November Film: The Little Match Girl (1928) Analysis

The Little Match Girl 4

The Little Match Girl (‘La Petite Marchande d’allumettes‘), based on the short story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, was the eighth of nine silent films directed by Jean Renoir. Released in June 1928 – still in the early phase of Renoir’s career, a decade before his French masterpieces Grand Illusion (1937), The Human Beast (1938), and The Rules of the Game (1939), and his subsequent departure for Hollywood – it spins a tale of an impoverished young girl on a snowy New Year’s Eve who, struggling to sell her matches, lights a flame to keep warm and begins to experience strange visions.

Renoir served as a sargeant from the outset of World War I, in the French cavalry until he was shot in the leg in April 1915, only narrowly avoiding amputation. Left with a limp, he would return to the front the following year as a pilot – but during his convalescence he developed his passion for film, watching as many as twenty-five pictures a week with his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir, including the serial The Exploits of Elaine, and the works of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.

When the war was over he considered making a career as a ceramic artist, but he fell in love with Catherine Hessling, his father’s last model. They married in 1920, and had a son the following year. Inspired by the idea of making Hessling a star, Renoir moved into the world of film. He wrote Catherine or A Life Without Joy (‘Catherine ou Une vie sans Joie‘), directed by Albert Dieudonne and with Hessling in the lead role, about the illicit love between a maid and a local politician. Completed in 1924, it was shown privately until Dieudonne gave it a limited release in 1927. Renoir later called Catherine ‘a small masterpiece of banality’, but he also admitted that after this initial foray, ‘the demon of the mise-en-scène was in me’.

His first directorial effort came in 1925 with the feature-length The Girl of the Water (‘La Fille de l’eau‘), again starring Hessling as the film’s heroine. She plays the traveller Virginia, who finds herself poverty-stricken after her father’s death, and whose caravan is set on fire by angry peasants in a case of mistaken identity, before the film concludes on fledgling young love. Nana in 1926 had Hessling as the ruinous seductress of Emile Zola’s novel. With a running time of 150 minutes, Renoir sold several of his father’s paintings to fund the elaborate film, which like the novel centres on big crowd sequences at a horse race and an open-air ball.

Hessling continued to star in Renoir’s silent pictures, on through The Little Match Girl, until the couple broke up around the time of the director’s second sound film The Bitch (‘La Chienne‘) – reportedly she and Renoir came into conflict over the decision to cast Janie Marese, instead of Hessling, as the film’s lead. Hessling’s appearance in The Little Match Girl is typical for her collaborations with Renoir, with her round face framed by waves of hair, and her facial makeup resembling the genre of mime with its dramatic black eyes and lips against a whitened face.

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Pedersen The Little Match Girl 1
Vilhelm Pedersen’s illustration for ‘The Little Match Girl’, first published in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (‘Eventyr‘) of 1850.

Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ (‘Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne’) was published in December 1845, in the Dansk Folkekalender fra 1846. This makes it perhaps the best known of Andersen’s stories not to have appeared first in one of his own collections. It was re-published in the New Fairy Tales (‘Nye Eventyr‘) of 1848; and again in the Fairy Tales (‘Eventyr‘) of 1850, the first illustrated edition of Andersen’s works, with its famous drawings by Vilhelm Pedersen.

‘The Little Match Girl’ remains one of the most popular source texts in film and television. An especially early live-action adaptation came in 1902, with The Little Match Seller by the British director James Williamson. At just over 3 minutes, this stark short is strictly faithful to Andersen’s text, and it eschews intertitles, relying for its narrative on superimposed special effects and the emotional heft of its young actress.

Following Renoir’s film, in 1952 the French director Jean Benoit-Levy devised a live-action adaptation, entitled La Jeune Fille aux Allumettes, featuring a dance sequence with the ballerina Janine Charrat. In 1998 the Columbian picture The Little Rose Selling Girl (‘La vendedora de rosas‘) was loosely based on Andersen’s fairy tale, directed by Victor Gaviria, and about homelessness, poverty, and drug addiction in Medellin. The film was entered into the feature film competition at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. And in 2003, the Korean movie Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, directed by Jang Sun-woo, depicted the return of a vengeful match girl by means of a virtual reality computer game.

The earliest and best animated adaptation of the story was produced in 1937 courtesy of the Charles Mintz studio. Mintz and his partner Margaret Winkler had distributed the ‘Alice Comedies’ of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks throughout the 1920s, until Mintz split from the pair in 1928 – taking Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with him, thereby leaving Disney and Iwerks to create the character of Mickey Mouse. His studio received its second Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) for The Little Match Girl, an enchanting animation of 8 minutes, part of the ‘Color Rhapsodies’ series for Columbia, and directed by Arthur Davis and Sid Marcus.

Davis and Marcus’s The Little Match Girl lost out at the Academy Awards in 1937 to Disney’s short The Old Mill. In 1971, the Japanese studio Toei Doga animated the story for The World of Hans Christian Andersen. And in 2006 Disney Animation Studios finally took a turn of their own, with The Little Matchgirl by the hugely successful directing and producing team of Roger Allers and Don Hahn. The animation was originally intended for the scrapped Fantasia 2006 project. 7 minutes long, shifting the location from Denmark to Russia, and set to the third movement of Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major by Alexander Borodin, the completed short was nominated at the Academy Awards in 2006 – where it lost ironically to Torill Kove’s The Danish Poet.

The subject has proven equally popular in Japanese anime, with the main character of Gakuen Alice performing a play based on Andersen’s tale; the 2010 series Okami-san ending with the episode ‘Okami-san and the Girl Who Doesn’t Sell Matches But is Misfortunate Anyway’; and the eleventh episode of Shirobako, with the title ‘The Little Key Frames Girl’, offering a modern interpretation centred upon an overworked young animator.

