If 1939 was the movies' annus mirabilis, 1946 was the coming of age of cinema. If '39 witnessed the full flowering of Hollywood's studio system, '46 found its most creative craftsmen returned from war with a new maturity, a deeper insight into the ambiguity and complexity of the cosmic comedy. No longer content to be merely confectioners, they created works which, while still entertaining, depicted with unexampled depth a world with fewer absolutes and infinite gradations of grey : Wyler's Best Years of Our Lives, Ford's My Darling Clementine, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Hawks' The Big Sleep are among the more famous of Hollywood 's contributions to this new richness. In Europe, war's end brought 'neo-realism', of which Rossellini's Paisan and De Sica's Shoeshine are outstanding 1946 examples.
While postwar audiences welcomed this new realism, even sordidness in film noir, they exhibited a contrasting fascination - with the cinema of the fantastic. 1946 is the single most memorable year in the history of this genre, which has now become the dominant strain of Hollywood product. Amid that profusion of escapist fare: Cavalcanti's Dead of Night and Siodmak's Spiral Staircase spooked us; Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Powell and Pressburger's Matter of Life and Death bemused us with metaphysical speculations. Even the western groped for new heights of eroto-operatic grandeur with the Selznick/Vidor Duel in the Sun. I seem to recall some wag subtitled the last Gotterdammerung on the Range (or Twilight of the Dogies.)
Perhaps the greatest of all fantasy films was also made in 1946, Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete. So reverential were my memories of that wonderful work that I couldn't face the Disney cartoon - especially after the garish TV promos. But Cocteau's rendering is just about perfection; performances, art direction, costumes, Henri Alekan's luminous black and white imagery, the magical special effects -- above all Cocteau's imagination -- elevate this work to that most thinly populated of film's aesthetic categories, the film poem.
Among the unexpected benefits of the mini-industry generated by Disney's Beauty and the Beast is the 50th anniversary release of George Auric's complete score for the Cocteau film. Whether Marco Polo will realize a return on investment with music this remote from Disney remains to be seen. The composer is one of Les Six, that iconoclastic post-WWI creative clique who, if we may risk over-simplification, married Ravel with ragtime and supplied Stravinsky's local competition with the lost generation in '20s Paris. Of that group Honegger, Poulenc and Milhaud have found a niche in the repertoire, but Durey and Tailleferre have settled into the dust of history. Auric occupies the indeterminate middle. Although he has never achieved a reputation in the international concert hall, Auric at least has a unique place in the history of film music. He is the only composer to have worked in all three great industries of postwar filmdom, France, England and Hollywood. Of his scores, about forty were composed for French fare, fifteen for English, and another forty for Hollywood. Not surprisingly, the latter scores were for notably inferior vehicles, in comparison to the quality of his predominantly French and British postwar assignments. The theme from Moulin Rouge (which became a huge international hit both as instrumental and the song Where is Your Heart) is about all most of us will have heard of Auric. His best work in British cinema includes the aforementioned Dead of Night, Queen of Spades, The Lavendar Hill Mob and another memorable excursion into the supernatural, The Innocents (based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw). In France he excelled all the way from Rene Clair's early sound experiments to the liberated late '60s, working also with Delannoy, Allegret, Clouzot and Max Ophuls, but achieving his most fruitful collaboration with Jean Cocteau. In addition to La Belle et la Bete, Auric scored five other Cocteau works, including the two Orpheus adaptations and Blood of a Poet. So far as I am aware, Belle is the first complete score of Auric's French ouevre to achieve a commercial recording.
The music itself is an evocative potpourri. Ravel is the most obvious influence. But here you'll be reminded of Fauré, there of Debussy, with just enough nursery-like melody to offset the dominating impressionism. A wordless chorus accompanies some of the most memorable sequences. (Dmitri Tiomkin, coincidentally also in 1946, had utilized wordless melisma to effectively underscore two of the screen's transcendental moments - George Bailey's graveyard panic in Wonderful Life, and Pearl Chavez's ride to vengeance and Valhalla in the Wagnerian love/death, silly/surreal climax of Duel in the Sun.) Those intoxicated with the Ravel of Daphnis et Chloé and Mother Goose, Fauré's Masques et Bergamasques or Debussy's Martyrdom of St Sebastian, should take to La Belle et La Bete. The composer's vision and the poet's meld perfectly. Thus Cocteau could write in his autobiographical The Difficulty of Being (also published in 1946), "My moral steps were those of one who limps, with one foot in life and another in death, so that it was normal that I met a myth in which life and death would meet. It was, therefore, a film which was proper to the illustration of the border that separates one world from the other."
-- David Aspinall