A pair of siblings go on a magical journey accompanied by sentient kitchen objects (bread, sugar, milk, etc.) in search of the blue bird of happiness. Director Maurice Tourneur brings his usual visual flair to the proceedings.
A bird in the hand…
There’s something you should know about my relationship with Maurice Tourneur: it’s complicated. The cinematography, set design and costumes in his films are some of the most exquisite of all time and his films are the most gorgeous American productions of the ‘teens, bar none.
Unfortunately, Tourneur had little interest in plot, characters or even keeping things moving. However, I cannot dismiss him entirely because one of the few movies he made where something actually happens is The Wishing Ring (1914). It’s a delightful romance infused with fairy tale goodness and one of my favorite silents of all time.
But then we have Alias Jimmy Valentine, a seedy and stylish bore, and Lorna Doone, a meltingly gorgeous, Scottish-themed cure for insomnia. However, The Blue Bird is a return to fairy tales. Will lightning strike twice? Will Tourneur direct a film that doesn’t bore me to tears? That is the mystery for today.
Based on a 1908 play by Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird was incredibly popular and filmed several times during the twentieth century but the 1918 version was apparently the first time an American film company took a stab at the tale.
It’s the story of Mytyl (Tula Belle) and Tyltyl (Robin Macdougall), a sister and brother living in a picturesque peasant life in an unnamed European country. They parents, Daddy Tyl and Mummy Tyl, dote on their children but find them to be a bit selfish and irresponsible.
(So, wait a sec. If the father is Daddy Tyl and our hero is Tyltyl, will his son be named Tyltyltyl? Where does this end?)
The children love their parents but that doesn’t stop them from being little smart alecks. When his mother tells him not the harm the scarf his later grandmother knitted for them, Tyltyl mocks her by asking if milk and bread and sugar are alive with souls as well. I would have taken a squirt bottle to the little twerp but Mummy Tyl is clearly nicer than I am.
The children also spend their time watching the rich neighbors next door, watching their revelries through the window of their small house. The Tyl family’s other neighbor, Widow Berlingot (Edward Elkas), has a very sick daughter. The girl believes that if she can have Mytyl’s pet bird for her own, she will get better. Berlingot goes and asks for the bird but Mytyl refuses her.
The children go to bed that night but are awoken by someone entering the house. It’s Widow Berlingot… or is it? The visitor announces that she is the Fairy Berylune and transforms into a more attractive and traditionally fey appearance. She has come to take the children on a quest to find the blue bird of happiness and she has an important gift for Tyltyl: a perfectly hideous hat with an enchanted diamond that will allow him to see the souls of ordinary objects. (Mytyl gets nothing. After all, she is just a girl.)
And so Tyltyl uses the diamond around the house and manages to bring the following things to life: Fire, Water, Bread, Milk, Sugar and Light. Each are played by an actual human in an elaborate costume and Bread cuts off pieces of himself for others to eat, so there’s that.
In addition, the Tyl family’s pets, Tylo the dog and Tylette the cat, also become humanoid. And, by the way, this family desperately needs one of those One Million Baby Names books.
Berylune the fairy announces that it is time to leave on the quest. Tylette the cat asks if there will be any risks and the fairy replies that all of the Things (and that is their collective name in the story) will lose their lives at the end of the quest. Yay? And with that, the fairy, the Things, Mytyl and Tyltyl fly away into the clouds.
Berylune lives in Bluebeard’s abandoned castle, presumably after paying a fortune for a crime scene cleanup team to scrub away all the blood and cart away the decomposing bodies. But I digress. Tylette the cat holds a meeting with the other Things, encouraging them to sabotage the quest for the blue bird as a successful search will mean their deaths.
This is treated as perfidy but I’m kind of with the cat on this one. If some crazy fairy tells you that you will die because you are being forced to accompany children who just want a bluer bird, I think you are within your rights in trying to thwart said mission.
