(Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Written by Cocteau and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day
Myths are often retold. And Beauty and the Beast is no exception. The problem with retellings and remakes is that if there is a perfect version, they get forgotten by OK but inferior versions. That's why Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la bête deserves memorialization.
I don't have to tell you the story. You've probably seen the Disney version -- which is a pretty good movie in its own right. Gaston is one of my favorite Disney villains, because he doesn't see himself as a villain. He's going to save Belle, and do good. The movie also has some fine Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs.
But it doesn't hold a candle to Cocteau's.
Jean Cocteau was a poet. This isn't hyperbole: Cocteau actually made his reputation as a poet (and playwright) before turning to films. He certainly had a poet's eye for beauty. La Belle et la bête is filled with beautiful, poetic imagery. For instance, when Beauty arrives at the Beast's castle, her way is lit by candelabra along the wall held by human hands. She glides down the hallway in a dreamlike movement, and the candles magically light as she passes.
Jean Marais is also memorable as the Beast. He appears like a lion, and his nobility makes him a perfect romantic hero. Legend has it that when the Beast was changed into a prince, Greta Garbo shouted out, "Give me back my beast!" Certainly the Beast is more romantic than any prince could be.
The film was made under difficult circumstances. World War II had just ended, and France was suffering from shortages of film and food. Cocteau made do with whatever film stock he could scrounge up, and the sumptuous banquets in the film were devoured by the crew and extras as soon as the scene was complete. Marais had to spend five hours a day for his make up, and Cocteau had to be hospitalized due to illness during shooting.
But none of the problems show up on the screen. The results are one of the most beautiful and romantic movies ever made.