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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Korda's Thief & Cocteau's Beast
By Bob Wilson

Korda's Thief & Cocteau's Beast

   There may be universal agreement that Paris and San Francisco are everyone's favorite cities, but the best of friends can part ways if they start discussing favorite movies. Narrow the field down to preferred fantasies, however, and two titles will probably surface on which there's a meeting of minds: Jean Cocteau's 1946 Beauty and the Beast, and Alexander Korda's 1940 The Thief of Bagdad. They seem to reward revisiting to an unusual degree; at least, I have seen them so many times that I've lost count. Still my affection for them remains undiluted, even when repeated viewings (especially of the Korda picture) are reminders that an object of admiration may be flawed.

   There is another reason for considering and comparing these particular films: They are excellent examples of two different yet traditional approaches to that classic form of storytelling - the fairy tale.

   My definitions, for our purposes here: Myths and legends predate written history, direct their stories to adults, and imply an ancient reality, often with different physical laws than the present; fables anthropomorphize creatures for didactic purposes; fairy tales, utilizing extraordinary effects, are devised by adults for children, and attain cultural permanence to the extent that they reflect widely shared (perhaps unconscious) views of life.

   Initially, we absorb and enjoy fairy tales as children. Yet they retain a strong emotional attraction for us as adults, whether we admit it or not, with their visualizations of "everyday" lives affected by remote, usually malevolent, sources of power. This power is equated with the possession of "magic" - devices and techniques unknown or unavailable to the protagonists. In other words, the structure of fairy tales is based on a class-conflict situation: the ordinary individual versus a set of rules, imposed from "above", whose patterns are incomprehensible, arcane and immutable.

   For the child, fairy-tale villains - elves, magicians, ogres, giants and, of course, evil kings and queens - are grownups; the stories, as Bruno Bettelheim suggests, do not so much remove the child from reality as offer reassurance that, in time, the menace of others can be controlled or at least neutralized. In the true fairy tale (if I may establish a dictum) the protagonist is successful through action ... the "child" must go somewhere, or undertake some activity, that will provide a means of improving life, solving problems, re-establishing peace. This definition eliminates the Cinderella type of story, in which no one has to do anything - just wait for an outside force to put all in order with but a few momentary setbacks. As children grow up, their images of Santa Claus are converted into a concept of voluntary benevolence and sharing ("Yes, Virginia ..."), if only once a year, but who knows how many lives have been warped by the promise of a Fairy Godmother appearing, when life is blackest, to waft us from the below-stairs ashpit to the royal ballroom?

   No, the pure fairy tale, although it may promise material wealth at the end of the rainbow, presents an engaged protagonist actively seeking a solution to difficulties created by the "higher-ups" and their cryptic decrees. The conclusion involves magic - thereby differentiating this genre from adventure stories - and may consist of fight or flight. And now let's be specific.

   Its necessary first, I think, to rattle off some bare-bones background information on Beauty and the Beast and The Thief of Bagdad, and to synopsize their plots so we all have fresh recollections to consider.

   Film was never Jean Cocteau's primary interest, but there are some of us who feel this poet/playwright/painter was at his best in his three "fantastic" movies: Blood of a Poet (1930), Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus (1950). His other, realistic films bored me to tears; since they're not pertinent here anyway, I'm glad to pass them by. I'll also resist the temptation to digress into a comparison of the three pictures cited, or comment on how Orpheus' most celebrated statement ("Astonish us") has been consistently quoted out of context and thereby misinterpreted. To the matters at hand: Beauty and the Beast was photographed by Henri Alekan, well known for many French films, Topkapi, Lady L and the 1968 Mayerling remake; its music was by Cocteau's frequent collaborator, Georges Auric, also responsible for the score of John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge (lovely compositions bowdlerized by Percy Faith and other pop-music meddlers); and, as Cleve Canham once said in Audience, "... the makeup for the Beast, by Hagop Arakelian, is one of the masterful achievements of film." More production data on Beauty and the Beast are available in Cocteau's book Diary of a Film (Dover Press, 1972), so we can move on to a plot summary.

