The Blue Bird: No Place Like Home

Maurice Tourneur‘s 1918 production of The Blue Bird feels a long way from Walsh’s Five Points. This adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck‘s 1908 play, is realized by the French director for Adolph Zukor‘s Famous Players-Lasky in fantastic style. Tytyl and Mytyl are a brother and sister living up in a snow-covered village that’s located somewhere between Hansel and Gretel. Across the way lives a sick child and her mannish-looking mother. Down the road are “The Rich Children.” After the kids refuse to let the sick girl adopt their pet bird, they recieve a night visit from a fairy. The fairy brings their surroundings to life and charges Tytyl (Robin Macdougall) and Mytyl (Tula Belle) to find the bluebird of happiness.

Tytyl and Mytyl are accompanied on their search by a strange assortment of dancing fire spirits, a loaf of bread incarnated as a maharajah, and a cat who fears the bluebird’s discovery will also be his death sentence. Tourneur uses superimposition and various tricks from Melies’s bag to bring the elements and animals to life. There’s a nice use of reverse motion when Mytyl changes from night-shirt to expedition-wear. A clever use of silhouettes conveys the fairytale atmosphere of one of the Rich Children’s fetes. The Tyls’ journey gets crazier, though. First they visit the Palace of Night, where Tytyl looks in vain for the bird among the Wan Sicknesses, Shades and Terrors and even War. The children then visit The Happy Dead, where they are reunited with their late grandparents and a crowd of “my little dead brothers and sisters.” After a stop by an explosive orgy being held by the Spenserian figure of Luxury-of-Being-Rich, the Tyls finally reach the Palace of Happiness, where they survey the Joy of Living, Joys of Pure Thoughts, and the Happy Young. Seeing that these joys are represented by young women mostly in gauze, it may be more truth to say they are supposed to be the Joy of the Libidinous Producer and the Lonely Audience Member.

Tourneur draws mostly on turn of the century kitsch for his rendition of these allegorical elements. Modern audiences may be surprised to see both Sleep and Death incarnated as two naked children. The capper is a tour of children waiting to be born., prefaced by a vision of “The Greatest Joy of All — Maternal Love.” The passing of nine decades has made this high cheese indeed. The most curious inhabitants of this world are a pair of tots known as “The Lovers.” They are forcibly sundered when one is due to be born before the other. “How will I know you?” asks the precocious spirit, doomed to stay in heaven’s departure lounge a little longer. “I’ll be the saddest person alive,” says the imminent fetus.

Like The Wizard of Oz (1939) only kookier, the phantasmagoria ends back home, where the bluebird has been all along. In case the head is still spinning, Tourneur’s child heroes look into the camera to advise us to seek our own bluebird, “in your own home, WHERE HE IS APT TO BE FOUND.” (emphasis titles’ own). Where Regeneration uses realism and historical recreation to give audiences an image of the world they live in, this wartime fantasia acts a kind of pablum. Its domestic advocacy may be a protest against America’s involvement in Europe. Considering its Belgian author and French director, it’s closer to an idealized notion of what’s at stake. Tourneur and Maeterlinck would lose this particular battle. Blue Bird‘s metaphysics are one of Victoriana’s last attempts to comfort antiquated mindsets while an ocean away, a new world was being born in Flanders’ fields.

Tourneur would actually adapt to the times, returning to France and eventually becoming a major player in the Vichy film industry during World War II. Bertrand Tavernier includes him in his cinematic history of the period, Laisser-passer (2001). The same year, the Norwegian-born Belle would reappear in Tourneur’s adaptation of Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House as one of the Helmar children. The Blue Bird was adapted by Charles Maigne, a Richmond-born author who discovered his metier was writing and directing Westerns like The Trail of the Lonesome Pine before dying in 1929.

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