d. Maurice Tourneur / USA / 81 mins.
Maurice Tourneur's The Blue Bird rests on the cinematic palette as some sweet and twisted hybrid of German expressionism and The Wizard of Oz — all the more impressive because it would two more years before the lead-off jewel in the expressionist canon, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, would find its way to America. L. Frank Baum's novel and its many filmic adaptations had already been percolating through American culture for almost two decades, but to compare Maurice Maeterlinck's fine stage play and Tourneur's equally fine film to Baum's creation is ultimately a bit unfair to both. True, both are stories of children whisked away to magical realms and searching for something; but if Baum's is a journey about finding yourself and returning home, then Maeterlinck's allegory of children with a home searching for "the Bluebird of Happiness" to make such a life bearable is incrementally more sinister. If the most sublime incarnation of The Wizard of Oz is Victor Fleming's lavish Technicolor vision as a reflection on the dream-like material at hand, then Tourneur's shadowy, unsettling silent vision of The Blue Bird must be noted for the way it suits its material with equal metaphoric faithfulness and, though less achieved, provides an enjoyable experience.
The pursuit begins when two young children, named Tyltyl (Robin Macdougall) and Mytyl (Tula Belle), are visited by the fairy Berylune (Lillian Cook), who accompanies them on a journey into wondrous lands to find the "the bluebird of happiness," but as with many journeys, it will not be until the end that the children realize what they've traveled for and why their views on life will perhaps not be the same. Along the way they are accompanied by their (now anthropomorphic) dog and cat, portrayed rather effectively by men in transparent costumes who smoothly scamper on all-fours, and by the incarnations of elements like Fire and Water.
The special effects here, if one can call them such, are inspiring. Equipped with only physical materials (which are used to create striking angular sets and loose, simplistic costumes that evoke the story's origins in the theater) and a knowledge of celluloid, Tourneur pulls off a distinctive world positioned with one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. No doubt Tourneur was heavily influenced by the cinema of Georges Méliès, where strategic cuts could make people appear and disappear from and into thin air; overlay images to create ghostly amalgams; and blend the real and the artificial into a gimmicky sort of cinematic pleasure. In the sense that they are conducted with the same skill as Melies they are tricks, but in the sense that enrich the story with child-like wonder they are successful bursts of brilliance. To those unacquainted Maeterlinck's play, it may seem as if Tourneur waits to reveal these special effects. It is fifteen minutes before a sense of fantasy even creeps in.
Contrast this to something like Snow White — the Famous Players Company production from 1916 — which all but erases its sense of wonder by spoiling the entire opening through an image (completely unrelated to the film, it should be noted) of Santa Claus leaving toys. Realism as a device, particularly in the faces and emotions of the young children who are our central characters, is treated with as much deference as fantasy, which is why this adaptation works well in the end. In what surely must be chalked up to accident, there is a blanketing effect of the silence — it suppresses favoritism, allows the children to exist as captivating characters and allows the fantastic sets, costumes, and characters to come to life with the delight of youthful imagination and the sheer terror of adult knowledge.
11 June 2009
d. Maurice Tourneur / USA / 81 mins.