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Disney Cartoon #55, Beauty and the Beast Week: One Story, Three Interpretations (October 29, 1946 / September 25, 1987 / November 22, 1991) - published January 21, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Prologue: Tales as Old as Time

The story of "Beauty and the Beast" has been told and retold many times and in many forms. The most well-known contemporary version for audiences today often stem from Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's story, originally published in 1756 and itself adapted from a version written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. This tale would be translated in film and television many times over, although there are three productions that notably stand out among all others: Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, Ron Koslow's "Beauty and the Beast," and Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

I treasure all three versions of the tale, as each one approaches characters and concepts in their own unique ways. Since Disney's Beauty and the Beast has been re-released to theatres in 3-D, we'll take a look at three special aspects of all three versions: the curse of the Beast, the characterization of Belle, and the music. The curse is used more traditionally in the Cocteau and Disney versions, while the television series offers a very different interpretation. Within the character of Belle, we see how she stands out as a figure who takes action or is a mystery. And finally, each version uses music in their own way, although for me one clearly stands out as the best.

Act One: Thrice Upon a Time

1946's La Belle et la Bete, directed by French poet/novelist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, featured Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais, who played not only Beast and Prince Ardent but also the Belle's suitor Avenant. This would be the first version of the "Beauty and the Beast" to feature a rival suitor. Upon watching the film, the one and only Greta Garbo was so taken by the Beast that when he transformed into the human Prince Ardent, she proclaimed, "Give me back my beast!" Cocteau's film was focused on creating a semi-realistic fantasy; the effects seen within the Beast's castle must appear both plausible and magical at the same time. Cocteau's film remains the definitive version for many, so much so that a 1984 episode of "Faerie Tale Theatre" liberally borrows many elements from the film, right down to the handheld candelabras and Belle's peasant clothes.

"Faerie Tale Theatre" was not the only place television viewers could find "Beauty and the Beast." In the fall of 1987, CBS premiered a new series created by Ron Koslow. His version of "Beauty and the Beast" was set in New York City and focused on a lawyer, Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton), and her gentle man-beast, Vincent (Ron Perlman). While Catherine lived a life in the world above, Vincent and many others resided in the tunnels below, a community headed by former surgeon Jacob Wells (Roy Dotrice), whom everyone called Father. This contemporary adaptation blended the fantasy of the fairy tale with modern-day detective drama, a popular genre of 1980's television. Unfortunately, Linda Hamilton decided to leave the series, exiting early on during the third and final season.

Koslow's version of "Beauty and the Beast" ended in 1990, a year before Disney released their critically-acclaimed animated feature film. Walt Disney himself dabbled with the story in the 1930s and 1950s, although neither attempts came to fruition as an animated film. By the 1980s, the studio decided to revisit the project. Beauty and the Beast began pre-production in 1988 as a non-musical drama set in a Victorian-era France, to be directed by Richard Purdum. By late 1989, the success of The Little Mermaid led Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to reject the story reels for the non-musical version. He asked the production team to restart from scratch, this time including musical numbers written by Mermaid's Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The November 1991 deadline would not be changed, resulting in only two years (rather than the traditional four) to make the remounted film. As a result, Richard Purdum left the project, replaced by Epcot Center's Cranium Command directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. In those two years, the filmmakers still managed to create one of the greatest films in the studio's history.

Act Two: Her World, A World Apart from Mine

In both the Cocteau and Disney films, magic is used to curse the prince, but for different reasons. Cocteau's film sees Prince Ardent turned into a beast because he did not believe in magic. Disney has the prince (henceforth known by his unofficial moniker of Adam) cursed because he refused to help an old beggar woman. In both curses, the only way for it to be broken is by the love of another. The transformations for both Prince Ardent and Prince Adam also signify a return to normalcy, both physically and socially. Beneath the beastly exteriors emerged true gentlemen, indicative of the belief that there is always the inherent good within a person, simply waiting to be discovered.

