BLUE BIRD, THE (Maurice Tourneur, 1918, USA, 75m, BW)
Cast: Tula Belle, Robin Macdougall, Florence Anderson, William J. Gross, Sammy Blum, Edwin E. Reed, Lillian Cook, Edward Elkas
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Running Time: 81 min.
The Blue Bird is a 1918 silent fantasy film directed by Maurice Tourneur in the United States, under the auspices of producer Adolph Zukor. In 2004, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.
When poor old widow Berlingot asks Tyltyl and Mytyl, the young son and daughter of her more prosperous neighbors, for the loan of their pet bird to cheer up her ill daughter, Mytyl selfishly refuses. That night, when the children are asleep, the fairy Bérylune enters their home in the semblance of Berlingot, before transforming into her true beautiful appearance. She insists that the children search for the bluebird of happiness. She gives Tyltyl a magical hat which has the power to show him the insides of things. As a result, the souls of fire, water, light, bread, sugar and milk becoming personified, and their pet dog and cat can now speak with their masters. Before they all set out, Bérylune warns the children that their new companions will all perish once their quest is achieved.
The fairy then takes them to various places to search. At the Palace of Night, the traitorous cat forewarns the Mother of Night, having heard the fairy's prediction. The dog saves Tyltyl from one of the dangers of the palace. In a graveyard, the dead come alive at midnight, and Tyltyl and Mytyl are reunited with their grandmother, grandfather and siblings. They receive a blue bird, but when they leave, it disappears. Next, they visit the Palace of Happiness. After seeing various lesser joys and happinesses, they are shown the greatest of them all: maternal love in the form of their own mother. Finally, they are transported to the Kingdom of the Future, where children wait to be born, including their brother. Nowhere do they find the bluebird.
Returning home empty-handed, the children see that the bird has been in a cage in their home the whole time. Mytyl gives the bird to Berlingot. She returns shortly afterward with her daughter, now well. However, the bird escapes from the daughter's grasp and flies away. Tyltyl comforts the upset neighbor girl, then turns to the audience and asks the viewers to search for the bluebird where they are most likely to find it: in their own homes.
Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 adaptation of the play by Maurice Maeterlinck has the look of a movie that almost died. The print I watched had degraded so badly in some places that the images were barely identifiable. It also has the look of a fairy-tale about it, and is little more than a succession of incidents lacking any real plot, which means it relies largely on its imagery to hold the audience’s attention. Back in 1918, The Blue Bird would probably have looked pretty spectacular, but today we’ve seen it all many times before, so it struggles to keep our interest.
The story revolves around Mytyl (Tula Belle) and Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall), the children of a woodcutter who looks far too old and tired to have children their age. Across the road from the kids lives a sickly child and her mother — who looks old enough to be her Great-Grandmother, and is actually played by a man (Edward Elkas). The girl (Katherine Bianchi) suggests that if she had a bird like Mytyl’s she might be well again, which sounds like shameless manipulation to me, but her mother complies, and asks Mytyl if she would consider lending her bird to her daughter. Mytyl selfishly refuses.
That night, after an odd discussion with their mother during which it’s established that all objects have a soul — even milk and sugar — the kids go to sleep, only to be awoken first by the noise of a party the rich kids who live across the road are holding, and then by a visit from the fairy Berylune (Lillian Cook), who informs them that they must search for the Blue Bird of Happiness. They are to be accompanied on their quest by the soul of milk, a rather thin, effeminate man, the soul of bread, who’s a sultan, fat and jolly, the souls of fire and water and others, including their pet dog and cat, who are played by humans. Learning that all who accompany the kids on their quest will die before returning, the sly and smirking cat, makes plans to ensure they never succeed.
There follows a succession of scenes in which the kids visit various locations in pursuit of the elusive Blue Bird. These are presented with creativity and charm, but with little purpose other than to tick off the check list of where and where not happiness can be found. Memories of loved ones are good, wild parties are a no-no — that kind of thing.
The film has a dreamlike fairy-tale look about it, and benefits from the performances of Belle and MacDougall, who give impressively natural performances. The obvious comparison to be made is with The Wizard of Oz (1939), with which this film shares many themes and visuals. Tourneur’s use of stop-motion photography looks strangely outdated, even for a film made in 1918, calling up memories of all those trick photography movies his fellow countryman Georges Melies was making back in the late 1800s.
Companions like humanized feline Tom Corless (as Cat) consider sabotaging the mission, because he, canine Charles Ascot (as Dog), and other manifestations of inhumanity learn they will cease to exist if and when the children achieve success. Tyltyl and Mytyl search far and wide for the Bluebird of Happiness - meeting not only their dead grandparents, but also their future brother during their journey - but the creature remains hidden where they least expect to find it.
"The Blue Bird" is filled with beautiful thoughts from the original Maurice Maeterlinck play. Homilies like "Heaven is where you and I kiss each other…" seems as good a definition as any. With majestic allegory by director Maurice Tourneur, production designer Ben Carré, and their crew, it was probably unwise to try to improve this orchestrated silent version of "The Blue Bird" - and filmmakers famously failed twice. Despite the ravages of time, this is the definitive version of the classic story.
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