Discussions of the 1957 telefilm Cinderella tend to hinge on its role in the developing stardom of 21-year-old Julie Andrews; or build themselves around its screening history, nodding to the fact that it was considered lost for many years before the kinescope recording of its live broadcast on 31 March, 1957 was rediscovered. And they tend to do so in ways that make it mostly clear that the person doing the discussing would rather not have to take too close a look at the film itself. This is not unreasonable. It would be a lie to call Cinderella a poor piece of television, and there's some genuine ambition to its staging, given the circumstances of its production. But it's also the case that it's a bit snoozy and too light for its own good; the core story of Cinderella is already closer to a sustained anecdote than a narrative that can support a feature, and not much about this particular treatment addresses that problem.

We'll get to Andrews and the realities of live television production in '57 soon enough, I promise, but I'm not done complaining. Cinderella was the ninth musical by lyricist and book author Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers; it was, moreover, only the second (and final) of their collaborations not to begin its life as a stage musical, after the 1945 theatrical film State Fair. It was not their plan to move to TV; they were approached by CBS, who had stared with great envy at NBC's great success in staging the 1954 musical Peter Pan live as part of their monthly series Producer's Showcase, once in 1955, once in '56 (neither of these is the "canonical" telefilm starring Mary Martin, though she played Peter Pan in both airings - that would be the live broadcast from 1960, which was recorded to videotape, and is thus now available in full color). Hoping to trump their rival network, CBS didn't merely want to show a live version of a popular show; they wanted a brand new musical created by the biggest names in musical theater. Rodgers & Hammerstein agreed, though it is generally said that they did so mostly to have a chance to work with Andrews, who was busy at that time with the original Broadway run of My Fair Lady. Regardless of their motivations, it worked out well for CBS: Cinderella is estimated to have had an audience of 107 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in the history of American television up to that point. Depending on whose number you trust, it still holds that record for a non-Super Bowl broadcast.

And because it was so popular on a level which cannot be conceived of in the current pop culture landscape - more individuals watched Cinderella than there were tickets sold to Avatar, and they all watched at the exact same time - it can surely survive my pointing out that it's really not a very good musical. I maintain - as do many others - that the career of Rodgers & Hammerstein is an exercise in diminishing returns: they peaked with their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, and following Cinderella, they only wrote Flower Drum Song, a show that has virtually no modern-day defenders, and The Sound of Music, whose positive reputation rests almost exclusively on the 1965 movie that did a hell of a lot of work to fix the show. By 1957, I mean to say, the gas had largely run out of the tank; the music in Cinderella is harmless and totally inoffensive, but it's light on memorable or particularly high-impact songs. "In My Own Little Corner", a largely typical "I Want" song, is the closest the show has to an iconic number, and it's not at all a triumph on par with "People Will Say We're in Love", or "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy", or "Hello, Young Lovers". Or even the songs they wrote that don't have "love" in the title. Otherwise, the bulk of the music is brightly paced and pleasant, and the lyrics offer up some quips about which the nicest I can think to say is that they are more amusing than labored. Given that it is, at heart, a program for parents to watch with their children, innocuous songs aren't any kind of mortal sin. But given that this was the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to premiere in the same calendar year that The Music Man and West Side Story opened, it's hard not to feel like it's lacking in ambition and depth.

The same is true, if not indeed truer, of the teleplay by Hammerstein, which largely replicates the standard beats of the story, while replacing any of its bitterness and sorrow with blowsy comedy. Then as now, the definitive Cinderella was the 1950 Disney film, which had the same slapstick ugly stepsisters that Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley play to such frivolous extremes (fair's fair: the conception of those characters is a little whiffy, but Ballard and Ghostley are absolutely terrific at executing what they've been tasked with doing), but paired with with a wicked stepmother of glacially still cruelty, a genuine threat to the long-term happiness of Cinderella and her dreams. Hammerstein makes her every bit as broad a caricature as her daughters, and things aren't helped by the one outright misstep of a generally posh assortment of costumes designed by Jean Eckhart, when the character is introduced with actor Ilka Chase gamely wearing what appears to be a flattened lampshade on her head.

This is all to say, this Cinderella has absolutely no bite: it's charming and achingly shallow. The story already trends in that direction (of all the major European fairy tales, it has the most limited stakes: "So this girl wants to marry a prince." "...And?" "And, well, she does. He finds her because she dropped a shoe."), and late-period Hammerstein readily gives into that.

Still and all, it's a charming enough thing to watch, in part because it is breathlessly short - 76 minutes once you take out the original commercial breaks. That leaves just enough time to marvel at the grace with which director Ralph Nelson uses visual flourishes that must have been damned complicated to execute in a fairly small studio filled with large sets and huge ensembles of extras. And all of it done totally live! It would have been forgivable if the whole thing had been at the blunt level of the dress transformation, carried off by the banal expedient of focusing the camera on Edie Adams's sly fairy godmother while Andrews quickly changed just off to the left. Instead, the film is full of gliding tracking shots, unexpected high and low angles, and some nuanced, shapely lighting that doesn't at all read as "1950s television", with its characteristic tendency towards bright flatness. It's a real pity that the only version of the show to survive is in black and white; as lavish as the camera is in floating through the big sets, I have to imagine that seeing them in full color must have been a real treat.

The other reason to watch, of course, is Julie Andrews. Her movie debut was (inexplicably) seven years in the future, but she'd already enjoyed two major stage successes, with The Boy Friend and My Fair Lady, and in this role which was written expressly to show off her talents, she scored an absolute triumph. Everything that anyone ever loved about her is fully-formed: the upbeat optimism, but also the twisted internal wistfulness. Without her, "In My Own Little Corner" could easily fly off into insipid cheeriness; and she is solely responsible for anchoring the love duet "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" not merely from the songwriters' sentimentality, but from her watery Prince, played by Jon Cypher (an eerily prophetic surname). Her voice is strong and penetrating enough to break through the hissy limitations of '50s TV sound recording, but she never sacrifices the delicacy of any individual moment. The solitary problem with her performance isn't even her fault: she was hit with too much pancake makeup and has a tendency to look a bit waxy in the earlier scenes. Ignore that (and it's only polite that you should), and what remains is a tremendously confident performance of quiet, shy yearning, as perfect a star-is-born moment as you could ever hope to find, except that she was kind of a star already. Cinderella is, throughout, a little empty-headed and gossamer-thin, but the presence of Andrews makes it... not essential, no, I can't go that far. But it is certainly worth anybody's time.