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Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Remind Me

Beauty and the Beast

"Children believe what we tell them, they have complete faith in us....I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's 'Open Sesame.'
'Once upon a time....'"
From opening title, Beauty and the Beast

Before the Disney cartoon or Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre or even Shirley Temple's Storybook, Janus Films brought this "tale as old as time" to American audiences in Jean Cocteau's definitive 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast. One of the most beautiful movies ever made, even though the director always regretted not being able to make it in color, Beauty and the Beast is regularly hailed by film critics and historians as the best film ever made from a fairy tale.

One of the most versatile artists of the 20th century, Cocteau had first sprung to prominence as a poet before establishing himself as a visual artist, dramatist and, eventually, filmmaker. He created a sensation with his dream-like 1930 short The Blood of a Poet, but was more in demand as a screenwriter during Germany's World War II occupation of France. With the war's end, he was considering a return to directing, partly to create a vehicle for his lover, actor Jean Marais. It was Marais who suggested filming the classic fairy tale first set to paper in the 18th century by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. The story had only been filmed once previously, in 1899. With France coming out of the desperate war years, Marais suggested it was the perfect time for something as positive and optimistic as the classic tale of the true beauty that can hide beneath a frightful exterior.

Creating a dream world in the war-ravaged nation provided its share of problems. Cocteau wanted to shoot the film in color, but there was little color stock available, so he had to settle for black and white. Even then, there were only scraps of film stock available and not always in the best condition. As a result, image quality varied from scene to scene, a problem he ultimately decided would add to the picture's dreamlike qualities. He had to fight with cinematographer Henri Alekan to capture those qualities properly. Alekan wanted to use soft focus and only grudgingly acceded to Cocteau's demands that the film be shot more crisply -- in a visual style modeled on Vermeer and Gustave Dore -- to show the mystical qualities behind everyday things. Initially, Alekan told him the rushes were laughably bad. Only gradually did he realize the wisdom of Cocteau's artistic vision.

To enhance the castle's dreamlike atmosphere, Cocteau gave human form to many of the architectural details, creating candelabra held up by seemingly disembodied arms and painting actors like stone to play statues. Particularly notable were the living faces carved around the fireplace. He hired local children, who were made up with plaster and posed just behind the fireplace. At one point, he even had them breathe smoke, as if they were helping to vent the fireplace.

For locations, Cocteau found a manor house in Ille-et-Vilaine to serve as the home for Beauty's family and the Chateau de Raray near Senlis to serve as the Beast's castle. The Chateau brought an added bonus in its park, filled with bizarre statues of animals that contributed to the film's fairy-tale atmosphere.

But the locations were also cold and unwelcoming. Many mornings the cast huddled around the lights on the set for warmth, at least when frequent power failures didn't plunge them into darkness. The manor house was also near an airstrip, and Cocteau had to beg its commander to limit air traffic on shooting days so the sound of airplane motors wouldn't ruin takes. Throughout filming, Cocteau suffered from impetigo, a skin disease that often left him feeling as repulsive as the beast itself. At one point it even put him in the hospital, forcing his friend Rene Clement to fill in as director. In addition, cast illnesses and a leg injury sustained by Marais forced him to shoot around certain characters.

The cast, however, was a frequent consolation. In the diaries he kept through the shoot, Cocteau marveled at how much their off-screen relationships mirrored those on screen. The evil sisters bonded as though they were really family members. Josette Day, who played Beauty, was warm and caring with everyone, but also somewhat aloof. Marais kept mostly to himself, playing the flute to pass the time.

Critics are divided on Marais' performance in the triple role of Beast, Prince and Beauty's evil human suitor. On set, however, he was totally dedicated to the role. The Beast's makeup, which he described as a wig worn over his face, required five hours to put on and another five to remove, while the fangs made it almost impossible for him to eat or even speak very much. For one scene, Cocteau wanted him to drink from a stream in the Beast's park. The only water available was a sewage line from the Chateau. Rather than fake it, Marais actually took the filthy water into his mouth until the shot was complete.

One of the film's most dazzling elements is Cocteau's use of special effects. Working in primitive conditions, he achieved most of them through purely mechanical means. For Beauty's first walk through the castle, he wanted her to float, so Day stood on a wagon hidden under her skirts and pulled through the set by a small rope. When she returns home and tries to give one of her sisters a necklace, it turns into a wreath of burning leaves the sister drops to the floor, at which point the leaves turn back into jewels. Cocteau used simple sleight of hand, with the wreath whisked behind the actress' back as the real necklace fell to the ground. When the sisters look in Beauty's magic mirror to see their true selves -- an aged crone and a monkey -- Cocteau simply used clear glass, with the monkey on the other side.

One of Cocteau's most frequently used effects was simply to print a take backwards. To make the castle's candles mysteriously burst into flame when Beauty's father enters, Cocteau had him walk backwards away from the camera as the candles were blown out. After the Beast transforms into the Prince, he floats into a standing position, accomplished by having Marais fall to the ground during filming, so the film could be reversed later. For the Prince and Beauty's flight to his new castle, again, Cocteau shot them jumping off a platform, then reversed the film to make it seem as though they were flying.

Beauty and the Beast was a big hit in France, where it won the Prix Louis Delluc as best film of its year and made Marais a major romantic star. It was also a success on the art house circuit in the U.S., winning raves from critics impressed with its subtle fantasy, particularly when compared to Hollywood's often ham-fisted attempts at filming fairy tales. The film has remained influential. Many critics pointed out that the idea for the living furniture in the Disney Beauty and the Beast (1991) was inspired by Cocteau's film, as was the character design for the Beast. In 1995, Philip Glass created an operatic version of the 1946 film, using the script as its libretto. Glass' work was originally performed while the Cocteau film screened in the background (he would do the same with Cocteau's 1950 Orphee and the 1950 Cocteau-scripted Les Enfants Terribles). The Criterion Collection DVD of Beauty and the Beast even gives viewers the option of playing the Glass opera as the film's soundtrack.

In all of these forms, Cocteau's classic has enchanted audiences for 60 years. The only time the spell ends for some viewers is the Beast's climactic transformation. Although some have suggested that the Prince's resemblance to Avenant, Beauty's human suitor, has strong Freudian undertones, symbolizing her ultimate ability to accept an adult sexual relationship, Marais' real face pales in comparison to the Beast makeup. When Greta Garbo saw the film, she echoed the opinions of many viewers at the end when she said, "Give me back my Beast."

Producer: Andre Paulve
Director: Jean Cocteau
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau
Based on a story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Art Direction: Christian Berard, Lucien Carre
Music: Georges Auric
Principal Cast: Jean Marais (The Beast/The Prince/Avenant), Josette Day (Belle), Mila Parely (Felicie), Nane Germon (Adelaide), Michel Auclair (Ludovic), Raoul Marco (The Usurer), Marcel Andre (Belle's Father).

by Frank Miller

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