- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

“Fairy tales bring up a lot of feelings in people,” reflects Tom Davenport, the independent filmmaker from Delaplane, Va., who has been rejuvenating fairy-tale pretexts for a generation or so for his series “From the Brothers Grimm: American Versions of Folktale Classics.”

His first project, a quarter-hour dramatic short that transposes “Hansel & Gretel” to the backwoods of Appalachia during the Depression, began shooting near the Davenport residence about 30 years ago. It had its first public showings in 1977. Supported for a number of years by modest grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. Davenport completed eight more titles by the end of the 1980s.

The later installments expanded to about 40 minutes, and the emerging inventory became a reliable, esteemed fixture of the nontheatrical market. The Davenport films repeatedly won praise and awards at film festivals; they also joined the repertory of children’s fare acquired by public libraries.

The final chapters of the series, beguiling adaptations of the Cinderella and Snow White tales called “Ashpet” and “Willa” respectively, were shot in the early 1990s, which turned into a trying decade for the filmmaker. Mr. Davenport had to weather the accidental death of one of his three sons and shoulder the management of a family farm when advanced age caught up with his parents.

The completed cycle, available on a seven-volume DVD set, will be honored today and tomorrow at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre with a trio of showings hosted by Mr. Davenport. He hopes one or more of the local theater actors who have appeared in his productions — Nancy Robinette, who plays the stepmother in “Ashpet,” or Floyd King and Mark Jaster, who have witty supporting roles in “Willa,” the only feature — will be able to join the celebration.

Now in his middle 60s, Mr. Davenport says he thinks his Grimm variations probably are at an end. In recent years, he has been absorbed in starting and sustaining an Internet site called folkstreams.net, a clearinghouse for about 140 documentary films on aspects of Americana and folk culture that can be viewed in whole or part by browsers. It also contains an abundance of scholarly material related to the subject matter of the movies, leased to the site by participating filmmakers.

Mr. Davenport had a specific incentive for the first movie in the series. He and his wife, Mimi, who has been a costumer and visual consultant during the cycle — “the overseer of taste” in her husband’s phrase — had three young children in the early 1970s. They frequently read fairy tales to the youngsters, and the “Hansel & Gretel” story coincided with a period of hospitalization for their oldest son, Robert.

“The abandonment theme was on our minds,” Mr. Davenport explains. “It occurred to me, this is something I might be able to film in our back yard, at very little expense. I also wanted to make something that was closer to pure illustration, to silent-movie traditions. I wasn’t that happy with a documentary about the Shakers that had given me a respectable start in documentary production. You could almost ignore the pictures and get all the information you needed from the soundtrack.”

So “Hansel & Gretel” was realized, with a stark and eerie effectiveness that seemed gripping to most spectators, including the youngest ones. The same impression alarmed a number of parents and “older librarians.” At the time, Mr. Davenport felt that the latter group was his most promising sales market, and he believes the flare-up of controversy gave the film more of an identity than obscure dramatic shorts usually achieve.

A flair for the macabre distinguishes many of the best films in the cycle, which maintains a clever fidelity to Grimm in that respect while evoking American social settings from the turn of the 20th century to World War II and using Fauquier County as a source of rural scenic charm and novelty.

Mr. Davenport thinks it helped that Bruno Bettelheim’s study of fairy-tale literature, “The Uses of Enchantment,” was published soon after “Hansel & Gretel” initiated “From the Brothers Grimm.” The subject enjoyed a fresh currency and dignity as a result of the book.

“I was in kind of a privileged position,” he reflects. “I had to resign myself to low budgets, of course, and the need to make repeated grant applications. But the National Endowment was still relatively new, and there weren’t all that many filmmakers to deal with and few fixed ideas about what their subject matter should be. No one interfered once your project was approved.”

According to Mr. Davenport, expectations changed when Ken Burns’ miniseries about the Civil War turned into a huge cultural event and ratings success. “Before that,” he explains, “you had a shot at some TV exposure on PBS affiliates. Post-‘Civil War,’ they all said, ‘Eureka. This is what we want.’ The National Endowment shifted support to documentaries almost exclusively, which was bad news for any of us who had a stake in fiction.”

Tom Davenport’s film cycle “From the Brothers Grimm: American Versions of Folktale Classics”: “Hansel & Gretel” (1977), 16 minutes; “Rapunzel, Rapunzel” (1979), 15 minutes; “The Frog King” (1981), 27 minutes; “Bearskin” (1982), 20 minutes; “Bristlelip” (1982), 19 minutes; “Jack and the Dentist’s Daughter” (1983), 38 minutes; “The Goose Girl” (1985), 18 minutes; “Soldier Jack” (1988), 40 minutes; “Ashpet” (1989), 45 minutes; “Mutzmag” (1992), 54 minutes; “Willa” (1997), 85 minutes.

All titles are available in VHS or DVD at Davenport Films, 11324 Pearlstone Lane, Delaplane, Va. 20144. The Web site is www.davenport films.com.

Programs at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring: “Ashpet” and “Jack and the Dentist’s Daughter,” today at 1 p.m.; “Willa,” today at 5:30 p.m.; “Mutzmag” and “Soldier Jack,” Sunday at 3:40 p.m.

Mr. Davenport will introduce all three programs. Tickets range from $5.50 for children to $8.50 for adults. 301/495-6700.


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