95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Have You Seen…? Episode 20

Creative Commons 2.0

Beauty and the Beast was originally a French fairy tale published in 1740 by Villeneuve but it’s best known today as the animated Disney movie from 1991. On today’s episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf take a look at the original adaptation, the live-action Beauty and the Beast from poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau that was made in 1946

[Clip from Beauty and the Beast, 1946]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Beauty and the Beast?

Scott Vander Werf: Jean Cocteau’s or Disney's?

DH: Cocteau’s, of course.

SVW: Yes. I have seen Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, which was the very first version in 1946.

DH: It was. it was really the original version of Beauty and the Beast done on film based on an 18th-century French version of the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. But yeah, Cocteau was French and this is in French with French subtitles

SVW: And of course Jean Cocteau was a very art-based film director.

DH: Yeah. Cocteau was an artist and a poet, that was what he referred to himself as always was a poet. But today he's best remembered, and I bet he never could have predicted this, for his movies and probably this movie above all others.

SVW: And this is the film that sets the template for all the other versions of Beauty and the Beast, not just because it's the first one, but even the way that the beast is portrayed and presented all the ones sort of build upon this particular version.

DH: Yeah, there have been remakes that are more like this, more, you know, a little darker aimed at an adult viewer rather than, you know, so the Disney version is aimed at kids more. This one is not for kids, really, maybe some wise and insightful children could watch it, but it will probably be scary for most young children, but it's really more emotionally complex version and just stunning to look at in terms of its visual effects for the time and the beauty of the black and white they shot in. They actually intended to shoot in color, interestingly, and couldn't afford it right after the war in France, there was no money. nobody had any resources or money. So he had to shoot in black and white. But I'm glad he did.

SVW: I'm glad you did, too. I can’t see where color would have improved on how it's visually presented.

DH: Yeah, it's so atmospheric and ethereal, you know, when the movie opens at Belle’s home in the village with her sisters, it's a classic fairy tale, of course, she has the 2 evil sisters and they're her goofy brother and the guy who's in love with her. And there it's just shot and sort of high key bright. And then as soon as you get to the Beast's castle it's all very low key and foggy and ethereal, and exotic and just really interesting.

SVW: And another thing that's really interesting is the fact that it's a threat by the on the part of the the beast that gets Belle to his his his environment. I it's a castle, but is actually a castle that's made up. It's imaginary.

DH: Well, it's all it's all in the magical realm. You know, one critic said that watching Jean Cocteau, Beauty and the Beast, I don't think we said it's from 1946. Watching it feels like you're passing through a portal to a magical world. Roger Ebert said that it transcends the conventions of narrative to appeal the deeper psychic level. And and so it's the magic is just taken for granted. None of that. None of the characters in the movie. None of them question it or see what's going on. It's just understood that there's magic in this world. It's a fairy tale. And and the beast realm is is this realm where all kinds of things can happen.

SVW: And it's it's really one of the things that I found wonderful is the fact that in the Beast's Castle, the all the lights which are chandelier is actually candle lit chandeliers are held by human arms and hands.

DH: I think this is where Disney got the, you know, the dancing candlestick and the teapot and all that in the animated version. But it's much it's surreal in in and not scary, really, but really interesting in the in the Cocteau version where she walks through this hallway and all the candelabras are human arms holding them and these faces that are statues in the wall that they can, their eyes follow you and they can turn and look, and they look like living statues.

SVW: And one of the things that I didn't realize until after watching it is that Jean Marais, who plays La Bête, whose Bell’s brother’s friend, who's in love with Bell, also plays the beast.

DH: Right. Jean Marais plays 3 characters. He plays Avenant, the human who's in love with Belle. He plays the beast and he plays the prince at the end, you know, which is very brief. But yeah, played all by the same actor.

SVW: And also the thing that was that that grabbed me about the movie, is it really in terms of the the narrative it's pretty simple. There's it's there's no complexities here. But it works.

DH: It's a fairy tale story simple. But what it is is it is revealing the deeper truth, even though it's a magical world, it feels like it gives it the freedom to reveal much more deep truths about human beings and who they are emotionally and about the nature of romantic love and physical attraction. And that's all right on the surface, almost in a way that you can't do sometimes with a regular narrative. What did you think of the way the characters move? That's something I really noticed this last time. I watched it the Jean Marais in and Josette Day who are really the 2 only important characters in the movie beauty and the Beast. They move like they're in a silent movie. They take broad strides. They cover their faces with big gestures like your whole arm covering your face, the lean forward and back away from the action. Did you notice that?

SVW: I noticed that with the beast, but I did not notice that with Belle.

DH: She does it, too. Yeah, it's very broad. And and, you know, this is 1946. This is a long way after silent movies ended. And Jean Cocteau certainly not having the actors wouldn't have been acting like silent movie actors on purpose. But remember silent movie actors did what they did because you couldn't hear the dialogue. And so they showed emotion with their whole bodies and their gestures. And this that's important to this movie because it shows all the emotion and eroticism and everything just by the way, they move

SVW: And they're moving in this magical realm, too.

DH: Right, so there's 2 interesting limitations on that. The fairy tale in this also is not it doesn't it has a happy ending, but does it and, you know, we won't be giving when most people probably know the story of beauty and the beast, but it's almost a mixed blessing that that the Beast becomes a, you know, a beautiful prince at the end.

SVW: I know exactly what you're talking about. The feeling is not of like a triumphant, happy ending. It's rather macabre. You know, it's kind of creepy.

DH: Yeah, there's even there's there's an apocryphal story I've heard attributed to Greta Garbo. And I've also read that was Marlena Dietrich that said this, but apparently at the first showing of it when the beast turns into the handsome prince at the end, whoever it is that every one of these famous actor says said, “Where's my beast?”

SVW: Oh, I could see that missing actually missing the beast.

DH: Yeah. And we and when you watch it at the end this this will leave to the viewer, the listeners. When you watch the movie, what do you think Belle really feels about this handsome prince and the transformation from the beast to the prince.

SVW: And the fact that there's something diabolical about how the transformation takes place as well, without giving away any spoilers.

DH: Right. So that that's the Beauty and the Beast, 1946. The artist, Jean Cocteau, unlike any other version and the granddaddy of all versions.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
Related Content
  • On this edition of “Have You Seen…?” David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about The Asphalt Jungle starring Sterling Hayden and directed by John Huston. It’s a proto-heist film, a police procedural, and a classic crime film.
  • In this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf look at the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, directed by Preston Sturges, a movie that combines serious drama, comedy and romance
  • In 1932 actor Paul Muni starred in two classic films, the original Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about these groundbreaking movies on this episode of Have You Seen…?