Blue Beard (1901) A Silent Film Review

A certain gentleman with an unnatural beard pigment marries for the eighth time but things go sour when the new bride discovers what happened to the other seven Mrs. Bluebeards. A macabre fairy tale from Georges Méliès.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Maybe he could have tried Just for Men?

Content Warning: Blue Beard is among the gorier fairy tales and it will be discussed at length. The content of this review may be disturbing to some.

By the turn of the century, Georges Méliès had begun to create longer, more elaborate films. His multi-part 1899 dramatization of the Dreyfus Affair clocks in around eleven minutes when played back-to-back and Blue Beard runs for a whole ten minutes on its own. Méliès continued to make one- to four-minute confections but these longer films show that he entertained ambitions of more elaborate plots.

“Why don’t you want to marry this nice man?”

Blue Beard is a macabre fairy tale about a wealthy man who has a beard that’s, well, blue and a handful of missing wives. He marries an eighth wife and then goes on a long journey, leaving her in charge of the keys to his chateau. She is allowed to open every door except one. Curiosity gets the better of her and she unlocks the forbidden door. Inside, she finds the bodies of her husband’s seven missing wives hanging from hooks and dripping blood.

Why can’t we return to the family entertainment of yesteryear?

(Why yes, this is for children!)

The key falls in the blood and the stain cannot be removed no matter how much the wife scrubs it. When Bluebeard returns, he discovers the stained key and vows to kill her. She asks for time to pray and the delay saves her life as her brothers break down the door to the chateau and kill Bluebeard. Méliès adds a resurrection for the murdered wives, who marry the heroic brothers, and all ends happily for everyone except Bluebeard.

And then everyone posed for a group photo.

Like I said, dark stuff. If Beauty and the Beast teaches us that we must not judge by appearances, the lesson of Blue Beard can be taken as “Keep away from people who look different because they’re probably deranged.” Given the absolute power of the monarchy and nobility in France during the time of Charles Perrault (who wrote the most famous version of the tale), one wonders how much of the tale was based on real murders among the aristocracy. (Several suspects have been named as the “real” Bluebeard but no consensus has been reached.)

All seven of Bluebeard’s exes return.

Noted folklorist Wilhelm Grimm suggested that the Bluebeard’s hanging his wives from hooks and allowing their blood to drain indicates that he was gathering the stuff to bathe in it. That certainly would be in keeping with some of alleged crimes of Elizabeth Bathory. If the blood was used to render Bluebeard immortal, it would explain how he managed to get away with his crimes for so long—he simply outlived any investigators.

Méliès must have had some inkling that a certain lightening was called for as he takes this rather grim tale and turns it into something of a black comedy. Bluebeard (played by Méliès himself) is a broad, buffoonish figure in the style the Beery brothers would popularize later.

Bluebeard thrashes as his wife is rescued.

I am not generally a fan of broad acting in silent film but it works well here. The story is so over-the-top and the sets and costuming so grand that anything less than too much would be unthinkable. Méliès is clearly having the time of his life blustering and raging and, later, tossing around a dummy version of his wife (the real deal was played by Méliès’s future wife, Jeanne d’Alcy) and generally raising hell.

Everyone should have a fairy in their well.

The film comes to a suitably grisly end when Bluebeard is set upon by his wife’s relatives. After a quick duel, Bluebeard is pinned to the wall with a sword. He rants and raves and kicks but cannot get free. Other grim humor includes a servant falling into a soup pot and dissolving, leaving only his clothes. If you don’t think the French appreciated this sort of twisted humor, let me mention that Max Linder’s 1906 comedy Attempted Suicide centers on its hero hanging by his neck from a tree (writhing, kicking, eyes bulging) while his would-be rescuers deal with bureaucratic red tape.

Bluebeard, as imagined by Gustave Doré’s magnificent bad taste.

While very much in the Méliès style, Blue Beard also shows the influence of what Jean Cocteau would describe as “the magnificent bad taste of Gustave Doré.” We get puff-and-slash costuming, the usual Méliès painted backdrops and some genuinely horrifying scenes of the wives’ corpses. All in all, I feel confident in labeling this a horror-comedy.

The key dream.

The film also features some marvelously creative visuals in the nightmare sequence. The wife, terrified of what her husband will do, dreams of giant keys dancing above her head. She also dreams of a fairy in tights because, well, this is Méliès. There is also an imp that dances and jumps about, tempting her to open the forbidden door before disappearing. Again, Méliès. (It’s not a Méliès movie without ladies in tights or hot pants and a few leaping imps. Blue Beard hedges its bets by giving its title character pages in trunk hose as well. You can never have too much when it comes to ladies’ legs in French cinema of this period.)

We get the point, Georges.

Finally, we get another fairy who emerges from a well to resurrect all the wives in the end, which I think is a mistake as it removes much of the horror that had been so ably established before. Perhaps Méliès balked at the darkness of it all once he realized what a good job he was doing in scaring the socks off his audience. (Though I do like that the resurrection sequence rebalances power from the masculine to the feminine.)

Note the pale beard
And the white blood in front of the chopping block.

I must say, I keenly felt the lack of hand-color in this film. As many of you may know, Méliès contracted with famed colorist Madame Thuillier to embellish his films with attractive tints. (A color print of A Trip to the Moon was recently restored and it is a marvel.) It is highly likely that some prints of Blue Beard were meant to be hand-colored as the main character’s beard is rather light in color, as is the puddle of blood in the forbidden chamber, both ready to showcase a splash of cerulean or crimson applied with a tiny brush. Oh well. Given the many lost Méliès films, we are fortunate to have Blue Beard at all.

My idea of what a hand-colored version of this film might have looked like. I have aggressively watermarked it because the last thing I want is someone on Google Images grabbing the thing and trying to pass it off as authentic.

Blue Beard is a particularly bonkers bit of entertainment from Méliès and its madness is a large part of its charm. Macabre humor blends with spectacle, which results is a dark and memorable fairy tale. I highly recommend this film.

Where can I see it?

Blue Beard is available as part of Flicker Alley’s epic Méliès box set. This box is ideal for the movie buff who has everything; 173 films on five discs!

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6 Replies to “Blue Beard (1901) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I’m about to sound really stupid, but it never occurred to me that Bluebeard was supposed to actually HAVE a blue beard. The term “bluebeard” has so long been associated with men who seduce and kill multiple women, that I’d long forgotten that it even refers to a hair coloring. Thanks for the review!

    1. Yes, I dare say that it’s one of the more ubiquitous fairy tale terms we use in our day-to-day life. I was a little thrown by Melies using a European setting as I was used to seeing English versions of the story, which was traditionally set in the Ottoman Empire. However, the French editions stayed in Europe and those are obviously the ones Melies used as his influence.

  2. Congratulations on the excellent shoulda-been hand-coloring. I am a great fan of mash-ups and remixes of old movies. As electronic music teaches us, the original might be great, but you can never get tired of having one artist re-interpret another artist’s work. I love the old originals, but I would LOVE to see them remixed with different sound tracks and color schemes by other people who truly love them.

  3. I remember the story from a fairy tale book I had as a child. Seemed scary to me at the time. Left that feeling again when reading the words, Bluebeard…

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