Monday, April 15, 2013


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is certainly an odd final film in the career of director Edward L. Cahn, who died the year after the movie debuted.  Today Cahn is best remembered for ten metaphenomenal films he directed, beginning with 1955's CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.  Some of these films, like BRAIN, are no better than decent potboilers, while others, like THE SHE CREATURE and CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, displays a surprising level of mythic complexity.  Given that Cahn's fantasy-films are far more outnumbered by his crime and western movies-- suggesting that he had no special attachment to fantastic genres-- I'll hypothesize that Cahn's better metaphenomenal movies came out of the luck of the draw. That is, when he got hold of a solid script, he did a good job with it.  When he got a routine script, he gave it a routine treatment. 

As I have no info on the origins of the 1962 BEAST project, I'm going to hypothesize that it was a writer-driven project: that Cahn simply happened to get the assignment to direct the film because he was able to deliver low-budget pictures on schedule.  BEAST shows no kinship with Cahn's 1950s "creature features," the last of which was 1959's FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE.  In between SKULLS and BEAST, Cahn directed an amazing *twenty-three* non-fantasy films in the next three years before finishing out his career with this story of a prince seeking to escape a curse in a fairy-tale medieval kingdom in Italy.  BEAST is like nothing Cahn had directed before.

However, the two credited writers of the BEAST screenplay have more relevant resumes.  George Bruce, the older of the two writers by about 15 years, shows by his credits a penchant for swashbuckling romance films, in that he started on high-profile Hollywood films like THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK but later gravitated to lower-budget B-actioners like ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST and MASK OF THE AVENGER. Interestingly, BEAST is one of the last films for which Bruce is credited, though he lived until 1974. Bruce had almost no metaphenomenal credits to his name, apart from swashbucklers with uncanny elements.  In contrast, his collaborator Orville H. Hampton-- who had worked with Cahn on FOUR SKULLS-- included fantasy-works in his resume from his earliest years (ROCKETSHIP X-M in 1950) to several episodes of TV-shows like FANTASY ISLAND and SUPER FRIENDS in the late 1970s.  I can imagine the two of them putting together the script for BEAST by drawing on their talents for swashbuckling and B-horror respectively.  I can even suppose that they may have concocted the script to take advantage of the minor vogue for magical fantasy-movies throughout the late fifties and early sixties-- one of which Hampton co-scripted: JACK THE GIANT KILLER.

The Cahn BEAST only takes two elements from the classic fairy tale: a prince is cursed to become a beast-man by a supernatural agency, and his only hope for redemption stems from the love of a woman.  However, early versions of the fairy tale stress two other elements that the Cahn film does not: (1) the prince earns his curse by his own bad actions, and (2) the story as a whole stresses the process by which the "beauty" slowly becomes accustomed to the beast's aggressive behavior and eventually falls in love with the accursed lordling.

The script dispenses with both of these elements.  There is no gradual forging of love between beauty and beast, for here the couple, Eduardo and Althea, have known each other since childhood and have fallen in love prior to the curse's manifestation.  Althea has a rough moment when she first sees Eduardo transformed into a werewolf-like creature, courtesy of makeup by famed expert Jack Pierce.  But after that, she still plights her troth to the Prince Who Looks Like a Beast.  It's Althea's continued love for the normal Eduardo, not her love of the soul she discovers beneath a beastly exterior, that brings about the dissolution of the curse.  Moreover, even when Eduardo becomes a werewolf, his faithful retainers simply keep him locked up. Eduardo doesn't show the traditional wolfman's lust for blood; clearly the peril here is one less befitting a horror-film than a swashbuckler, for Eduardo will loose the throne if his malady is revealed to his kingdom.

Other elements seem borrowed less from the original tale than from bits and pieces of Shakespeare's HAMLET and Hawthorne's HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES-- both of which deal with descendants suffering for the sins of a previous generation.  Eduardo's curse comes about because of the actions of his father the previous king, who is dead as the film begins.  King Francisco became convinced that a certain wizard possessed the power to change base metals into gold.   When the wizard did not reveal his secrets, the king consigned him to a dungeon, where the wizard died-- much as sorcerer Matthew Maule dies in HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, at the hand of an ancestral persecutor.  Just as Hawthorne's sorcerer curses the descendants of his murderer, the alchemist Scarlatti-- whose name is a rough sound-alike for the title of another famed Hawthorne book, by the way-- curses Francisco's heir apparent.

Both king and wizard are dead as the film begins, but in their place Eduardo has Orsini, an evil uncle hanging around and sending forth his pawns to learn Eduardo's secret, so that Orsini can usurp the throne. Of course evil usurping uncles had appeared in many romances over the years, so the writers need not have had HAMLET consciously in mind.  Still, I invoke the HAMLET model simply because Orsini functions as a negative father-image, just as Claudius is to Hamlet in the Shakespeare play. For that matter, even Eduardo's actual father is known to viewers only for an evil act.  Even the deceased Scarlatti comes off better than either Orsini or Francisco.  Though the wizard leaves behind a curse on an innocent prince, Scarlatti also bequeathes the means to counter the curse on the walls of his dungeon.  Only thanks to this deathbed generosity do Eduardo and his retainers learn that Althea's love can dispel the curse. 

However, Orsini's stooges learn this fact as well, and they attempt to remove the cure by killing Althea.  Eduardo, roaming the castle in beast-form, comes across the thugs trying to kill his beloved, and drives them off with some very restrained werewolf-violence.  (Was Cahn avoiding bloodletting because he aimed the film at young audiences, or just for cost-cutting reasons?  The world will never know.)  Eduardo's retainers then interpret Scarlatti's bequest to mean that the curse will be broken if the betrothed couple can be married.  Orsini manages to thwart this ploy by rousing the nearby townspeople against the prince with rumors of witchcraft.  And when the usual "torch-and-pitchfork" villagers roust out the prince, and witness his transformation into a beast-creature, the rumors of witchcraft seem confirmed.  However, Althea finally gets her moment in the sun, as she pledges her troth to Eduardo before the eyes of the gawking crowd-- and it is this unequivocal pledge, rather than marriage, that happily reverses the curse.

Though BEAST has its workmanlike aspects-- not only in the direction, but also the acting and the script-- there are some moments of interest here.  While for some popular films witches and warlocks were automatically cast as evil boogeymen, it's clear that the late Scarlatti is victimized by a greedy monarch.  Orsini essentially duplicates his brother's evildoing when he incites the villagers to violence by playing on their fears of witchcraft.  This minor theme blends well with the essential theme of the "Beauty and the Beast" tale, regarding the imperative to judge other people less on appearance than on behavior.  At the same time, it's true that this BEAST barely has a "beauty" in it, and the real concern seems to be not "man-woman" relationships but the ever popular "daddy issues," which serve to project all evil upon the prince's relations and exonerate beastly Eduardo from any evil in his own heart.

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