The first quest destination is the palace of Night, who is, well, night. (And, yes, this plot is extremely reminiscent of a classic JRPG. I kept trying to access the equipment menu to check if the team had enough healing potions.) Night’s palace is a gloriously creepy place with war and death and shades and terrors. Much shredded black chiffon is worn and quite a few bed sheets.
Tylo the dog protects Tyltyl from the worst of it and the children find a room full of blue birds but they die as soon as they are removed from Night’s palace. Fake out! Bread helpfully slices off some of himself and asks the children to tuck in but Light informs them that they will be eating supper with their grandparents. She whisks the children off to a graveyard and leaves them there because Light is a jerk like that. (To be honest, I keep mixing up Light and Berylune because they fill the exact same role in the tale. I have to remember that Berylune is the one with the antennae.)
You see, Mytyl and Tyltyl’s grandparents are dead, as are seven of their siblings. The good old days, amiright? The children have a happy reunion with everyone but then Tyltyl spots a blue bird in a cage and asks his grandfather if he can have it. But, alas, it’s not the real blue bird either.
Mytyl and Tyltyl then rejoin the Things and enter the palace of luxuries, which is in a constant state of orgy. Either that or they’re filming a commercial for light beer. Anyway, we are given some heavy-handed lessons about how the best things in life are free and then we’re off to the next quest.
The last destination is a new agey room that contains all the (white) children in the world prior to their birth. It’s a shame the film and play end with this sequence as it is easily the most boring in the story. I want to go back to the palace of Night, please!
The blue bird is still not found but we return to the real world and it seems that Berylune was just funning about everyone dying. Tylo beats up Tylette (animal cruelty, yay!) and all the Things go back to their original forms.
(Spoilers for this paragraph) Back home, they discover that the blue bird of happiness was there all long in the simple pleasures of peasant life. The same peasant life with high infant mortality (remember, Mytyl and Tyltyl have seven dead siblings), untreated illness (Frau Berlingot has a deformed shoulder and her child is deathly ill) and other wonders. But don’t worry, if you just think happy thoughts then I am sure the grinding poverty will be just splendid! Maurice Maeterlinck could have used a nice crash course in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’re still at the bottom of the pyramid, folks.
There is nothing wrong with a message of happiness in simplicity and appreciation for family, clean air and frolicking at the beach but these people are attempting (and failing) basic survival. Forgive me if my eyes roll, especially since The Wishing Ring managed to celebrate the simple life without becoming preachy.
Let me level with you: The Blue Bird’s source material is obnoxious, condescending and cutesy with far too many twee characters for its own good. I mean, we have Berylune, Fire, Water, Milk, Bread, Sugar, Light, a cat, a dog, plus Tyltyl and Mytyl and that’s just the traveling team! What are they doing? Going to Mordor to drop a ring in Mount Doom? Sheesh!
Now I know that Maeterlinck’s original play is supposed to be Terribly Symbolic® but all the symbolism is so darn infantile that I feel insulted by every passing page. I was raised on Roald Dahl, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Looney Tunes, which makes me exactly the wrong person for a Terribly Symbolic Story that Will Teach All You Children an Important Lesson®. I want talking squirrels and baroque, candy-related deaths, thank you very much.
We are basically beaten over the head with these lessons, which are just conventional beliefs of early twentieth century Europe packaged as though they are startling new discoveries. It turns out that drunkenness is really bad for you, as is partying hard. Whodathunkit? And a mother’s love is a nice thing? You don’t say!
And, of course, we get the sort of ignorant anti-cat nonsense that is so common in children’s films of the early and mid-twentieth century. Looking at you, Mr. Walt “Let’s call a cat literally Satan and kill it by dropping it out a window” Disney. (That cat thing is minor compared to the people-related stereotypes but that’s a whole other can of worms.) Yeah, let’s just get rid of all those mean, awful cats and embrace the cute mice. Enjoy the plague, you dolts! Hope you weren’t planning on eating this winter because the rodents have noshed on all the grain. (And, no, I do not want to hear the Disney party line that Walt totally had black friends. I get quite enough of that with Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith, thank you very much.)
