I had more than a few head-scratching moments while watching Dr. Coppelius. For starters, this movie has several different titles and is listed on IMDb as The Mysterious House of Dr. C (a translation of its Spanish title). The film is also given release dates ranging from 1966, 1967 and 1968 and 1976. I’m going with the title TCM listed it under and the release date it gets on IMDb. A lot of a confusion for a movie that’s a glorified version of PBS’ Great Performances only cheesy. The film is a ballet of a great story but there’s no life behind this stage show. It looks pretty but loud colors can only mask so much.
Dr. Coppelius (Walter Slezak) is an inventor known for making clockwork dolls. When a young man falls in love with one of the dolls named Coppelia, a young woman (besotted with the young man) breaks into Coppelius’ house to discover his secret.
So there’s some necessarily backstory to this film which contributes to the overall effect of the movie experience. I assumed that the film was a filmed adaptation of Coppelia. I love the ballet and the story behind it so was surprised to discover they’d made a movie version. Cut to the film which has no dialogue and is simply the ballet filmed and presented to the audience. That’s great but it’s not what was advertised to me. Apparently the film was a labor of love for director Ted Kneeland and when the movie didn’t do well in 1966 it was released under The Mysterious House of Dr. C banner in 1976. The fact that they had to relabel it like a horror movie shows they knew people would be misled. Even under the title it has above, Dr. Coppelius, audiences would be surprised that this is a ballet. Apparently the 1976 version has narration, voice-overs, dream sequence and songs which are not in the version TCM showed so I’m led to assume this is the original cut.
With that the film is a solid relic of the 1960s aesthetic. The movie opens with an obvious stage but the garish colors and prominent castle made me feel as if I was watching an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf! The confusion continues with the introduction of Dr. Coppelius shooting off fireworks at night and the characters coming out to point and shrug their shoulders. Their movements are so bland I didn’t know whether they were angry at Coppelius or just bored. And why did he shoot off fireworks? The movie moves away from that with no explanation. I’m all for no dialogue in a ballet but this is the opening minutes and I had no idea it was a ballet so something needed to be done.
When it reveals itself as a filmed version of the ballet it’s not even a straight version of the show. They add a character named Brigitta (Eileen Elliot) as a love interest to Coppelius. There’s already one love story/triangle now we need another? Coppelius didn’t have a love interest in the ballet…thus why he makes clockwork people! It makes the story feel overly long as a result and makes you question “Is this an adaptation of the ballet, if so why not make a narrative version if you’re just going to change the story?!” Having the film be a ballet is a double-edged sword because I love ballets on television but when you don’t expect it and the story is mis-handled you’re in for a long ride.
The film is just boring with way too many extended scenes of villagers dancing, and it’s not even good ballet dancing at that! Some of the actors come off stilted and unused to the stage making the true ballerinas stand out. Elliott and Claudia Corday as Coppelia/Swanhilda are the best whereas Caj Selling as the love interest Fritz just prances on his tiptoes and looks confused.
The colors really pop on HD and the sets are nice but what does it all lead to? The films just plays like a public television filming of the local community theater. It looks cheap and had TCM told me this was a ballet I probably would have given it a free pass. Instead there’s no vibrancy, no life to this production. The story is confusing as the story is enhanced with additional elements and if you don’t know the story already you’re completely lost. I would have said this was okay, instead I’ll say avoid it unless you’re a hard-core ballet fan.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.