   Belle (I prefer the French) is one of a rural merchant's three daughters; as he leaves home to check on cargoes due at a distant port, the girls ask that he bring them presents from the city. Belle only wants a rose, "because they do not grow here." (Her sisters are no better than you'd expect, and request expensive stuff.) Returning on horseback from the port, where he learned that a storm wiped him out financially, the merchant stumbles into a forest and its magical castle. Mysteriously, food and wine are prepared for him, and he sleeps that night at the dining table. Leaving the next morning, he remembers Belle's plea, and plucks a rose from the castle garden. A terrifying monster appears, says that anything could have been taken except the flower, and demanding that the merchant, at a later date, return as prisoner to the castle. But when the time comes, it is Belle who goes, sacrificing herself for her father.

   Living in the castle, she finds her initial terror softening into a kind of wary sympathy for the Beast (who nightly appears and asks her to marry him). When she longs to return home, the Beast gives her a leave of absence, but states that if she does not keep the visit short, he will die. She intends to come back to him but, once at home again, gets suckered into sticking around and doing all the sisters' dirty work. Missing the monster more than she had thought possible, Belle finally wings it back to his castle and finds him, as he warned, dying. Meanwhile, her boyfriend and brother approach the castle with intent to kill the Beast and steal his wealth. They break in just as Belle, confessing love for the Beast and begging him to live, hears him say, "If I were human, I could do what you ask; but we poor beasts who want to show our love can only fall to the ground and die." At this moment, a statue of Diana comes to life - a not unusual thing in Cocteau movies - and sends an arrow through the heart of Belle's burglar boyfriend; as he dies, he assumes the Beast's countenance, and voila! the monster rises as a gorgeous prince (with the boyfriend's visage) before Belle's astonished eyes. She is not too sure she likes the transformation, but accepts it as she and the formerly enchanted prince fly off into the clouds.

   This has been, I know, a terribly bland recounting of an atmospheric, tricky and frequently wondrous film. Forgive me. But I just wanted to get some of this construction reminiscence out of the way. I'll do the same for the Korda picture, briefly as I can:

   I call The Thief of Bagdad a Korda film as the simplest way out of a production-credits mess. Work was underway in 1939, but was transferred to Hollywood in 1940 because of the war; some of the crew went along, some didn't, with the result that you can't completely trust the screen titles, any publication, or even Andrew Sarris for a precise docket of who did what. Completed in the U.S., the movie won some Academy Awards, but 59 years later people are still arguing over the accuracy of the record. Michael Powell is most frequently identified with direction of the film, but Tim Whelan, Ludwig Berger and Zoltan Korda are similarly credited. So I just slide out from under the weight of this debate, and refer to it as an Alexander Korda film, since he did produce it. There is less controversy in other departments: Lajos Biro and actor Miles Malleson wrote The Thief of Bagdad; Vincent Korda designed it, Miklos Rozsa scored it (some songs are excised in some prints, unfortunately); and the photography was by Georges Perinal (whose camera credits include Rene Clair's À Nous la Liberté and Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol) and Osmond Borradaile. Perinal had also been cinematographer on Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (neat little overlap for me there, eh?) and Cocteau had kind things to say, years later, for the photographer's inventiveness under difficult conditions. Special effects for The Thief of Bagdad were done by Lawrence Butler, Tom Howard and Johnny Mills, though only the first received Oscar recognition. Alright then, the narrative:

   A blind beggar and his dog are taken to the residence of a mysterious man. There, the beggar tells his story: he was once Prince in Bagdad, and the dog was a thieving boy. They met in prison: the boy was there for stealing, the Prince because he had let his wicked Vizier talk him into "going among your subjects" in disguise, whereupon the Vizier threw the "vagrant" in jail and took over the kingdom. Escaping, the prisoners reached a seaport where the Prince glimpsed a Princess; falling instantly in love, he delayed escape to dabble with her in her garden. The Princess, however, was lusted after by the Vizier who plied her father the king with magical toys, including a mechanical flying horse. When the Vizier caught the lovers trysting, he cast a spell which rendered the Prince blind and turned the thief into a dog. The spell will be in effect until the Vizier gets his hands on the Princess. End of flashback.