The transformation, while always amazing to behold in both films, sometimes can be jarring for the audience when completed. In Cocteau's film, the statue shoots an arrow into Avenant, who himself transforms into Beast. At the same time, Beast has transformed back into Prince Ardent. Jean Marais played all three characters, so it is quite jarring to see Marais as Ardent emerge mere seconds after he was seen as the loathsome Avenant. Would the audience root for Ardent and Belle to fly away together if they spent much of the movie falling in love with Beast and hating Avenant? It's no wonder Greta Garbo cried out for the return of the beast. Fortunately, the Disney film does not take that route and instead gives Prince Adam a very different look from Gaston. His human form is still a stranger to us, but immediately we see he is someone we can trust to love and take care of Belle.

As mentioned in my Animated Sequence Analysis of Robin Hood, it is all in the eyes. Belle and the audience recognized that Adam and the Beast were one and the same when he looked directly at her and the camera. There was an amazing level of love, slight bewilderment, and gratitude in his eyes. He is the same Beast that loved Belle, but also the Prince Adam who's surprised at the transformation, and most importantly, both halves of the whole, thankful that he has come full circle. There is a much greater believability that Beast and Prince Adam are one and the same, as opposed to Cocteau's version, where Prince Ardent is something of a disappointment.

After seeing the supernatural nature of curses as told by Cocteau and Disney, we look to how the idea of "curse" is done in the television series. Koslow wisely kept the entire series grounded in reality, even amidst some extraordinary ideas (the Tunnel People, Vincent and Catherine's psychic connection, etc.). Vincent is not a human who later is transformed. Instead, he is a human born to look like a lion. It is a mutation, or even an evolution. Regardless which explanation audiences choose to believe in, his physical appearance is something he's dealt with all his life. Thus, his lion-like features is not punishment, but a natural way of life for him. Among the people in the tunnel, Vincent is well-respected and loved. He has no curse to speak of.

If we look at where the curse truly lies, it is not in the physical form of Vincent, but in the circumstance between him and Catherine. Every episode begins with opening narration by both, which spell out perfectly why they are cursed, bold emphasis is mine:

Vincent: This is where the wealthy and the powerful rule. It is her world... a world apart from mine. Her name is Catherine. From the moment I saw her, she captured my heart with her beauty, her warmth, and her courage. I knew then, as I know now, she would change my life forever.

Catherine Chandler: He comes from a secret place, far below the city streets, hiding his face from strangers, safe from hate and harm. He brought me there to save my life; and now, wherever I go, he is with me, in spirit. For we have a bond stronger than friendship or love. And although we cannot be together, we will never, ever be apart.

Catherine and Vincent's relationship relies mainly upon secrecy on Catherine's part, and stealth for Vincent. He knows he can never be openly seen in public with her, their only visits together are at night. For Catherine, the relationship has an extra strain as she has to continue to maintain the life she knows "above," even though she is now forever connected to the world of the tunnels "below." Several episodes directly deal with Catherine's struggle to balance the worlds, as she wants desperately to be with Vincent, but cannot fully sever her ties with the world she knows. The curse affects both, and unlike with Cocteau and Disney, there is no way to truly break it. However, both are still grateful for any time they can spend together, as seen in this exchange of dialogue from Episode 10, "A Children's Story":

Vincent: When I see you, Catherine, I'm filled with a happiness sweeter than anything I've ever known. At the same time, I'm reminded of a life that can never be. I feel great pain.

Catherine: So do I. Vincent, what will we do?

Vincent: The only thing we can do. Endure the pain and savor every moment of the joy.

Act Three: A Belle By Any Other Name

Catherine's struggles with her "above" life and her "below" love helped to characterize her as one of the more headstrong Belles depicted. She began the series as a socialite and lawyer, who enjoyed high-class society and took on cushy cases. However, when she is beaten and left for dead, Vincent saves her and nurses her back to health. Upon returning to the world above, Catherine leaves her comfortable position in her father's company and works for the District Attorney. She has a newfound appreciation for life, and a newfound concern for the less fortunate. This makes Catherine, in my opinion, the best Belle of them all. Then again, she had the benefit of a weekly series to help develop her character. Josette Day and Paige O'Hara's Belles only had 90 minutes.

