THE BIG READ | Brilliant, bad and a little bit mad: the real story of Cruella de Vil

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A new movie, Cruella, starring Emma Stone, examines the trauma that shaped the villainess' personality. (PHOTO: ©2021 Disney Enterprises Inc)
A new movie, Cruella, starring Emma Stone, examines the trauma that shaped the villainess' personality. (PHOTO: ©2021 Disney Enterprises Inc)

She's a woman so evil she was willing to try abducting 99 puppies so she could kill them and use their fur to create the perfect coat. When author Dodie Smith created Cruella de Vil, she didn’t want readers to feel sorry for the villainess but rather to be totally horrified by the extend of her narcissism and cruelty.

But Cruella, the new Disney remake of the tale starring Emma Stone, which examines her backstory does exactly the opposite – and after seeing all the traumatic things that happened to the poor woman in childhood you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a bit more sympathetic towards her.

But surely if Dodie was still alive she would have hated this new spin that has been put on her famous classic.

Hardly. I think she would have enjoyed the new Cruella movie, which is currently on circuit. She would have relished the revival of her own fame as Cruella’s creator and would have loved the incarnation of Cruella de Vil as a fashion queen.

After all, Dodie once set herself up as a designer of outlandish clothes. In fact she has such a passion for tall, high-crowned hats with feathers, ruff collars, high heels and colourful shawls that the people in the flat opposite hers would watch her dressing and break into applause as she left for work.

She had cards printed that read: “DODIE SMITH, Quaint Clothes for Queer Customers”.

But most of all, what she would have loved about the movie is the money – “the Disney lolly”, as it came to be known in her household.

When Walt Disney bought the rights to The Hundred and One Dalmatians – for $25 000 (then about R17 000) in 1957 – he came to England and stood transfixed at the sight of Dodie’s thatched cottage in Essex. “Wow!” he said.

Dodie was charmed by the handsome Walt. His cartoon film, released on Christmas Day in 1961, took 300 artists three years to draw, cost $4 million (then about R2,8m) to make and got magnificent reviews.

She was so bewitched by its success that she named her next new Dalmatian puppy “Disney”. The film royalties boosted her morale for the rest of her life.

Author Dodie Smith wrote her famous novel, The Hun
Author Dodie Smith wrote her famous novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, in just seven weeks. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Her only complaint was that her name in the credits was too small. Although it’s larger now in the latest adaptation, there’s one aspect that would have left her bitterly disappointed: that the Dalmatian, a creature she worshipped, is almost marginalised in the latest of the three non-animated films that have erupted from the Disney franchise since her death.

In the new one the dogs don’t even belong to Cruella and there is no dog-skin coat. No longer is the exquisitely spotted, athletic, handsome breed the focus of the plot, as in Dodie’s famous book. Instead all the focus is on the title character and her tragic origin story.

But how did Cruella come about in the first place? In 1934 Dodie was on the crest of a wave. Her third West End play was about to open. Her first, Autumn Crocus, had brought overnight fame and fortune, three years earlier. “Shopgirl writes play!” proclaimed the billboards.

She was rather more than a shopgirl. A failed actress and aspiring writer, she had been running an art gallery at Heal’s, a furniture emporium – and had become, by guile and a total lack of scruple, the mistress of its founder and chairman, Ambrose Heal.

His first present to Dodie was a typewriter, on which she wrote Autumn Crocus. And from then on there was no looking back.

At the first sign of commercial success, Dodie acquired a floor-length white mink coat. Her new apartment in Dorset Square was decorated with fashionable monochrome décor, black walls, candles and curtains, white ceiling and carpet. She used to say: “All I need now is a Dalmatian.”

She was joking – so she was dismayed on the morning of her 38th birthday to be presented by her boyfriend with a hatbox, out of which sprang a large, floppy Dalmatian puppy.

She named him Pongo and loved his soft fur but insisted on sending him to the kennels until her new play opened.

The first Cruella-like utterance, however, came not from Dodie but from her friend Joyce Kennedy, a pretty film actress who took one look at Pongo and remarked: “He would make a nice fur coat.”

It wasn't until two decades later that Dodie got round to conjuring up her fictional dog killer who has proved to be her most enduring contribution to contemporary folklore.