   Deprived of her beloved, the Princess fell into a coma, as such folk are wont to do from time to time, and only the presence of her boyfriend can awaken her. So it is the Vizier who has brought the "beggar" to his home, where the Princess slumbers on. When the lovers are placed in the same room, the Princess awakens, the Vizier carts her aboard his ship, the Prince and the dog are tossed out. As the villain finally embraces our heroine, that curse is released: the boy is human again, the Prince sighted. They set out in a small boat to pursue the Vizier, and this time he calls up a storm that swamps the dinghy and casts its occupants overboard. The thief ends up on a beach where he discovers a bottle with a genie inside. Freed, the genie is a big help to the boy ... up to a point.

   By the time the boy has stolen an "all-seeing eye" gem from an idol's head, his control over the genie lapses (it was based on that old three-wishes gimmick), and though the kid is reunited with the Prince in what appears to be Utah's Bryce Canyon, they are stranded and the reunion is short-lived. During a spat, the boy uses up his last wish sending Prince back to Princess (whose mind has been blown by the Vizier's "blue rose of forgetfulness"). Well, folks, as things now stand we have: Vizier about to marry Princess, Prince scheduled for beheading in a few minutes, Thief hanging onto a ledge in some Godforsaken chasm. But the boy angrily smashes the "all-seeing eye" and is suddenly in a desert where a tribe of oldsters, announce their liberation from the enchantment of the gem, greet the thief as their new leader. They also happen to possess a flying carpet and an enchanted crossbow; stealing these, the boy goes sailing into Bagdad, rescues the Prince and Princess, shoots down the Vizier (as he flaps away on the horse), and everything is hunky-dory. The boy, in the final scene, is made Vizier, but scuttles away on the carpet as everyone laughs.

   It was not these plots, with their deliberate familiarity, which enraptured audiences, but rather the allegories and productions. And in the case of Thief, production compensated for quite a few scripting difficulties. On the next page, by way of leading into what these movies were saying, take a look at how they said it.

   Although the success of Douglas Fairbanks' original Thief of Bagdad in 1923 inspired Korda's remake, the two versions are so dissimilar in style that comparisons are out of the question. Writers Biro and Malleson had to start practically from scratch - not only because they had color and sound at their disposal, but because they didn't have a hero figure of Fairbanks' quality and stature.

   Sabu Dastiger, lithe enough at 16, still could hardly be expected to match Fairbanks' muscle (though Fairbanks was 40 when making his Thief) or his acting experience: Sabu had but two films to his credit at the time - Robert Flaherty's Elephant Boy and Korda's The Drum. Could the movie center, then, on the Prince and Princess? Nope, not when the roles were played by John Justin - blue-eyed and shiningly handsome, but an acting lightweight - and June Duprez, with only a few movies under her belt. These actors looked right (especially Sabu and Duprez) but could not carry an expensive picture.

   Korda had, however, an artistic ace in the hole: Conrad Veidt, who had started acting in German silents (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and was a popular performer in England and the United States by 1939. Veidt had only four years to live (a heart attack was to kill him in April of '43), and in re-forming this fairy tale around him, Korda supplied the actor with what some consider his most memorable role, Caligari and Casablanca notwithstanding. Veidt opened the new Thief, brooding over the shipyard set, and throughout the film his image, dark and hypnotic, supplied the mortar of sheer presence to hold things together. He became, in effect, the main character, and what was lost in audience identification with the titular leads was gained in fascination with this cloaked and turbaned king of devils.

