The Blue Bird (1918)
Maurice Tourneur gets away from working with Mary Pickford in order to make the kind of ethereal fairy tale he felt was appropriate for children, adapting a famous stage play to the screen. We get plenty of fancy cinematography and effects, but it’s possible that the acting and writing don’t quite hold up.
The story begins by introducing the Tyl family, which consists of Mama Tyl, Papa Tyl, and two children: Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall) is the boy and Mytyl (Tula Belle) is the girl. Apprently, they are neighbors with “the house of rich children” and also an old hag named Berlingot (Edward Elkas) who has a sick little daughter. The little girl has heard of “the blue bird of happiness,” and she believes that if she possesses it, she will get well. Berlingot is apparently ready to try a placebo, and goes to ask the Tyls if she can have their caged bird to give to her daughter, to make her well again. Mytyl and Tyltyl are unwilling to give away their pet.
Meanwhile, they have a rather whimsical conversation with their mother in which it is revealed that their grandmother is dead (remember this, it’s important later) and also that various objects (or “Things”) have souls, including bread, sugar, water, fire, and a muffler. During dinner, we see a tiny kitten who steals some milk from the pitcher, and a loyal dog who acts very protective of the children. Then, it is time for bed and their mother tucks them in.
But, they don’t stay in bed long, because the lights from the party of the “house of rich children” are keeping them awake. We see the party in typical Tourneur-ian silhouette. Then Berlingot sneaks into the house, and for a moment it looks as if she will steal the bird, but when the children speak to her, she transforms into a beautiful fairy called Berylune (Lillian Cook). She tells them to get dressed, because they will have to go in search of the blue bird of happiness to save the child next door. They get dressed by magic: Mytyl twirls around and her dress appears on her, and Tyltyl gets dressed by running the film backward. Then the fairy gives Tyltyl a headdress with a magic diamond, when he turns it, he can see the souls of Things. He does, and lo and behold, now the children have a gaggle of adventuring companions in the form of the souls of the dog (Charles Ascot), the cat (Tom Corliss), the bread, the milk, the sugar (Charles Craig), the fire, the water, and the light (Gertrude McCoy). I don’t think I’m forgetting anyone.
The Things are all played by adult actors in silly costumes, and each has its own personality. The Dog is very loyal while the Cat is shifty and untrustworthy. The fairy tells them that, if the mission should succeed, all of the Things will die at once, which makes all of them cry. The Cat immediately starts planning to betray the kids, and the Dog threatens to strangle him if he tries. The bread agrees to carry the birdcage, and they begin their quest, the fairy causing the whole group to fly out the window and into the sky. Soon, they arrive at the castle of the fairy queen, which is conveniently close to that of Mother Night (Lyn Donelson).
The Cat rushes over to warn Night that the kids are coming to steal her bird, and she seems annoyed when they arrive with the Dog, but she lets them search the house anyway. They meet Night’s children, Sleep and Death, and they see ghosts and shades, and also a variety of dream-birds, but they don’t find the Blue bird here. So they leave, and wander into the realm of the happy dead. Here they meet their grandparents, who seem to have a lot of children to take care of now, but are very happy to see Mytyl and Tyltyl. They invite them to eat with them, and the grandparents give them a blue bird that disappears as soon as they leave the house.
Next, they visit the Palace of Happiness. It appears mostly to be the Palace of Indulgences at first. They meet happinesses like “The Happiness of Eating when You Are Not Hungry” and “The Happiness of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty.” The Things seem to be getting into the decadent lifestyle that prevails until Tyltyl turns his diamond again and all of the happinesses are revealed as false. Then, they see real joys like the Joy of Pure Thinking and the Joy of Clean Air, before seeing the greatest of 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 (future) brother. Nowhere do they find the bluebird.
So they return home sad and dejected, only to find that the bird has been in their home all the time. Rather than dying as predicted, each of the Things now assures the children that they will always be with them, and they then return to their natural states. The children wake up and their parents are confused when they try to get dressed magically. Berlingot comes over and Mytyl gives her the bird. She leaves and quickly returns with her daughter, who has become 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.
Before I start pulling this movie apart, I have to acknowledge that it was pretty successful in its day, when kid-friendly entertainment had a different set of standards. It was based on a popular stage play, and reviewers at the time thought it did a lovely job of conveying the magic and whimsical imagination of that production. It doesn’t seem to have been one of the top-grossing films of 1918, but it isn’t noted for having lost money, either, which is a lot more than can be said for the 1940 version, starring Shirley Temple.
So, why didn’t this movie work for me? A lot of it has to do with the sloppy structure of the script and the ensemble. When you set up a bunch of interesting sidekicks to go on an adventure, you’d better make sure each one has something to do along the way. The “soul of sugar,” for example, could have been the one character who could get a stubborn mule to move, and the “soul of fire” could have saved the day by burning down an obstacle. But, most of the Things just get their little introductory scene, and then are completely neglected for the rest of the film. Only the Cat and the Dog actually have anything to do (well, the Bread carries the birdcage for a while, that’s something). I don’t know whether this problem extends to the stage play, or if it’s a result of cuts for the film version.
There’s a bigger problem, though, which is that too much of the movie is about showing us the True Nature of Things (caps intentional). It’s very didactic, not to say preachy. Each encounter represents either an archetypal Good or an archetypal Evil, and Tourneur is at pains to visually represent some very abstract concepts. This reaches the height of goofiness in the Palace of Happiness, where scantily-clad nymphs represent the “Joy of Pure Thoughts” and “the Joy of Spring” in ways that seem scarcely more innocent than the Indulgences of the party. The kids waiting to be born also get pretty annoying; Tourneur is trying to make them “cute” to an extreme, but he fails because frankly, he’s too nice to make them a little bratty and sympathetic.
Nevertheless, this is a visual feast of a film for 1918, and actually some of its failings have a certain odd charm. The “soul of sugar,” who seems to be an effeminate man with a fat dildo on his head, is bound to get more laughs today than he did at the time. The movie flirts with the kind of High Weirdness we got in the original “Oz” films, and I think today would have tremendous camp value for the right audience. It’s quite possible at times that Tourneur is intentionally winking at that audience, that he’s actually a touch more sophisticated than the material and is having fun with it. It’s worth a look to decide for yourself.
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Camera: John van der Broek
Cast: Robin MacDougall, Tula Belle, Edward Elkas, Lillian Cook, Gertrude McCoy, Lyn Donalson, Charles Ascot, Charles Craig.
Run Time: 1 hr, 15 Min