These are just several among scores of live-action and animated television adaptations. Especially memorable, in the Christmas of 1986 Harlech Television – the precursor to ITV Wales & West – produced ‘The Little Match Girl’ as a musical, directed by Michael Custance and starring Twiggy and Roger Daltrey. ‘The Little Match Girl’ has received numerous odes in literature and music television, and even a €1.3 million holograph display at the Fairy Tale Forest in Efteling in the Netherlands.

Efteling The Little Match Girl
‘The Little Match Girl’ display at the Fairy Tale Forest in Efteling, Netherlands.

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Some of the adaptations and even some of the translations of ‘The Little Match Girl’ have made significant alterations to Andersen’s text, softening the ending, or removing some of its fantastical elements: for instance the young boy who absurdly believes he can make a child’s cradle out of an oversized slipper, or the roast goose which comes to life on the dinner table. There are aspects of Andersen’s text which are difficult to convey on screen: like the jarringly poignant, almost accusatory exclamation ‘Yes, she thought of that!’, as rendered in Jean Hersholt’s translation into English.

Without shying away from any of the bleakness of the story, Renoir’s film is a stylised re-envisioning of Andersen’s fairy tale. At about 34 minutes long – cut from an original 40 minutes – this silent picture can be described as a ‘featurette’. The equivalent of the ‘novella’ as it pertains to the novel, the term was used for films just short of feature length, running between 25-40 minutes. Common in the silent era through until the 1960s, the term has since faded out of use, with anything below feature length today discussed an art film or – especially for works 30 minutes or less – simply a short. Now ‘featurette’ tends to refer to brief documentaries, showing the making of or going behind the scenes of feature films.

In the poor outskirts of an unspecified northern town, Renoir’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ opens with howling winds and flurrying snow. The girl emerges from her small shack, and heads into the town hoping to sell her wares, but she has no luck. Nobody shows the slightest interest, and intimidated by the disdain of the passing crowd, the match girl is oblivious when she becomes the focus of a curious and handsome young man’s attention. Too late, he is whisked inside to eat, and the match girl is forced to peer at him and the food through frosted glass.

Hessling would have been twenty-seven years old at the time of filming, an advanced age for ‘The Little Match Girl’. Most depictions have the girl much younger. The 1937 animation even has the girl as an infant, and of tiny proportions in comparison with the mocking and enveloping world. With her big blue eyes and blonde locks, she is buffeted underneath the feet of passers-by, and only attains some stature in the wonderland of her fantasies.

Renoir’s girl is assailed by younger snowball throwers as she peers through the window, and she finds her matches scattered in the snow. A policeman is too busy to help her pick up any of the boxes, but he is willing to spend a few moments idly identifying a display of toys – a small dog balancing a top on his nose, rows of soldiers, and a twirling music-box ballerina – before telling the match girl to go home, as her shoes are no good for the cold.

Too afraid to return home without any money, the girl hunkers down outside and the accordion music – from a score which draws on Wagner’s Die Walküre and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, as well as compositions by Schubert and Strauss – jutters and drones as her hallucinations begin. There is something Expressionist in the throbbing lights and diagonal shadows around the match girl, and as she dances in patterns and slowly but seamlessly enters her vision through diaphanous curtains; something Surreal, as much Hoffmann’s grotesque The Nutcracker as Andersen’s sentimental fairy tale, as she juggles then envisions becoming part of the toy display she has just seen.

Renoir and Jean Tedesco shot and processed the film in the attic of Paris’s Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, painting the sets, building the lighting system, and devising the innovative special effects which now come to the fore. The match girl is alternately delighted and terrified as she navigates the life-size toys, briefly becoming the puppet master as she makes a dancer twirl around a pole, but watching on with amazement as a plush dog carefully balances a ball, and as a pirate, with a skull and crossbones on his hat, springs lifelessly out of a jack-in-the-box. Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce – who had studied at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, under Margaret Morris, and under Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymod – has a part here as one of the dancers.

If the strange equilibrium of the hallucination has already been upset by the pirate, the plasticized toy soldiers and the dizzying display of the merry-go-round emphasise the match girl’s cruel fate, which is to be tossed and turned by an uncaring society. The handsome young man from before makes his way into the vision, hesitant at first, then caressing her hand and conjuring a feast, it appears he could be the match girl’s hero. But the pirate – in fact the idle policeman, in another blurring of experience and dream – now intrudes on the couple, and declares himself to be Death, ending the consciousness of the assorted toys with an easy flick of his sword.

Seeing the pain caused by Death, the young couple escape to the skies. A horse chase ensues, culminating in frenzied hack and slash to the winding and whinnying of Wagner. When her partner is slain, the girl is gradually caught too and pulled flailing from her horse. Death descends from the clouds and lays her to rest by a wooden cross, atop a lofty cliff. But a lock of her hair has caught in his jacket, and when he tosses it aside, it clings to the wood and blossoms into a small tree, with unfurling white roses.

Rose petals fall over the match girl’s face, and transpose into the falling snowflakes as she is found lying dead in the cold. An elderly women sighs and solemnly bows, but two others lament the stupidity of attempting to keep warm by lighting matches.

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‘The Little Match Girl’ (‘Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne’)

By Hans Christian Andersen (1845). Translation by Jean Hersholt.

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she’d had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she’d not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year’s eve. Yes, she thought of that!

In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant’s home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.

“Now someone is dying,” thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.

She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.

“Grandmother!” cried the child. “Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!”

And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.

But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year’s sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.

“She wanted to warm herself,” the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.

Watch The Little Match Girl (1928) at Culturedarm.