It was now 1954. Dodie had returned from her screenwriting years in Hollywood and the success of her first novel, I Capture the Castle (which was also later turned into a movie), to her Essex cottage with her husband, Alec, and their three latest Dalmatians, acquired in California.

The return from exile was unhappy as she discovered that her plays were no longer in fashion. Dodie was totally flummoxed – she couldn’t understand how her light drawing-room plays were struggling to find an audience.

But then she happened to read an Enid Blyton book she had bought for a neighbour’s child and thought, couldn’t she write a children’s book too? About Dalmatians, of course.

Dodie adored Dalmatians and owned many of these do
Dodie adored Dalmatians and owned many of these dogs during her life. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Thus were Joyce Kennedy’s words of 20 years ago given to fur-obsessed Cruella de Vil: an inspired name. Dodie wrote in a furious fever and completed The Hundred and One Dalmatians in seven weeks.

Publisher Heinemann paid her a £100 (then about R199) advance, acquiring an unexpected bestseller at Christmas 1956.

Her novelist friend Christopher Isherwood told her that her book was a tour de force, but he “wished there were more of Cruella de Vil”. He suspected Dodie disapproved of her: “And one should never disapprove of one’s villains,” he remarked.

The first mention of Cruella comes early in Dodie’s book, when on a balmy late summer evening Mr and Mrs Dearly have their peace shattered by the blaring horn of a black-and-white striped sports car. From it emerges a tall creature in “tight-fitting emerald satin dress; several ropes of rubies; and an absolutely simple white mink cloak, which reached to the high heels of her ruby-red shoes”. Her hair is parted severely down the middle: one half black and the other white.

“Why, that’s Cruella de Vil,” Mrs Dearly says. “We were at school together. She was expelled for drinking ink.” Even as a child, Mrs Dearly recalled, Cruella had one white plait and one black.

Cruella invites the Dearlys into her home, walled in black marble, and tells them: “I worship furs, I live for furs.” Dodie describes Cruella’s furrier husband as “a small, worried-looking man who didn’t seem to be anything besides a furrier”.

To him, Cruella makes her suggestion about the Dearlys’ Dalmatians: “Wouldn’t they make enchanting fur coats? . . . We’ve never thought of making coats out of dogs’ skins.”

Hearing about their forthcoming puppies, she forges her deadly dog-napping plan.

Today on the internet, Cruella fans (who are legion, mostly young girls posting messages such as, “She’s my fave Disney villain! Omg I love her!”) are informed erroneously that the original Cruella was based on American actress Tallulah Bankhead, with her “evil laugh and raspy smoker’s voice”.

It was Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone, twin sisters who illustrated the book, who created the lasting visual image of the elegant Cruella. The look they sought to emulate was the designer Erté’s Symphony in Black: a long, lean lady in a clinging black gown; fan-shaped hat; swathes of black and white fur over her left arm; and leading a black greyhound on a chain – an image exaggerated by Disney artists for the cartoon film.

Dodie provided no further explanations of Cruella’s troubled childhood, other than those ink-quaffing schooldays.

When she died in 1990 at the age of 94 – outlived by her last Dalmatian, the outsized Charlie, who soon died of a broken heart – she could have no notion that one day soon there would be a human incarnation of Cruella, in Glenn Close (1996), who would become a cover girl on glossy magazines worldwide in an explosion of fashion spreads featuring spotty dogs and furry hats.

Glenn Close has played Cruella in two previous mov
Glenn Close has played Cruella in two previous movie adaptations. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Alamy)

Close was terrific in fabulous fur and feathers, and reprised the role in the sequel in 2000.

The screenwriters of the new Cruella prequel, with the sweet Emma Stone in the title role, have adopted the notion of a Cruella formed in her schooldays as a pugnacious rebel – and deeply affected by being orphaned when her mother is pursued to her death by a pack of ferocious Dalmatians.

Her ambitions in fashion design lead to scrubbing floors (getting trampled underfoot) at the Liberty store, and being apprenticed to a fashion designer known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson) whose rival she becomes. Cruella is most spectacularly seen in a scarlet vamp gown revealed by torching her silken cloak, and other wild extravaganzas, including a coat made of faux-Dalmatian skin.

