This 1908 film was screened -- after a fashion -- in October 2006 at the Cinema Muto festival in Sacile, Italy, which I attended. The earliest known published version of 'The Beauty and the Beast' dates from the early 18th century, but it may well be a traditional folk legend which dates back even centuries earlier. The story has been filmed many times: this 1908 French production was at least the second version by the Pathé studio (aye, a remake even in 1908!), and there had been at least two earlier Anglophone versions: one American, one British.
By general consensus, the best and most popular film version to date is (sorry, Disney!) the 1946 French production by Jean Cocteau. In that version, the servants of the enchanted Beast are forced to share his enchantment, becoming the walls and furnishings of his castle. There is a moody and haunted quality to those stark faces, staring out of the mouldings of Cocteau's sets.
I was very intrigued to see that some of the (literal) 'furniture' of Cocteau's version has now become absorbed into the general myth of 'Beauty and the Beast'. In later versions -- including the Disney animation, and a television version for Shelley Duvall's 'Faerie Tale Theatre' -- we see such touches as human arms protruding from the castle walls clutching braziers, and living candlesticks and animated teapots. All of these are now a standard part of the traditional story, but they were originally (I'd assumed) Cocteau's innovations. After seeing this 1908 film, I wonder.
In June 2006, an original nitrate print of this 'lost' 1908 movie was discovered at the bottom of a crate of movies from the 1940s. Because all the other prints in the crate were much more recent, nobody had realised that some urgent preservation was required here. By the time this print came to the surface and was recognised for what it was, it mostly wasn't: much of the nitrate stock had deteriorated beyond redemption. The loss is even more regrettable because this print was originally stencil-coloured in the delicate tinting process developed by Lobster Films of Paris ... so, in addition to losing the film, we also lose the beautiful colours of its images.
Fortunately, a brief fragment from the beginning of the reel (about four minutes at 18 fps; barely more than one-third of the total) has survived, and this was shown at Sacile. What I saw here is so similar in ambiance and mise-en-scene to the Cocteau film, that I now wonder if Jean Cocteau had seen this movie (presumably from an intact print) or any other silent versions of this classic story. Is it possible that the human candlesticks, and Cocteau's other innovations, were not in fact his creations at all?
I can only hope that a better print of this 1908 movie -- a masterpiece, by the look of it -- will turn up someplace, so that I can tell for certain. As I've seen only a fragment of this movie -- a fragment from the beginning, before the magic begins -- I shan't give it a rating. However, I notice that (as of October 2007) five IMDb viewers have rated this movie, so perhaps there's a print out there which they've seen and I haven't.
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