And then there is the addition of the sick child. She feels that the only thing that can make her happy is another child’s pet and not to borrow. Oh no, she must have Mytyl’s bird for her very own. Look, I’m all for giving sick kids what they want but I fail to see why another child must permanently give up their own pet. What if the sick daughter wanted a live gorilla? Would they rob the zoo? What if she wanted to reenact Die Hard? There has to be a limit to all this!
I suppose I could be a snot and say that she just needs to be happy with her lot and the blue bird of happiness will be right at her door. Just think happy thoughts and your disease will not be quite so terminal. Why can’t the rich people pay for a bird for the kid? Or medicine, for that matter? Oh, I see, only the poors are expected to share.
So, yeah, I pretty much hate the source material with every fiber of my being. I am very much looking forward to the sequel in which Mytyl and Tyltyl discover Karl Marx and dream about the rise of the proletariat with charming dances on the theme of Theories of Surplus Value. Then they can loot the rich children’s home, redistribute the wealth and buy the sick daughter the healthcare that her mother cannot afford. Plus, a bird of her own. Admit it, you would watch the heck out of that. Anything is better than this treacly slop.
Fortunately for us, Tourneur couldn’t give an anthropomorphic baked good’s patootie about his source material and just uses it as an excuse to show us pretty things for an hour or so. In fact, The Blue Bird could likely be improved if someone cut the title cards and billed it as a tripper’s delight.
Ironically, the overstuffed plot and ridiculously large cast actually benefit the film as the sheer amount of stuff that has to happen and people who must be introduced mean that Tourneur cannot indulge in his usual languid pace.
This is a studio production we’re talking about and one under the Paramount banner. Even Cecil B. DeMille was cut off at a little over two hours for Joan the Woman and he had a whole war and the execution of Joan of Arc to cover and theater owners still screamed at the excessive length. Tourneur would either have to cut back on pretty baubles or get a move on. He opted for the latter.
As you have seen from the screen caps, the costumes and sets are exquisite, the cinematography is divine and the production design is unmatched. This is easily the most beautiful film of Tourneur’s career and one of the most beautiful of the entire silent era. Every scene offers new visual delights from a seemingly unlimited imagination.
In the end, The Blue Bird film rises above its “Be whimsical, dammit!” source material thanks to some astonishing craftsmanship and movie knowhow.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
A beautifully tinted and toned print was released on DVD by Kino Lorber. Alas, nitrate decay has damaged a few of the scenes but the film is still quite watchable. This release also boasts a suitable score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
This isn’t a real Silents vs. Talkies because, frankly, the two most famous sound versions of The Blue Bird are each hellish in their own special way and I simply couldn’t abide watching them all the way through for this review.
1940: Wartime Oz Ripoff
I’ve seen the 1940 Shirley Temple vehicle, of course, but I have not braved the entire thing recently and gave it just a quick skim in order to preserve my sanity. My initial impression when I saw it as a child was that the movie wanted to be The Wizard of Oz so badly it could taste it, an impression that the adult me agrees with heartily.
The film was also meant to showcase the talents of Temple, whose horrifying tendency to grow up (gasp!) was jeopardizing her box office appeal. These two concerns combined to strip everything distinct out of the story of The Blue Bird, leaving behind a lot of treacle coating a third-rate L. Frank Baum ripoff with a wartime narrative shoehorned in for good measure.
Producer Darryl F. Zanuck also adds a few glugs of sexism to the plot. The cat, Tylette, was a male in the play but turned into a woman here. Because women scheme and are catty, that’s why! Women, harrumph! They’re all evil, especially that cheerleader who didn’t date Zanuck in the eighth grade. He’ll show her! He’ll show them all! (Disclaimer: Being facetious, not actually suggesting any romance—requited or otherwise—between Zanuck and a cheerleader. Because, believe it or not, there is always someone who shows up and kvetches about this stuff.)
