March 1, 2014

Vintage (?) Television: Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Most of my posts up until now have sat solidly within the parameters of “vintage” (or earlier). This month, I will maybe stretch the concept by focusing on a television series that aired in the 1980s. 

(The owner of the antiques store at which I work considers the ‘80s to be vintage, and I will bow to his expertise. This is a bit of a concession on my part, as by this definition I myself am vintage…)

The TV show is Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which originally aired on Showtime in 1982. Supposedly, it all started on the set of Popeye, when Shelley Duvall asked Robin Williams what he thought about “The Frog Prince,” which she had been reading. From this conversation came 26 episodes of your favorite actors and actresses reenacting your favorite fairy tales as imagined by your favorite directors.

Really, what could be better?

Imagine: Leonard Nemoy as a magician alongside James Earl Jones as a genie reenacting a classic tale as directed by Tim Burton. Or: Jeff Goldblum as the Big Bad Wolf facing off with the little pig Billy Crystal.

The answer: not much!

The very first episode of Faerie Tale Theatre was, of course, “The Tale of the Frog Prince.” It was written, directed, and narrated by Eric Idle, who also appeared in the episode alongside Robin Williams, Teri Garr, Rene Auberjonois, and Michael Richards.

While most of the episodes brought to life well-known tales such as “Aladdin,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a few enacted lesser-known tales such as “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers” and “The Princess Who Had Never Laughed.”

To make a fabulous concept even better, the set designs for the show were inspired by the works of famous artists, many of whom were illustrators of fairy tales. “The Tale of the Frog Prince,” for instance, was designed after the paintings of Maxfield Parrish. 

    Maxfield Parrish, "The Frog Prince"

While the set for “Hansel and Gretel” was taken from the work of (my favorite!) illustrator Arthur Rackham.

    Arthur Rackham, “Hansel and Gretel,”    

Other sets were inspired by artists not directly connected to fairy tales, such as those in “Rapunzel,” which were designed after the works of Gustav Klimt.

   Gustav Klimt, “The Kiss,” 1908-9

I have never considered Klimt’s “The Kiss” in light of "Rapunzel" before, but I can definitely see how easily they might be connected. The golden shawl/halo falls like hair down the right side of the embracing figures and turns into an ivy-like motif, bringing to mind the theme of plant-life that can be found throughout Rapunzel. Gender aspects of the story might come to mind as well, as the male figure kisses the female figure so forcefully that she sits in a contorted position, seemingly at his mercy, her head at such an angle to her body as to be almost broken by the ardent kiss.

The episodes are definitely a combination of brilliant fun, slight awkwardness, and wonderful self-indulgence for every lover of fairy tales. It still amazes me to this day how many incredibly famous and talented people were willing, eager even, to participate in this project. I think it goes to show just how universally loved these fairy tales are, and just how much people desire to interpret and retell and enact them over and over and over again.

For those of you who’ve never seen an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre, you should. And for those of you who have, hopefully I’ve inspired you to watch it again!

Now, for all of you long-time Faerie Tale Theatre fans out there . . . the big question . . . what is your favorite episode?

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day. 


  1. I loved Faerie Tale Theatre. I watched it with my kids who are now in their 20's. It was on public television when I watched it. My favorite episode was Snow White with Elizabeth McGovern who seemed to personify Snow White to me, and is now so wonderful on Downton Abbey.

  2. I loved it as well. I'm so old, I was a young adult when it started!

  3. Great column with incredible illustrations! I don't remember this TV show however.

  4. I haven't ever watched these--I guess I should check them out. But I am a huge fan of Jim Henson's The Storyteller, which came along a few years later:)