• On the Making of Beauty and the Beast

    By Francis Steegmuller

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    An excerpt from Cocteau: A Biography (1970) by Francis Steegmuller

    Beauty and the Beast, the first film of Cocteau’s own since The Blood of a Poet, and his finest poem since then, is by general consent one of the most enchanting pictures ever made, and its production was one of those undertakings that, with a kind of general benevolence, shed luster on all its participants. It brought new accolades to Mme Leprince de Beaumont, the eighteenth-century author of the fairy tale. Jean Marais had suggested the film; for him, his face masked by the fur and the fangs of the Beast, his body padded and swathed in velvet, his hands made into claws, it was his triumph of acting over physique. Lovely Josette Day played Beauty, the good country girl, with an intelligence and a dancer’s grace that Cocteau praised without reserve; and she, the actresses who play her wicked sisters, and the rest of the cast are outstanding in the way they speak, move, wear their clothes, and form tableaux à la Vermeer and Le Nain. The Gustave Doré sumptuousness of Christian Bérard’s costumes and decor is reminiscent, not in style but in spirit and success, of Bakst’s lavishness in ballet. In Bérard, Cocteau had found a new fellow master of fantasy, an antimodern, neobaroque successor to the Picasso of Parade; and the high style of his famous perspective of human arms emerging from draperies to grasp lighted candelabras that materialize in the air, the moving eyes of his dusky, smoke-breathing caryatids, his pair of Louis XIV marble busts of Turks, lend fantastic cinema a nobility that had been previously hinted at—one can only mention the earlier films again—in The Blood of a Poet. Henri Alekan gave the photography the tone Cocteau wanted, the “soft gleam of hand-polished old silver,” particularly exquisite in the swaying sheer white curtains, in Beauty’s tear that turns into a pearl. The most haunting feature is Marais’ Beast mask, a remarkable creation, so appealingly beastlike as to be more “becoming” than his lover’s-postcard transfiguration as Prince Charming at the end of the film. In his autobiography, Marais talks about it:

    For my mask, we went to Pontet, an elderly gentleman, a real genius, one of those men who make you realize that one can be passionately in love with one’s work whatever it may be. He devoted a great deal of thought to how the mask could be given the look of my own face and not interfere with its mobility. He made a cast and worked on it endlessly. I often went to see him with Moulouk, and the dog taught us things: the unevenness and shagginess and spottiness of the fur that make it seem so alive are due to Moulouk. M. Pontet made my mask like a wig, hair on a webbing base, but in three parts—one down to the eyes, a second as far as the upper lip, and the third to the base of the neck . . . It took me five hours to make up—that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes, I scarcely dared open my mouth, lest the makeup become unglued; no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

    “In my opinion,” wrote Cocteau, “one must have Marais’ passion for his work and his devotion to his dog to persevere as he did in deserting the human race for the animal race.”

    The idea of the film was hard to sell to a producer, and although it became a professional and commercial undertaking, with well-paid stars, jealous unions, watchful insurance companies, and budgeted financing by Gaumont, Beauty and the Beast nevertheless represented a triumph over primary difficulties. Like most of the combatant countries, France emerged from the war stripped; Cocteau himself was receiving food packages from Jean-Pierre Aumont in California, and when he fell ill, he was treated with American penicillin; everything was in short supply. Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set. There were the usual Coctelian coincidences and contradictions. In the manor outside Tours used as Beauty’s house was found a disc of Cocteau reading his poems; as a setting, the place was perfect—but it was near a military airfield, and though the goodwill of the commanding colonel was secured, he proved forgetful or a poor disciplinarian, and training flights constantly interfered with sound recording. The Château de Raray, near Senlis, used for exterior shots of the Beast’s castle, had “the most bizarre park in France,” with a fantastic sculptured stone procession of hunting dogs silhouetted against the sky, atop a high parapet; that made it, too, an appropriate setting—but there in the north, rain was incessant. (And local children, come to watch the filming, ran off terrified as the Beast emerged from bushes.) Just when the carcass of a deer was needed, the Paris wholesale game markets went on strike. Most of the cast was accident prone. Cocteau, scourged by his post-occupation eczema, so disfigured that for a time he wore “a veil made of black paper, fastened to the brim of his hat with clothespins, with holes for his eyes and mouth,” developed jaundice, and filming was interrupted while he was hospitalized in the Institut Pasteur. The journal he kept during the filming, the predecessor of many later blow-by-blow accounts of the making of movies, and unique in being the work of the artist-moviemaker himself, swarms with the names of doctors. (The maddening irritation of the skin disease was one of the reasons Cocteau returned to opium for a time in 1946–47. On January 23, 1947, the newspaper Franc-Tireur published his photograph—one of his few unposed pictures—amid a group of addicts summoned to the Palais de Justice. In later years, Cocteau seems to have smoked with moderation, when at all.)

    The filming of Beauty and the Beast brought Cocteau an enchantment reminiscent of his days with the Diaghilev troupe, the sensation of being part of a hardworking family of sacred monsters; moving from manor to château to Paris film studio, they were like mountebanks; Cocteau’s journal celebrates the camaraderie and goodwill of the company—the actors’ professional tolerance of each other’s crises de nerfs, their busy shuttling between the film studio and the legitimate theaters where some of them were simultaneously appearing in plays, the combination of familiarity and respect shown by the grips, their never-failing improvisation when rescue was needed, the studio sweepers’ praise after the first rushes, the Vouvray wine with the picnic meals, cast and crew playing cards during rests, Marais hilariously plunging clothed into a fountain one midnight, celebrating with the people of Tours the first anniversary of their liberation. “I wonder,” Cocteau wrote, “whether these days of hard work aren’t the most delicious of my life. Full of friendship, affectionate disagreement, laughter, profiting from every moment.” The breakup was sentimental. “We shall be working tonight. The last night. I know nothing sadder than the end of a film, the dissolution of a team that has developed ties of affection.”

    After cutting, after the synchronization of Auric’s music—Auric was the only veteran of The Blood of a Poet to collaborate on Beauty and the Beast—the first showing of the film for an audience of any size was for the technicians in the Joinville studio. The invitation was written on the studio blackboard; schedules were changed to leave everyone free. “The welcome the picture received from that audience of workers was unforgettable. It was my greatest reward. Whatever happens, nothing will ever equal the grace of that ceremony organized, very simply, by a little village of workmen whose trade is the packaging of dreams.” That night, the journal ends: “Afterward, at ten, I had dinner at the Palais-Royal with Bérard, Boris, Auric, Jean Marais, Claude Ibéria (the editor of the film), and we promised each other to work together always. May fate never separate us.”

1 comment

  • By Dave
    February 19, 2011
    11:05 AM

    Going to see this tonight at the Paramount screening room down the street from the Hyatt. How I missed this while going to Columbia is a mystery. Probably stuck watching Potemkin in that hot screening room falling asleep way too may times!
    Reply