Don’t believe me about the film being sexist? Well, when casting Tyltyl, Zanuck intentionally hired a much smaller child than Temple even though a younger, cuter performer would be a direct rival to his star. His reasoning? If the children were around the same age, the boy would be the natural leader so it was absolutely necessary to hire a tiny child if Shirley was to take the lead.
(Beating head against door.)
The biggest distinction that this film can boast is that it lets Temple be… kind of a jerk. You see, the standard Shirley Temple vehicle had enemies finding common ground thanks to the sweetness and all-around wonderfulness of one wittle girl. She’s a pint-size Angela Merkel in disturbingly short dresses! (My personal favorite Temple film to snicker at is Wee Willie Winkie, in which she brokers peace between the British army and the members of an armed rebellion based in India’s northwest frontier—in short, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because we all know how easy that is.)
In this film, we are introduced to Shirley’s Mytyl as she is in the process of poaching a bird in a forbidden area. She then refuses to give the bird to the sick neighbor girl, telling her that she has already promised the bird to someone else. Once they are out of earshot, she crows that “someone else” is her. The scene also works because the neighbor girl’s request is much more reasonable than in the 1918 version. Instead of another child’s beloved pet, she is asking for a bird that was just trapped in the forest and there are plenty more where it came from.
The film then shoves in a jarring scene in which Temple’s father is called up to serve in the army (woodcutters are always the first ones drafted, it seems). We must remember that the United States was still not definitely involved in the Second World War but the scene is still dated, partially because at the end of the film, the army guy is like, “Ha! Just kidding, you don’t have to go.” Is this a joke he pulls every winter?
We then get our magical Technicolor sequences but, frankly, the Fox technical crew just couldn’t hold a candle to their counterparts at MGM. Admittedly, “gowns by Adrian” is always going to be tough to beat but The Blue Bird also fails in its basic mission to be magical. Bread, Milk, Fire, Water and all the others were hokey but they added to the mystical feel of the tale. For this film, we just have the cat and dog, which makes the main cast’s journey seem even more anemic.
The biggest misstep, though, is one that never gets mentioned in reviews of the film. In both the 1918 version and the 1976 version (I’ll be discussing that one in a moment), Night and her palace of horrors are the showstoppers. Grim, ghoulish and just the right amount of scary, Night provides a nice antidote to all the sweetness and light. She was likely cut out of the story because of the general sissy la-la approach to family films in the post-code era but the forest fire that provides most of the danger simply does not cut the mustard in comparison.
Instead of feeling enchanted and marveling at all the wonders along with the children, we feel like kids stuck on a cross-country drive. “Are we there yet? When will we get there? How long has it been since we started?” I was just ready for the stupid thing to end. When it does, Shirley has Learned Her Lesson and all is goody gumdrops once again, having discovered that possessing zero ambition or desire to improve one’s lot in life is completely awesome, even if it means living in life-threatening squalor. Oh, and if you wish enough, the government will rescind the army mobilization. Yay!
And of course, the film concludes with the requisite animal cruelty. The dog is encouraged to attack the cat for the cat’s completely imaginary behavior during a dream. Did you know I dreamed that the screenwriter of this film, Ernest Pascal, robbed a liquor store? I think I should call the police on this dangerous criminal.
In conclusion, there are many very good reasons why The Wizard of Oz has remained a beloved family fantasy classic while The Blue Bird is relegated to a historical footnote. The Temple film feels derivative and while the darker character is an interesting change of pace for its star, the novelty of Evil Shirley soon wears off and leaves us with a languid and un-fantastical fantasy.
Availability: The Blue Bird (1940) is available on DVD.
1976: A Red Letter Day
After the flop of the Temple vehicle, Hollywood left the Maeterlinck play alone for over three decades. Then, in 1976, a very peculiar version of the story emerged as the result of a Soviet-American collaboration.
Now Russians and Americans have been notoriously antagonistic in political and military matters and they don’t exactly mesh well in filmmaking either. While Hollywood has pumped out countless Russian-themed films, precious few are watchable, let alone good.
