RETROREVIEWS #4: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

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MAY 6, 2013 SCREENING: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

 

You mean there was a big budget adaptation of Beauty and the Beast before Disney did it? How come I’ve never heard of it?”

 

Yes, that is the case here. The reason is most likely because the original film is from the 1940s and made in French. Ironically, many people now consider the Disney adaption to be not only the “greatest” film of Disney’s Renaissance era (roughly 1989-1997 or so) but many praise Disney’s version as the greatest Disney adaptation of a fairy tale, and perhaps the best treatment a fairy tale has ever gotten on film, period. As for me, I grew up on the Disney version as a kid. I enjoyed the movie, some of the sequences (particularly the ballroom dancing sequence, an early landmark example of CGI) were stunning, and overall it was very polished and professionally done. However, it is not my favorite Disney film, not my favorite adaptation of a fairy tale. I can’t exactly say why, but something special was missing. (I consider the films that book-ended it, 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1993’s Aladdin, to both be superior). If I was going to state objectively which interpretation of Beauty and the Beast was the “best” adaptation of the source material, I’d probably have to go with the 1946 French version.

 

Of course, this adaptation might be a difficult sell for anyone but film buffs and people that like “artsy” films. For starters, I would argue that it is more faithful to the original story because its not only set in France but actually made as a French film. Having a “La Belle et la Bête” that can genuinely claim to be French goes a long way in my book. The film is actually very slow moving and difficult to watch – consisting of a hazy, dream-like atmosphere. For me, that’s the perfect way to show the audience that you’re telling a fairy tale. The film even acknowledges this at the start, and begins with a title card that reads:

 

 

Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.

 

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”:

 

Once upon a time…

 

 

What better way to open a movie? Unlike many of its contemporary films, the Beast makeup isn’t cheesy (certainly it looks impressive considering even the Universal “Wolf Man” movies of that era now look silly by today’s standards), and the tone is serious and reflective. It also does the romance element well and tugs at your heart. 1946’s Beauty and the Beast had the perfect combination of directing, acting, set design, script, and makeup for me to highly recommend the movie. In fact, the only flaw in the film is this: fairy tales are mainly directed at children, and it’s extremely unlikely that your seven year old is going to sit through an old french language black & white film. It might have worked brilliantly for french children in 1946, but ultimately today the Disney version is going to be the only one accessible to them that does the source material justice. Aside from the cult 1987 American TV series with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, it’s unlikely that we’ll be getting another live action version any time soon that treats the material with respect. So 1946’s Beauty and the Beauty remains a curious artifact of a forgotten era. It is perhaps the only time that I will conclude a movie is brilliant and moving by being sluggish, murky, and boring.

 

 

*** out of ****

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