the Muppets in Muppets Classic Theater (you can’t get any better casting for the part than Gonzo The Great). So you could easily take Faerie Tale Theatre’s Rumple or leave it depending on your tastes.
Ranking: I don’t return to this Rumpelstiltskin often, but it’s fine enough. For now it gets second place underneath The Tale of the Frog Prince.
Don’t expect it to hold on to that spot for long, though. The best is yet to come.
Next time, we’ll see Shelley Duvall really let her hair down…and down…and down, as Rapunzel.
Thank you for reading! Yes, I know the Fievel Goes West review was supposed to go up today, but I wasn’t able to finish it in time due to a number of factors and didn’t want to leave you hanging, so I decided to switch the reviews up. The Fievel review will premiere on October 6th. Sorry for the delay.
Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month while film reviews are posted on the 20th. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones and Gordhan Rajani for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!
Things are about to get a little creepy and more than a bit wacky in time for Halloween as we see what happens when Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – review coming October 20th!