Despite its lack of singing teapots and flirtatious candlesticks, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast was a hit when it was released, dazzling audiences with its extraordinary special effects, costumes, and makeup. Fairy tales had been adapted for the big screen before, but this was one of the first live-action pictures to make full use of every cinematic technique. That was a long time ago, though. Why has Beauty and the Beast endured for so long? Let us peer into the magic mirror and investigate.
The praise: The film won the Louis Delluc Prize for best French film of 1946, though it didn't receive any recognition at the American Academy Awards. (There was no specific foreign-language category yet, nor were there categories for costumes, special effects, or makeup.) Cocteau biographer Francis Steegmuller said that it is "by general consent one of the most enchanting pictures ever made." Roger Ebert calls it "one of the most magical of all films." Empire magazine put it at No. 26 on the list of the best non-English-language films of all time.
The context: Jean Cocteau did not consider himself a filmmaker, all of his films notwithstanding. (He actually only directed six feature-length narratives, all of them in the last 20 years of his life.) Born in 1889, he was a writer of plays, novels, essays, and poetry, not to mention a painter and decorator, and a well-known figure in French art circles starting in the 1920s. Cocteau described himself as a poet first and foremost, insisting that his poetic sensibilities influenced all of his work in other media. Hard to imagine anyone arguing with him there.
Cocteau was part of the avant-garde movement that also loosely included the Dadaists, Surrealists, and so forth. He was also gay -- openly so, to some extent, though he disliked labels. He was the friend, mentor, and romantic partner of Raymond Radiguet, the prodigy who would publish the scandalously (hetero)sexual novel The Devil in the Flesh (Le Diable au corps). Radiguet influenced Cocteau's work as much as vice versa, and when he died of typhoid shortly after his novel was published -- in 1923, when he was just 20 years old -- Cocteau was devastated.
By some accounts, it was grief over Radiguet's death that led Cocteau to begin using opium. By others, the timing was coincidental. In any event, Cocteau was an opium addict for the rest of the 1920s. The biographer Arthur B. Evans was among many commentators who believe this addiction changed everything. He wrote:
It could be reasonably argued that Cocteau's entire poetic philosophy, his life-style, and his very approach to his art were radically and permanently altered during his years of opium addiction from 1924 to 1929. It was during this time, and that immediately following, that the author came to find his personalized mythology of mirrors, angels, truthful lies, invisibility, and inevitably, his preoccupation with the literal and figurative aspects of death. (Emphasis added)
Most of those elements can also be found in Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's 18th-century story "Beauty and the Beast," which suggests what may have drawn Cocteau to it. Cocteau had made a 55-minute experimental film in 1930, Blood of a Poet, but Beauty and the Beast -- some 16 years later -- was his first full-length narrative feature. As the Beast, the handsome prince, and the boorish suitor, Cocteau cast one actor: his partner, Jean Marais. Cocteau and Marais had begun their relationship in 1937 and would remain together until Cocteau's death in 1963.
Though he had conceptualized Beauty and the Beast during World War II, it wasn't until after the war was over that Cocteau was able to make the film. Well into his 50s and lacking much hands-on experience in filmmaking, he hired talented cinematographers, designers, editors, and other crew members. He was filled with self-doubt throughout the production, and was also stricken with a painful skin disease that eventually hospitalized him. (His friend Rene Clement stepped in and directed some of the film, uncredited.)
Cocteau's artistic instincts, his love of poetry, and his experience with live theater played a crucial role in the film. Special effects were much less sophisticated then, of course, and a lot of what was possible was too expensive, especially for a film industry just coming out of a devastating war. Even shooting the film in color would have been too costly. So Cocteau brought the film's fantasy and magic to life the old-fashioned way: costumes, makeup, and simple camera tricks. The Beast's lavish home has living statues that are quite obviously actors in makeup; the obviousness of the effect -- the fact that they don't look entirely real -- is part of the movie's dreamlike charm. And the film is rife with that kind of stuff, in addition to sleight-of-hand tricks and misdirection. The overall effect is supremely vivid and surreal.
The movie: It bears a lot more resemblance to the original story than to the animated Disney version, but you probably already know the gist of it. Belle takes her father's place as hostage of a hideous beast who lives in an enchanted fortress, and grows to love the monster.
What it influenced: The Disney team freely adapted the original story to suit their needs, but they did pay homage to Cocteau in one significant way: the look of the Beast. They also took Cocteau's idea of talking doors and food that magically serves itself a step further, giving the sentient inanimate objects actual voices and personalities. In Cocteau's version, the hallways are lined with candles held by human arms coming out of the walls; rather eerily, details like that are never explained. (Those arm candleholders show up in the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera and HBO's Angels in America, by the way.)
You can also see Cocteau's whimsical, imaginative visual style reflected in the films of Tim Burton, Michel Gondry, and Terry Gilliam, to name a few.
Further reading: Even before you watch the film, you should read Richard Misek's biographical essay about Cocteau from Sense of Cinema. It's a succinct, very readable overview of Cocteau's life and work. For that matter, you can go right to the source and read Cocteau himself explaining why he made the film.
Mark Bourne's review of the Criterion DVD release of Beauty and the Beast is a smart analysis of the movie itself, as is Roger Ebert's essay. You might also enjoy Bosley Crowther's rave review from a 1947 issue of The New York Times.