   Having this firm central figure, Korda was free to surround the others with a battery of special effects to keep their scenes from degenerating into fluff: There was the misty, echoing chamber in which Sabu reprised his song I Want To Be a Sailor before battling a giant spider (over the years, the chamber vanished from some prints, though the spider remained - usually); the large, Siva-like doll that kills Miles Malleson, the Princess' father; ex-physician Rex Ingram, another movie veteran, carving a permanent niche into every viewer's memory as the "noisy," untrustworthy genie; and one hunk of ultra-romantic dialogue that sneaked its way into a couple of later films (like the Turhan Bey Arabian Nights in 1942). With these engaging overlays, we willingly overlooked the Prince's terminal naivete and the fact that this vacuous Princess hardly seemed worthy of her father's edict that whoever looks upon her shall be killed. With mechanical cleverness, rich color, sumptuous costumes, gleaming sets and a whole textbook of optical maskings, mattes and superimpositions (since bettered, but splendid for the time), Korda managed - even while turning a fairy tale topsy-turvy by making its villain the sole interesting character - to persuade us to eat it up. Cocteau, however, accomplished this and more without the sets, color, costumes and laboratory equipment: He could only use, in the main, his advanced knowledge of film and an imagination which may well have been boosted by the opium he smoked, but he effectively wiped out the fantasy competition before and since. In ensuing decades, Korda's film could occasionally be found at a theater, though often in choppy form; Cocteau's was always playing somewhere...entire and uncut. (Video versions of each appear to be complete.)

   The security of Cocteau's craft lay in his awareness that no amount of an audience's technical information or second-guessing really destroys the wonder of film. When Josette Day as Belle gets her first look at Jean Marais' Beast, she does as you and I would do - passes flat out; Marais carries her to a bedroom and, as they move through its doorway, Belle's simple dress is transformed into a shimmering, jeweled gown. It doesn't take a special-effects buff to see that this is accomplished by shooting the couple twice - from outside the bedroom door in one costume, then from inside in the second costume - and simply cutting back and forth between the two angles. Four shots, one entirely effective bit of magic: You know how it's done immediately, yet the eye has been utterly charmed and convinced. When, for Blood of a Poet, Cocteau produced one of cinema's most startling moments - as the poet splashed through a wall mirror - the viewer's brain registered how the mirror was actually a pool of water photographed from overhead (a trick the director rang variations on later, in Orpheus). The intellect instantly explains...but the heart has been undeniably enchanted; and that spell lasts far longer than the explanation.

   So, for Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau devised dozens of tricks dependent not upon laboratory manipulation, but on cunning camera angles, lighting adjustments when photographing glass, odd juxtapositions of people and props, plus some sleight-of-hand by the actors (as when Belle's father hands one daughter a string of pearls and it turns into rope). We know, as we watch, that the corridor of candelabras held by human hands must have been a ridiculous-appearing set to visit, with stepladders full of stagehands thrusting their arms through little holes in curtains; that shadows growing as characters approached the castle door were animated by a moving spotlight out of camera range; that a wind machine added extra movement to the father's violent reaction when served wine by an "inanimate" table decoration... we know all this at once, and it doesn't matter. With its transparent effects in the hands of a superior artist, Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate expression of film's inherent power to shortcut through our objectivity and create a world of sense impressions we cannot deny...a world where, as Amos Vogel said in Film As a Subversive Art (Random House), only the "power of the image, our fear of it, the thrill that pulls us toward it, is real. Short of closing one's eyes - in cinema, a difficult and unprecedented act - there is no defense against it."

   And what do we have, then? What are they getting at, these two long-lived films - one made with all the resources of London and Hollywood at its disposal, the other produced under trying postwar circumstances where knowledge of light, lenses and editing had to compensate for so much?

   We have those two basic fairy-tale solutions to turmoil and injustice: fight and flight. But they are not assigned quite their expected nature.

   The Thief of Bagdad's setting is a city state of fierce social injustice: The people are oppressed, their only hope the prophecy of a hero, "the lowest of the low," who will someday strike down their rulers; the nominative head of government knows nothing of their plight - his second-in-command runs the show. This vizier possesses magic, and magical devices or beings exist elsewhere, but such power is beyond the claim or understanding of the people. It may, however, be stolen and used for good purposes.

