Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers who studied German language and folklore during the 18th and 19th centuries. They are best remembered by people today for their collection of German fairy tales. And this movie is a fanciful story of the two brothers struggling to find a paying audience for their talents. Wilhelm is presented as the idealist spending all his time collecting folktales from old women while his brother Jacob attempts to keep their heads above water by slaving away at tedious but paying work such as writing the family history of the local duke.
And interspersed with the story of the brothers are the fairy tale sequences of the film which correspond to three of the stories that Wilhelm hears from his sources. They are versions of, “The Dancing Princess,” “The Cobbler and the Elves” and “The Singing Bone.” In each case a different cast of actors portray the action. And even though this is a German/American production there are some familiar American and British actors sprinkled in the cast. Jim Backus, Claire Bloom, Beulah Bondi, Terry Thomas, Buddy Hackett and Barbara Eden are among the more well-known cast members.
The story about the brothers reaches its crisis when Wilhelm loses the draft of the duke’s family history in a river while rushing back from hearing a story in a “witch’s” cottage. Jacob storms off vowing never to work with Wilhelm again. The duke vows to prosecute Wilhelm if he doesn’t recompense him for the free home provided Wilhelm and his family during the unsuccessful project. And simultaneously Wilhelm becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. But hearing of Wilhelm’s dire straits Jacob sells his private library and uses the money to save Wilhelm. Afterwards they continue on together with Jacob writing scholarly works on German philology and Wilhelm publishing his stories. Eventually the king has the brothers nominated for the Prussian Royal Academy but the citation only includes Jacob’s scholarly works as cause for the nomination. Saddened, Wilhelm still congratulates Jacob for the honor they will both be given. But when they reach Berlin, the train is met by thousands of children cheering for Wilhelm to “tell them a story.” And he starts off, “There once lived two brothers.”
I saw this movie as child when the nuns at my grammar school called an assembly in the gymnasium and played it to reward us for not burning down the school that year. There was an unfortunate incident before the film. A very good friend of mine, one of the most naturally talented comics I’ve ever known but who had extremely poor impulse control got in trouble for mouthing off to the principal, Sister Theodore. She pulled him out of line and after a little back and forth dialog she slapped him in the face. Unfortunately for his school career he slapped her back and added a few loud and obscene remarks. Unsurprisingly he was expelled. And the diversion made us pay less attention to the movie than we might have otherwise done.
But I remember from back then that it was an amusing movie. And a recent viewing confirms that opinion. The fairy tale sequences are played in a broad, very comical style. Whereas the story of the brothers is in a dramatic style that chronicles the difficulty of trying to earn a living at a dull task when your heart is somewhere else. Being a dreamer myself, may be why I’m so sympathetic with Wilhelm’s plight.
I’m not sure who I would recommend this movie for. It’s not really a children’s story but I think many children might like it. As for adults, it might be too primitive for people brought up on CGI special effects. Maybe it’s only for old folks like me who are still young at heart.