By Christopher Campbell | Spout January 9, 2012 at 11:49AM
The fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" is one of those classic stories for which it's hard to recall our introduction. So many basic children's literature anthologies must include a variation of the work, which was first published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then famously revised by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, and was in all likelihood around in oral form long before both. As far as visual entertainment adaptations go, my generation could have first encountered the tale through so many incarnations. Did I have my first taste with the Roger Vadim-directed "Faerie Tale Theatre" episode starring Susan Sarandon and Klaus Kinski? Possibly, and I hope so, even if I don't remember it that well. I'm certain it wasn't Jean Cocteau's 1946 masterpiece. Has any child been so lucky?
Kids born a decade after me were more than likely (at least cinematically) exposed to "Beauty and the Beast" through Disney's 1991 animated feature, which now has a 3D makeover arriving in theaters for a whole new generation to enjoy. Additionally, there have been numerous films obviously influenced by yet less directly based on the fairy tale, such as "King Kong," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Shrek," plus recent attempts to update the classic story with "Penelope," "Spike" and "Beastly" (see my post from last March on the strange failure of directly modernizing "Beauty and the Beast"). No matter your age, you've no doubt seen some kind of contemporary take, but you probably aren't familiar with the earliest adaptations.
Unfortunately, most of the very early films of "Beauty and the Beast," such as the silent shorts from 1899, 1903, 1905, 1908, 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1924, are unavailable to us. At least online. But there is one significant earlier animated version of the story that I think fans of film history should be aware of. Lev Atamanov's "The Scarlet Flower," aka "The Little Scarlet Flower" or "The Crimson Flower" (original title: "Alenkiy tsvetochek"), is a beautiful Soviet classic from 1952 based on Sergey Aksakov's Russian alteration, originally published in 1858. It's a great example of Socialist realist animation of the time and place, particularly for its employment of the "Eclair" style of tracing live-action frames (a form of what we call rotoscoping). By this time, the technique was in its last years, but Atamanov's most famous film in the West, the Eclair-style "The Snow Queen" (dubbed in the U.S. and with additional prologue and songs) was still to come.
"The Scarlet Flower" apparently has never had an official U.S. translation or release and most references will say it has never been subtitled (or dubbed) in English at all. However, I found a copy that does have subtitles. I can't know how authentic they all are, but they fit the story perfectly throughout. Technically, by the Academy's rules anyway, this film is not really a short given that it's running time is listed at being just over 40 minutes. The video I'm sharing comes in under 40, though, so I think it's fair enough to qualify it for this column. Watch it in full below:
As a bonus, and because that film is relatively long for purposes of the column, I'm also including the 1934 Merrie Melodies cartoon titled "Beauty and the Beast." It's only seven and a half minutes and was directed by Friz Freleng (then still credited as Isadore Freleng), and while it's not exactly an adaptation of the fairy tale it does feature a strange incarnation of the Beast, who jumps out of the pages of a storybook and becomes the villain in a little dream fantasy in which a little girl finds herself in Toyland. Watch it in full below: