Once Upon a Time, adapted from a national-romantic play by the Danish writer Holger Drachmann, is set in a fairytale past. The jolly old king of the rococo land Illyria lets his beautiful, but capricious, daughter have her way in all things. She not only rejects every suitor who comes to call, she also has them executed. Only the Prince of Denmark, happening by on his travels with his faithful sidekick Kaspar Røghat, has such a way with words that the princess lets him live, even while as she spurns him, too. Back home in the woods of Denmark, the prince meets a mysterious old man who gives him a magic kettle. Disguised as a pauper, the prince tricks the princess into letting him into her bedroom. Alerted by Røghat, the king comes charging in and banishes his daughter. She is now forced to live with the pauper in his cabin deep in the woods. By and by, her disposition softens and she learns to love him – so much, in fact, that she chooses him when she gets a second chance to marry the prince; fortunately, they are one and the same.
The film is an attempt to craft a Danish national film after the recipe presumed to be behind the success of the great Swedish films: working from a well-known work of literature and using nature as a backdrop. Schnéevoigt’s shots of Danish woods are terrifically atmospheric and beautiful. Personally, Dreyer thought the film lacked momentum, perhaps because Drachmann’s lyrical fairy play was unable to satisfy Dreyer’s wish for naturalistic and nuanced character descriptions. When the production ran into financial trouble, Dreyer was forced to make cuts, including the lavish market scene he had planned.
Once Upon a Time was a big success when it opened in Denmark, but apparently was never distributed internationally in any significant way. The film quickly fell out of view and was thought lost for many years. An incomplete print was found in the 1960s sadly missing the entire last quarter of the film and several other scenes.