The Blue Bird (1918)
A key silent film because of its technical wizardry, unusually strong stylization, and influence on other important films, The Blue Bird (1918) is the work of an equally important and prolific director of the time -- Maurice Tourneur -- who unfortunately is practically forgotten today. Though he was born in France and worked in early French cinema, Tourneur made his reputation in America, where he made films from 1914-1926. His biographer Harry Waldman (Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films) has written that no French director ever made better American films or worked longer in America.
Tourneur's early French filmmaking and theater experience influenced American silent moviemaking, and later, when he returned to France, Tourneur's Hollywood experience profoundly influenced French cinema's transition to sound. While he worked in almost all genres, he brought great romanticism to many of his pictures and had a strong taste for the macabre and the fantastic -- a taste that certainly is on display in The Blue Bird.
Adapted from a 1908 stage play by Belgian author and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911), The Blue Bird is such a popular story that it's been adapted into movies several times in various countries, including a 20th Century Fox production in 1940 that starred Shirley Temple. It's also been the basis of a Japanese TV series and even an opera. By all accounts, however, Tourneur's is the definitive screen version.
It's an allegorical tale of two children who are awakened one night by a fairy and told to look for the "Bluebird of Happiness." They're given a cap with a magical diamond that, when turned, allows the kids to see the souls of all living and inanimate things, such as dogs, cats, fire, water, milk, sugar and light. After the souls appear, the kids turn the diamond in the wrong direction and the souls are not able to reenter their host objects. Consequently, everyone -- kids, souls, fairy -- go off in search of the Bluebird of Happiness, with adventures taking them to weird and wonderful places such as the Palace of the Night, the Cathedral of Happiness, and a graveyard in which the kids meet their dead grandparents. In a heartwarming scene, they visit the Palace of Joys and Delights and come across their mother, who is known there as the "Joy of Maternal Love." (They cry to her, "We want to stay here, with you, in Heaven." She smiles and answers, "Heaven is every time you kiss me.") And in one of the strangest sequences, the kids encounter the souls of unborn children -- including a future sibling.
Ultimately, the kids appeal directly to the camera to "look for our Bluebird with all your hearts. Be sure to look first in your own homes, WHERE HE IS MOST APT TO BE FOUND!" This startling moment of direct address anticipates the ending of The Wizard of Oz, but that's only one of the influences The Blue Bird would have on other movies. (To be fair, The Wizard of Oz had already been written, and adapted to the screen, long before the 1939 Judy Garland version, so there was probably a back-and-forth set of influences at work there.) The Blue Bird also carries elements of Peter Pan and, more significantly, is a key precursor to German expressionism in its composition and overall design. As film critic J. Hoberman has written, the film is full of expressionistic touches like "exaggerated shadows, optical distortions, blatantly two-dimensional backdrops, and animated silhouettes... [It's also] deliberately anachronistic in quoting the primitive 'trick films' by Georges Melies and others that had passed from fashion a dozen years before."
However, the technical prowess on display is rightfully used not for its own sake but to spark the imagination and romanticism of audiences. For instance, The New York Times review of this film contains a charming passage in which the critic writes that Tourneur "uses the art of magic to make the souls appear and act their parts, to cause instantaneous transformations, to show the flight of people and Father Time's ship through the air, to make all sorts of mysteries take place before one's very eyes. There may be some who will talk of fadeaways and superimposing and all of the tricks of the motion-picture trade, but such are the kind of people who don't believe that Things have souls. Mr. Tourneur used magic, and that's all there is to it."
For his part, Tourneur wrote in 1918 of his pride in having "brought stylization to the screen" and said that with his impressionistic sets had "tried to sound the note of fragile fantasy." In recent decades The Blue Bird has been restored, including the dazzling tinting effects mastered by Tourneur, and in 2004, as a sign of its cultural and historical import, the picture was inducted into the National Film Registry.
In 1918, however, despite positive reviews, the film did not do especially well at the box office and led Tourneur to change his directing style to one of greater naturalism, in films like The Last of the Mohicans (1920).
Tourneur's son Jacques became a top Hollywood director in his own right in the 1940s, making classics like Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), Stars in My Crown (1950), and Curse of the Demon (1957).
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Screenplay: Charles Maigne (writer); Maurice Maeterlinck (play)
Cinematography: John van den Broek
Music: Edward Falck, Hugo Riesenfeld
Film Editing: Clarence Brown
Cast: Tula Belle (Mytyl), Robin Macdougall (Tyltyl), Edwin E. Reed (Daddy Tyl), Emma Lowry (Mummy Tyl), William J. Gross (Grandpa Gaffer Tyl), Florence Anderson (Granny Tyl), Edward Elkas (Widow Berlingot), Katherine Bianchi (Her daughter), Lillian Cook (Fairy Berylune), Gertrude McCoy (Light).
by Jeremy Arnold