Disney had been trying to make a film version of Beauty and the Beast since the 1940s but for various reasons, it took 50 years for it to finally hit the screen. The well-known story was based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. It was published in 1757 as part of the fairy tale anthology Le Magasin des Enfants.
Everyone loves Disney’s animated musical version of Beauty and the Beast. It was not only a huge hit, it was also the first animated film in America to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s beloved by fans and ranks high in the Disney pantheon of great films, worthy to be in the company of their great classics like Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs, Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. It inspired a successful Broadway musical. This is a terrific film. What many people may not realize, however, is that many aspects of the 1991 Disney film were directly taken from the live-action French version made in 1946.
Directed by Jean Cocteau, this classic French film was a wealth of visual inspirations for Disney. The leonine appearance of the Beast was first invented by Cocteau. Also, the whole idea of the inanimate objects coming to life was a creation of the 1946 Cocteau film. The character of Gaston was based on Avenant, who was created for the 1946 film. In point of fact, when the studio was originally developing the script, Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was not happy with the preliminary work and ordered that the project restart from scratch; only this time, they used the classic Cocteau French film as their blueprint.
The original Cocteau Beauty & the Beast was described in Roger Ebert’s book “The Great Movies volume 1”, as “one of the most magical films of all time”. The imagery of the living objects in the castle—like the arms coming out of the wall holding candelabras—is wonderfully creepy. Unlike the Disney animated film, they don’t talk. The transformed servants only watch in silence as the world goes on while they remain prisoners of the unexplained curse. What this version has that the Disney version can’t get away with is the Freudian sexual symbolism that we see all over the castle.
Belle is played by lovely Josette Day. The Beast is portrayed by Jean Marias, who does double duty also playing the villain Avenant. His version of the Beast is more eloguent and mysterious than the more feral Disney version. The live-action version seems more demonic while the animated version is more animalistic.
The plot is very similar in both versions, with some significant deviations. For instance, no origin is given for the Beast’s plight in the Cocteau version; he’s already a beast when we see him. We don’t know why or how he was cursed. In the Disney version, we get a prologue about how a young prince was cursed until he can find someone to love him.
Other differences between the two… In the 1946 version, Belle’s dad Marcel gets the Beast mad at him for stealing a rose from the Beast’s garden, and the Beast is going to kill him until learning that Marcel has three pretty daughters and offers Marcel a pardon if he will send one of his girls to live with the Beast. Two of the sisters refuse but Belle decides to go in dad’s place. In the Disney version, the dad (called Maurice) gets lost in the woods after being chased by a pack of wolves and finds the castle, where he is fed by the transformed servants Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts. The Beast finds him and keeps him prisoner. Belle follows Maurice’s horse to the castle, and offers to exchange herself for her dad. In the Cocteau version, Avenant is the best friend of Belle’s brother Ludovic and they both think he should marry Belle, whereas Gaston in the Disney film is the town hero who feels that he and Belle should be together because they’re the two best looking people in town. Avenant, in the 1946 film, goes to the castle with only Ludovic for back-up to confront the Beast and gets killed by one of the transformed servants who has become a living statue of the Goddess Diana. The statue shoots Gaston with an arrow. In the 1991 animated film, Gaston brings a whole mob to kill the Beast but ends up getting killed himself when he falls off the castle roof.
Both films ask the philosophical question…Who is really the Beast? The moral of these films is that the Beast is a good man beneath his grotesque exterior, while handsome Avenant/Gaston is a monster under the surface. The moral is stated plainly in the Disney animated film when Belle says it to Gaston. In the French version,it’s more visual: Avenant ends up taking on the physical curse of the Beast while the Beast himself is de-furred and ends up looking like Avenant. (Hence the same actor playing both roles.)
So which is better? These are both amazing, classy and stylized films with beautiful visuals, interesting characters and a timeless romance. The tone of the Cocteau version is darker than the more kid-friendly Disney version, which is lighter and breezier. If either film deserves a slight edge, it’s probably the Disney movie because of the terrific songs. The music in the animated version is fun, catchy, memorable and brilliantly composed. “Be Our Guest” is particularly fun. That’s the only reason that the 1991 film could be seen as slightly more entertaining. It’s a very close call.
So that’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll be back with another entry in our series next week and in the meantime, feel free to look up all our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.