   Korda's film typifies the "returning home" fairy-tale theme: the re-establishment of peace and justice. The System and its mystical rules can be countered and controlled; a struggle is established, action undertaken, the higher-ups eventually felled. Although the basic conflict is one of social extremes (powerful wealth versus impotent poverty, with no middle ground), there are old-time-religion aspects, too: in the prophecy, finally fulfilled by a commoner, and in the unrelieved evil of the villain.

   (This social status quo is carefully left unchanged at the end of the picture: A benevolent ruler has been reinstated, but the state's rich/poor polity abides...a mark of the time in which the film was made. Some suggestion of racial elements would seem to be present, also, with royalty being light-skinned and the citizenry dark; but this is not consistent, and may represent merely the exigencies of wartime casting.)

   So Korda's message is that the meek shall inherit, at least nominally, if they are not too concerned with propriety and honesty of method. Cocteau's movie, while thematically more complex, ultimately takes the other traditional fairy-tale route to a solution: flight.

   Although Beauty and the Beast's plot has social overtones - financial ruin for the bourgeois family - Cocteau keeps his attention concentrated on private matters of love and sacrifice: The threat to peace is the loss of a father, not of a fortune. Disaster looms when an odd law is broken in a strange place (anything but a rose may be removed from the castle). This law has a paranoia-inducing quality to it: "I was waiting to get you, and any excuse will do." At any rate, Belle sacrifices herself for her father, and then discovers that she has nothing to fear but fear itself. In time, indeed, she cares more for the monster than for her family.

   The climactic regulation imposed on her is a fairly sophisticated twist for a fairy tale: If Belle does not return to the Beast after visiting her home, he will suffer (the demands of love, even when unrequited). And then there is Cocteau's special switch: Belle, having come to see beyond the ogre's frightful appearance (as we do also), mistrusts the same personality in a beautiful body. Nevertheless, she and her newly restored Prince Charming rise into the clouds to live happily ever after. Flight - literally and figuratively. As e.e. cummings wrote, "There's a hell of a good universe next door, let's go!"

   Korda followed the fairy-tale premise that we can fight the good fight and return from the realms of magic resolved to improve the lot of our peers; Cocteau opted for the genre's alternate decision: the best choice for those with innocent and loving hearts, after all is said and done, is to get out .

   Both men, of course, were working within certain genre restrictions; Cocteau reminded audiences of this in a prefatory title asking that they place themselves in a childlike frame of mind. Both retained the genre's postulation about power (magic): some people are born with it, some aren't, and there is no canceling out this distinction...except by begging, borrowing or stealing the tools of the wizard's (ruler's) trade. Yet both appealed to - as the phrase goes - children of all ages either by throwing in fanciful concepts from other stories (Korda) or by juxtaposing elegance with frightfulness and exploring the meeting ground between them (Cocteau)...and both approaches mark adjustments to the genre's precedents. It's interesting, therefore, to note which filmmaker chose which conclusion. Korda, the industrial giant, went for an ending of social contribution and the correction of wrongs (if we don't examine it too closely); Cocteau, the poet, decided on total escape, and let the world go hang.

   These have always been the choices offered by the better fairy tales, those which, unlike The Wizard of Oz and The Blue Bird, resolve their conflicts one way or the other. They are reasonably realistic, even cynical options: participation in life, and action to improve it, necessitates some degree of moral laxity; pureness of heart, and a concomitant ability to see beneath surfaces, leads to death or evasion. The themes are there, have always been there, and we respond deeply to them even while enjoying the incidents and techniques in which they are dressed.

   Which theme do we, as children in bed and then adults in the phantasmal twilight of theaters, take to be most true?

   The answer lies in a general acceptance of The Thief of Bagdad as singularly accomplished entertainment, and of Beauty and the Beast as art.

© 1999 Audience magazine. All rights reserved.

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