The Cinema Behind ‘Beauty and the Beast’

One might look at 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and wonder what film history is in its DNA besides the obvious. On the surface, it’s merely a remake of Disney’s 1991 animated musical adaptation of the fairy tale, but the new Beauty and the Beast finds itself inspired by many films — including other versions of the same story.

The 1946 French version of Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau lends the conceit of a magical object that can transport Belle anywhere. In the 1946 telling of the tale, it was a glove, but this latest version is a book with a map that whisks Belle to the place of her heart’s desire.

As a musical, it takes more than a few cues from the work of Busby Berkeley. Berkeley was a renowned film director and choreographer who was responsible for the most striking aspects of films like Footlight Parade (1933) and The Gold Diggers of 1933. He was known for the kaleidoscopic patterns and fantastical elements in dance numbers that are referenced heavily in the “Be Our Guest” sequence of Beauty and the Beast. The living dishes of the castle couldn’t get more fantastical as they sing and dance their way through Belle’s first dinner.

Busby Berkeley wasn’t the only famous choreographer whose work in referenced in that “Be Our Guest” sequence. Lumiere has a moment that’s pure Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, kicking through a puddle of water with the same irresistible glee that Kelly brought to that film’s title number.

Beauty and the Beast’s director, Bill Condon, is no stranger to crafting musicals himself, nor to adapting them from previously existing material. He wrote the screenplay adaptation of 2002’s Chicago and he wrote and directed 2006’s Dreamgirls. Both films feature characters yearning and reaching (sometimes killing) for something different from their lives, and that can be seen in Belle’s first musical number.

The most interesting tie to this version of Beauty and the Beast threads deeply into 1931’s Frankenstein. It was this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel that created nearly every stereotypical image we have of Frankenstein, including the motif of the mob approaching the monster with torches and pitchforks. Beauty and the Beast relies heavily on that imagery, most strikingly in the musical number that hinges on Gaston rallying townspeople to “Kill the Beast.”

But the connections don’t end there. Frankenstein was directed by James Whale, who was openly gay. Whale’s story caught the attention of Condon (also gay), who in 1998 wrote and directed a biopic called Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen — Beauty and the Beast’s Cogsworth — as Whale. In the film, set in the early days of his retirement, Whale is recovering from a series of strokes and strikes up a friendship with his handsome young gardener, played by Brendan Fraser. Gods and Monsters’ theme of unrequited love is a subtext in Beauty and the Beast, too, not just between the Beast and Belle but also, in Condon’s version, between LeFou and Gaston.

Ultimately, this film is a culmination of everything Bill Condon has made use of in his long career. Even his handling of love stories with wolves from Twilight come into play to make him the ideal, if unconventional, choice to direct something like Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast.

Bryan Young lives in an enchanted castle in Salt Lake City.