This  backstory treatment for the villains of popular culture – unearthing psychological damage in youth – has become a Hollywood trope. Carrie, Darth Vader, Cersei in Game of Thrones, Raven Darkholme, and Mickey and Mallory Knox (Natural Born Killers) all experienced trauma and violence in childhood.

Disney’s other sadistic villainess, Maleficent, was robbed and mutilated as a young fairy . . . Hannibal Lecter’s parents were murdered by the Nazis and his sister was made into a stew that Hannibal unwittingly ate.

Dodie would certainly have approved of the idea that “Estella”, the schoolgirl Cruella-to-be, is rescued from obscurity by an unusually sure sense of her own ability and worth. Orphaned herself at 18, having been brought up as the adored only child in an Edwardian family of amateur drama enthusiasts, “little Dodie” had always performed for her doting aunts and uncles and knew how to make an impact.

She would have loved the film’s focus on central London locations: her nostalgic obsession, in her volumes of memoirs, was with her favourite place, the oasis of Regent’s Park – home of the Dearlys, the area where she always wished she had bought a house, instead of moving out to the country.

The movie sees Cruella unleashing many wild fashio
The movie sees Cruella unleashing many wild fashion statements, including this scarlet gown. (PHOTO: ©2021 Disney Enterprises Inc)

But the playwright Dodie might have found in this film the existence of the two Emmas (Thompson and Stone) – one an established Cruella-type and the other aspiring to the role – an unwelcome confusion. She would talk for hours with her playwright friends about “the well-made play” and the crafting of a plot.

Given two rival heroines, I believe she would have found Thompson the more compelling. I have a suspicion that Dodie, who often cast a cool eye on the modern-girl interviewers who visited her, might have waxed caustic about Stone’s pert china-doll prettiness and marvelled that it could equate to the terrifying, witchy features of the Cruella we know.

But then, nearly 70 years have passed since her original imaginings, and in later life I don’t think Dodie ever gave another thought to the creature she had unleashed.


Back to the beginning: six more origin stories

Joker (2019)

How did Batman’s clown-faced nemesis come to be? According to Todd Phillips’ dystopian rejig, it was because troubled young Arthur Fleck was attacked by drunk businessmen, unlucky in love, failed by the system and nobody laughed at his stand-up comedy. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for a turn that joined the dots between Scorsese and Gotham.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

In the daddy of origin stories Vito Corleone, the mumbling don played in the first film by Marlon Brando, is portrayed as a young man in the early 20th century by Robert De Niro. The director Francis Ford Coppola pulled a masterstroke by intercutting those scenes with the fifties timeline featuring Al Pacino as Vito’s son, Michael. Two actors at the top of their game playing father and son at similar ages, sacrificing their humanity for power.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The third instalment in the franchise featured three generations of Hollywood heart-throbs. Not only did we get Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his father but, in the prologue, an ineffably pretty River Phoenix as a young Indy. In 10 virtuoso minutes Steven Spielberg explained his fear of snakes, use of a bullwhip, choice of headwear and belief – faintly controversial by today’s standards – that archaeological artefacts should be kept in museums.

Maleficent (2014)

Angelina Jolie plays the evil fairy queen from Sleeping Beauty in a spin-off movie that also revisits her difficult teenage years. A 16-year-old Maleficent, played by Isobelle Molloy, has her wings cut off by Stefan, the peasant boy she loves. Which 1, shows that puberty sucks; and 2, establishes why Maleficent will embark on a reign of shadowy terror and curse Stefan’s daughter, Aurora.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005)

Star Wars has a thing for origin stories, having tackled Han Solo’s youth in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s in the forthcoming eponymous TV series. Looming above it all, however, is the three-part saga of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Sadly, Anakin’s evolution from bowl-cut poppet to whiny, rat’s-tailed teenager to helmeted intergalactic badass was hamstrung by awful acting, execrable dialogue and tedious guff about trade blockades.

Wonka (in production)

Timothée Chalamet will play a young Willy Wonka in a prequel movie directed by Paul King (the Paddington films) that will feature several musical numbers. Chalamet, the charismatic, waiflike star of Call Me by Your Name and Little Women, seems like a fine choice to follow Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp and don the top hat and tails of Roald Dahl’s impish chocolatier. – ED POTTON


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