The Blue Bird (1918)
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Cast: Tula Belle, Robin Macdougall, Edwin E. Reed
Synopsis: Two peasant children, Mytyl and Tyltyl, are led by Berylune, a fairy, to search for the Blue Bird of Happiness.
Happiness, eh? It’s a slippery bugger. Most of us are looking for it in the wrong place, apparently. Materials, relationships — that sort of thing. Turns out it’s an elusive blue bird that has a tendency to fly away as soon as you find it.
Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 adaptation of the play by Maurice Maeterlinck has the look of a movie that almost died. The print I watched had degraded so badly in some places that the images were barely identifiable. It also has the look of a fairy-tale about it, and is little more than a succession of incidents lacking any real plot, which means it relies largely on its imagery to hold the audience’s attention. Back in 1918, The Blue Bird would probably have looked pretty spectacular, but today we’ve seen it all many times before, so it struggles to keep our interest.
The story revolves around Mytyl (Tula Belle) and Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall), the children of a woodcutter who looks far too old and tired to have children their age. Across the road from the kids lives a sickly child and her mother — who looks old enough to be her Great-Grandmother, and is actually played by a man (Edward Elkas). The girl (Katherine Bianchi) suggests that if she had a bird like Mytyl’s she might be well again, which sounds like shameless manipulation to me, but her mother complies, and asks Mytyl if she would consider lending her bird to her daughter. Mytyl selfishly refuses.
That night, after an odd discussion with their mother during which it’s established that all objects have a soul — even milk and sugar — the kids go to sleep, only to be awoken first by the noise of a party the rich kids who live across the road are holding, and then by a visit from the fairy Berylune (Lillian Cook), who informs them that they must search for the Blue Bird of Happiness. They are to be accompanied on their quest by the soul of milk, a rather thin, effeminate man, the soul of bread, who’s a sultan, fat and jolly, the souls of fire and water and others, including their pet dog and cat, who are played by humans. Learning that all who accompany the kids on their quest will die before returning, the sly and smirking cat, makes plans to ensure they never succeed…
There follows a succession of scenes in which the kids visit various locations in pursuit of the elusive Blue Bird. These are presented with creativity and charm, but with little purpose other than to tick off the check list of where and where not happiness can be found. Memories of loved ones are good, wild parties are a no-no — that kind of thing.
The film has a dreamlike fairy-tale look about it, and benefits from the performances of Belle and MacDougall, who give impressively natural performances. The obvious comparison to be made is with The Wizard of Oz (1939), with which this film shares many themes and visuals. Tourneur’s use of stop-motion photography looks strangely outdated, even for a film made in 1918, calling up memories of all those trick photography movies his fellow countryman Georges Melies was making back in the late 1800s. Although The Blue Bird is only 75 minutes long, its pace does falter because of that lack of a plotline, which means that it only just retains our patience before reaching its predictable conclusion.
(Reviewed 26th June 2013)