On that note, I propose a law banning the adaptation of Tolstoy by Hollywood types unless they pass a basic course in Russian literature with at least a B average. Or, better yet, just ban them from producing adaptations of Russian literature entirely. They annoy the almighty heck out of me and I can count the number of artistic successes on one hand. For every Anastasia (and, by the way, director Anatole Litvak was born in Ukraine), we have countless bombs. Russian films have a je ne sais quoi (a wry and gloomy wit, I suppose, and more than a dash of fatalism) that Hollywood seems either unable or unwilling to capture and it is this fleeting essence that makes all the difference.
Worse, when Hollywood did get their hands on a Russian or denizen of the Russian empire, there was a better than decent chance they would ruin everything. Yul Brynner, Mischa Auer and Lewis Milestone were the exception rather than the rule. Don’t even get me started on what the ham-fisted movieland brass did to Ivan Mosjoukine, Anna Sten and Victor Tourjansky.
All this history and then someone had the absolutely brilliant idea (circa early 1970s) to have a Soviet-American co-production. What joy! What fun! Call me when it’s over! The basic idea: Hollywood stars would schlep over to Russia and make a “delightful” fantasy film with Russian dancers and crew. Sounds promising, she grimaced.
But no matter, stars soon signed and the production had a cast that would likely have been more impressive in 1956 rather than 1976. Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and director George Cukor all had their most famous films behind them. Jane Fonda, Cecily Tyson and Robert Morley rounded out the cast but were not enough to save it.
I can’t tell you how the Soviet-American collaboration ended because I didn’t finish it. I quit about three-quarters of the way in, and I suspect that I am not alone. It is truly a bad film that thoroughly lives up to its reputation for awfulness.
So, what goes wrong? Try everything. The story is choppy and difficult to follow. The sets and costumes range from ugly to bizarre and the cinematography is flat. Some of the dance choreography is good but it feels shoehorned in. The whole things drags and you would never know that George Cukor was a top tier director in his day.
Elizabeth Taylor overacts shamelessly in four, count ‘em, four roles but not enough to elevate the picture to camp, more’s the pity. The kids playing Mytyl and Tyltyl do okay, considering the circumstances, but what possessed the casting director to hire a girl from London and boy from California to play siblings? The mismatched accents are quite distracting. In fact, there is only one performance in this oddball film that really stands out.
Jane Fonda rather cleverly scooped up the best role, Night, and gives something like a credible performance with a nice dab of kitsch. Her terrors are suitably macabre and she looks bizarrely fantastic in her leather and lamé getup but she isn’t in the film long enough to turn the tide and we are soon back to ballerinas and Light.
This brief touch of kitsch is all we get and the audience is left to slog their way to the end. Nowadays, this film is mainly remembered as an oddity, a relic of political naiveté.
And, of course, we get the usual tidal wave of “Those Russians sure are primitive, hyuck, hyuck, hyuck!” stories. As is always the case, those tales of woe say a lot more about the spoiled brats telling them than they do about the Russians. “OMG, they, like, did not have any canned ravioli and I was, like, so annoyed! And, like, they kept speaking Russian and I was, like, hello! ‘Where is the cannedski ravioliski?’ Like, I am literally starving.”
(And to anyone who wants to whine that Liz Taylor got sick during the shoot, like that somehow proves something… Oh, you mean for a change? No offense but she got sick in England, she got sick in the United States. She was a sickly person. Now go toddle off and grumble about the relative sins of assorted Anglo-American medical systems and their failure to keep Liz healthy.)
So, all in all, we’re talking about a film that was tedious to make, is tedious to watch and generally fails on every level. I guess that’s something of an accomplishment in itself. I mean, we’re supposed to be looking on the bright side, right?
Availability: Released on DVD.
It has been forty years since the last time American talent attempted to adapt The Blue Bird. Given its sugary content, I think it’s likely that interest in the story is all but dead. I can’t say that I mourn it.