Jean Cocteau realized that fairy stories are really much too good to be left entirely up to the wretched treatment they receive from story-book writers. So, striking a blow for the adult world, he made Beauty And The Beast. And after the first half hour of sustained suspense, horror and weird doings, it is obvious that the basic material is not fit for juvenile consumption, it's too scary.
The picture's frantic and continued pitch is actually the only factor that at times edges Beauty beyond the point of excellence into the realm of excess. Josette Day's performance as Beauty scores the danger larking in an overdose of horror. The plot demands that the heroinc ignore self-opening doors, living statuary and arms that project through the wall to hold candelabra. Furthermore, she must recognize the pure soul of the Beast shining through a hair-matted body and lighting a vaguely feline and totally grotesque face (superb make-up, this). Well, the actress does not live who can convince me that she has really learned to live with a monster and to regard his terrifying chateau with its mobile furnishing as her very own. Miss Day try to act as though they were perfectly normal accouterments to fairy rale living. The result is that she seems singularly blase for one whose innocence is so highly touted.
Despite the slight dissatisfaction caused by the paling of Beauty's more spectacular effects, it remains an excellent picture, and a young classic. Like many of his fellow European directors, Cocteau dominates his work. Since, almost by tradition, fairy tales are short on precise or involved characterization, Cocteau could not rely on sympathy to hold the audience's interest on the mystic proceedings. Nevertheless, he grips, and almost strangles each viewer's attention. Nor does he just exploit weird effects. Cocteau's directional touches such as camera angles and positions, lighting and movement of the actors are things that would vastly improve even the most chewed-over plot.
What Cocteau allowed to become trick photography in Orpheus he kept as normal-if extraordinarily clever-direction in Beauty. Working with Miss Day, and with Jean Marais as the Beast, the director made an elementary and familiar plot into a small triumph of mood and attitude: a fairy tale for the bigger kids.