Paige O'Hara's Belle came a year after the "Beauty and the Beast" series ended, and her character contains a very sassy personality that sometimes emulated Catherine Chandler. Both Belle and Catherine were headstrong women who never let a man dictate her decisions or future. But Belle took one step further than Catherine. She fully embraced the other world, while Catherine was continually caught between two worlds. Belle's desires were spelled out so clearly in her reprise, she did indeed get an "adventure in the great wide somewhere." Granted, the only reason she got that adventure was to save her father. But it showed how far Belle was willing to go in two ways. She saved her father, showing a level of selflessness that the Beast was not anticipating. But she also saved herself, as the town and culture she was presently living in showed a very restrictive complacency and ignorance to the new ideas and innoventions that her and her father brought. It's admirable of Belle to become a prisoner, but also quite gutsy of her to do so simply to experience something new in her life.

Like Disney's Belle, Josette Day's Belle went to the castle to save her father. But beyond that, she is still quite an enigma to me. She embodies many of the passive qualities of Belle in the original tale. She is a young woman with little concerns for material possessions, and would remain steadfast by her father of Beast's side out of her own inherent loyalty and obligation to both. Yet there's also a very apparent mystery to her. We learn very little of why she is how she is. Instead, Belle signifies all the qualities in Beast that he needs to be transformed, thus showing why the two are meant to be together. At the same time, she sometimes appears superior to Beast, he occasionally takes on a more animalistic and petlike role to her. But by the end of the film, Belle is still nothing more than an archetype. And honestly, that's all that she needs to be. She's the model and the reference that future Belles would follow and embody, even with their own unique traits thrown in. We see it in Catherine Chandler and we see it in Disney's Belle. Thus, in the absence of a clearly-defined role, Josette Day's Belle becomes the definitive version.

Act Four: Music is Better Than Words

Music may seem an odd topic for comparison in the three versions of "Beauty and the Beast," but it plays a very important role. Each version uses music differently, which help to establish what type of film/series it is. Within Cocteau's film, the music is lush and hypnotic. There are no clearly-defined "themes," and instead, the music is weaved throughout the movie in such a way that is present, but not always in the forefront. Thus, the entire film becomes almost dreamlike, with music accenting moments that are particularly lucid and memorable. I haven't watched the Cocteau film enough times to offer fuller analysis of the music, but in re-watching key sequences, you can sense that music acts as commentator at times. Fortunately, it is not the predictable style that directly tells an audience, "We're playing sad-like music, so you should feel sad." Instead, the music serves as its own character, feeling sad or joyous or scared, and thus transferring those feelings to the audience as well.

The "Beauty and the Beast" television series also uses music as a character. The theme song has a singular oboe starting off, gradually adding in strings, and then it's a complete orchestra playing some very beautiful and sweeping notes. Episodes regularly use the orchestral score, with recurring themes that signify the different emotions of a scene as well. Unfortunately, being a product of the 80's, there is also a fair amount of synthesized music as well. I can't fault the production team for it, after all, they likely never expected synthesizers to sound so dated a mere ten years later. It fits well with the 80's styles and culture of the episodes' production, but also seems very jarring when the next scene has an orchestral cue. Watching an episode sometimes feels unbalanced, since we get the timelessness of an orchestra converging with the dated sound of the synthesizer.

Fortunately, there's nothing really dated about the music in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Ashman and Menken's score and songs blend perfectly together, carrying on the Broadway tradition while paving way for the "new" kind of Disney Animated Classic. In the past, Disney's animated films used music more as incidental moments or ways to further a story. When Ashman and Menken came aboard with The Little Mermaid, they turned music into a much more active player. Sure, we may have had the jolly and politically-incorrect "What Makes The Red Man Red?" in Peter Pan, but Maleficent never had a villain song in Sleeping Beauty. Here comes both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, offering a one-two punch that gave villains their own moments in the singing spotlight, background characters now had to dance instead of just stand stationary, and the audience would watch with bated breath while the heroines performed their "I Want" songs.

Beauty and the Beast used music to enhance and celebrate the story. We didn't need a splashy number when Belle comes down for dinner late at night, yet the Enchanted Objects still ask her to "Be Our Guest." I'm sure Gaston could rile up the villagers without having them harmonize and hold notes in "The Mob Song." Then again, 50 Frenchmen can't be wrong, so maybe singing as they marched to a castle (that they had never been to before) made sense. However, for me the heart of Beauty and the Beast's music lies in the moments that don't need to break out into song. There's a jolly little ditty that plays as Maurice is traveling, it gradually becomes ominous as the day progresses. During the porridge scene, Beast attempts to use a spoon for the first time and Belle compromises by lifting her own bowl up to drink. The entire scene plays out without any dialogue at all, and the music reflects each character's feelings. And then there are the lilting notes on the strings when Beast lay dying, followed by the woodwinds during the transformation. The music in Beauty and the Beast is one of the film's biggest strengths, and certainly the best of the three versions discussed here.

Act Five: Bringing Beauty and the Beast Home

As a child, I firmly believed that Beauty and the Beast began and ended with Belle, Prince Adam, Maurice, Gaston, and little Chip. It was the version I was most familiar with, since I was only five years old when the television series ended. Most of my recollections of actual episodes were vague and spotty. It was not until high school - when I joyously discovered Hallmark Channel rerunning the series at midnight - that I rekindled my love affair with Catherine and Vincent. I had often heard good things about Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, but had not seen it until 2007. Watching the film literally felt like I was within a dream. Cocteau managed to create a whole new world that redefined everything I thought I knew about "Beauty and the Beast." The film eventually became my gateway into international cinema, an area of film I had only dabbled in with well-known staples like Cinema Paradiso and Kieslowski's Three Colours Trilogy. Now, I count Cocteau as one of my favorite directors and La Belle et la Bete as one of my favorite films of all time.

Still, the bulk of my Beauty and the Beast exposure came from Disney's 1991 animated musical. Disney has always made the home media releases an event, and the film saw wide release on VHS and Laserdisc in 1992, followed by VHS and DVD in 2002, and DVD and Blu-Ray in 2010. Each edition contains a host of extras that help provide better appreciation and understanding of the making of the film. With the television series, I had recorded a few favorite episodes on VHS, but didn't get a chance to revisit the majority of the series again until it came to DVD in 2007 and 2008. Each season set retails for $22.99, and Paramount later released all three in one singular box set. I first saw the Cocteau film on Turner Classic Movies, but eventually bought the Criterion Collection DVD, originally released in 2003 and still available today. Criterion later re-released the film in Blu-Ray format last year, containing the same extras as the DVD but with a new high-definition transfer.

Epilogue: A Memory

I never really knew how often I watched Beauty and the Beast until I was standing in line for the check-in process of my 2005 Walt Disney World College Program. It was a half-day affair, taking up most of the morning and a bit of the afternoon, and involved standing in various lines and filling out various forms. One of the lines I stood in featured Beauty and the Beast playing on a television in the corner of the room. The television was on mute, but even without the audio I immediately knew what the characters were saying, how the music sounded, etc. I ended up talking to someone in line about it, and we proceeded to literally voice the characters ourselves, doing the same mannerisms and intonations. This went on for a good ten minutes - I was surprised how well both of us knew the dialogue by heart - but we had to part ways eventually as we both reached the front of the line.

It wasn't until I began writing this article that I realized just how much the "Beauty and the Beast" story has been a part of my life. I don't think any other fairy tale or Disney film, has ever made as much an impact on me. All the versions I've discussed this week are definitely tales as old as time, and each one is definitely worth viewing at least once in your life.

 

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