The Blue Bird (1918): Sweet Mystery of Life

I have only my brightness, which Man does not understand…. But I watch over him to the end of his days…. Never forget that I am speaking to you in every spreading moonbeam, in every twinkling star, in every dawn that rises, in every lamp that is lit, in every good and bright thought of your soul…

—the Spirit of Light, The Blue Bird (from the original play by Maurice Maeterlinck)

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I don’t know about you, but most of the time when people describe a movie as “magical,” I want to hurl.

That whimsical adjective serves all too often as a rationalization, a shiny foil wrapper for cynical, syrupy flicks designed to make adults think that they’re reliving their childhood when they’re really wallowing in empty brain calories. Not to sound hardboiled, but a “magical” film is a rare thing. It’s something that you seek only to be continually disappointed, something for which there is no substitute. And where magic truly is, there melancholy must also dwell. Ironically, we can only appreciate the helpless joys and sorrows of childhood once we have come to realize that our joys and sorrows as adults are just as helpless, if a little less pure.

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The Blue Bird is that fabulous movie which seems to enfold you with the gentleness of the one who told you stories as a child, if you were that lucky. This film understands everything you lost by crossing the threshold into maturity—and shows that it’s never lost if you keep looking. Director Maurice Tourneur gives this film a shimmery sense of yearning, weaving in every available special effect of the time to create a “fabric of moonbeams,” an ethereal, translucent dreamscape.

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Its plot follows an established fairy tale quest trajectory. In order to cure their neighbor’s invalid daughter, Tyltyl and Mytyl, brother and sister, embark on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness. Travelling through a fantasy realm fraught with peril and delight, the siblings are accompanied by a good fairy and the anthropomorphic or personified spirits of various household objects and creatures—all of whom, the children learn, must die at the end of the voyage.

As a post-WWI allegory, The Blue Bird cradles a world shattered by hate and destruction and offers its paradisiacal beauty as a balm for bruised souls.

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Made the year before The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Tourneur’s childlike fantasy bears a number of similarities to the milestone horror film. Most obviously, Weine and Tourneur deftly harnessed the power of art direction—especially flat backgrounds of painted chiaroscuro lighting—to influence the mood and ambiance of a particular scene and to translate subjective mental states.

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However, to the eyes of this viewer, The Blue Bird makes Weine’s high-profile thriller look primitive by comparison. Whereas Caligari too often contents itself with letting drama play out in front of its impressive scenery—as it would on a stage—Tourneur’s masterpiece demonstrates a finely calibrated comprehension of the pas de deux that needs to take place between mise-en-scene and editing in order to tell a story.

We watch the painted illusions of Méliès come of age and acquire new meaning and wisdom, once wedded to narrative. For instance, when Tyltyl and Mytyl watch as a cemetery turns suddenly into a meadow, a cut switches the toning color from a lugubrious bluish-gray to a warm, inviting mauve. The triumph of love over death articulates itself in a simple switch from one shot to another.

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Several visual patterns, especially a frame-within-a-frame motif, help to structure the wildly diverse imagery in The Blue Bird and lend a measure of continuity to the somewhat episodic plot.

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Today’s filmmakers could learn a lot from The Blue Bird’s delicate balance between the awe we feel before the film’s visual flourishes and our emotional investment in the characters.

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As Kenneth MacGowan noted, “A number of scenes showed the players against fantastic flat designs—with perhaps a mountain or a castle in silhouette. There was no attempt to light these drops so as to imitate reality or to create an abstraction of vague dreaminess. It was a ‘stunt,’ an attempt at abstraction. The effect of individual scenes was pretty enough, but the contrast between these and succeeding scenes of three-dimensional realism was disconcerting.”

Consequently, the film flopped at the box office. I guess 1918 wasn’t ready for this level of brilliance.

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Personally, I savor how the movie pirouettes on the apparently volatile boundary between fantasy and reality. Even the most quotidian of objects, after all, can transmogrify into something alien and chimerical if you just look at them a little differently. This fluidity in The Blue Bird is more indicative of what goes on in our minds—especially the elastic, synapse-storm brains of children, as they shuttle back and forth between interior worlds and exterior demands—than accepted norms of “realism.”

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If this “children’s film” occasionally succumbs to sentiment and eye candy, it also probes the darkest questions that haunt us all. Why do good people suffer? What happens to the people I love after they die? Will I ever find my soul mate? What’s the point of being alive?

Herein lies the genius of The Blue Bird. Kids do think about these grave matters. I was, like, 7-years-old when I asked my mom, “What’s the meaning of life?” Needless to say, I was gravely pissed when she told me that nobody really knows. (My mother is blessedly honest.)

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Though its subject matter is heavy, The Blue Bird confronts such grisly vagaries and questions with a touch as light as a baby’s pinkie toe. Consider, for instance, how Tyltyl’s loyal dog comically saves him from the shrieking ghouls of madness in the Castle of Night. Isn’t it true, though, that the love and affection of one living creature can save you from going bananas?

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Tyltyl and Mytyl’s also pay a bittersweet visit to their dead grandparents—who take care of the souls of their dead brothers and sisters. You might expect morbidity or mawkishness, but no. The humor and casual domesticity of the odd scene quickly ingratiated its wish fulfillment with me.

The spiritual splendor of this film amazes me. You might say that it glows with the iridescent beauty of a lost treasure; its cinematographer John van den Broek drowned at at the age of 23 while shooting a picture just a few months after The Blue Bird was released. This film bears witness to his incredible talent, cut down in its prime.

Fanciful set designs by the inspired Ben Carré transform every frame into a living storybook illustration. And fans of silent movie intertitles (who isn’t?) will be floored by the most stunning intertitle art I’ve ever seen—bar none.

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Significantly, however, Tourneur reserves the most magical moment of the film for the return to so-called reality. Once the children have bidden farewell to their spirit playmates and found the Blue Bird (I won’t say how!), the creature flutters away, having cured their neighbor.

And then, Tyltyl turns to the camera. He looks right at us and addresses us, urging the audience to carry on the search for the storied Blue Bird.

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Breaking the fourth wall is not really a special effect. It’s a shock to the mind, to the barriers we put up to keep ourselves apart from the story. However, the impact of movie characters suddenly speaking to an audience can stir us more than any display of visual wizardry.

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Just as the lines separating reality and fantasy blur within The Blue Bird, they also blur without. The playful universe of the story permeates our own more mundane realm once its protagonist addresses us.

Whereas many dreamlike films leave you to shrug it off and think, “Well, it’s just a movie,” The Blue Bird flies into our world, anointing those privileged enough to see it as the new seekers of happiness, the torchbearers of the quest. Perhaps the wonders of the world do lie dormant and curled up in the things that we most take for granted.

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Pardon this non sequitur, but when I was a little girl, I read something that Napoleon Bonaparte wrote and which has remained with me ever since. In a letter to Josephine, he asked, “What magic fluid envelops us and and hides from us the things it is most important for us to know? We are born, we live, and we die in the midst of the marvelous.” When I was watching The Blue Bird, I remembered that wistful quote and realized that this movie somehow lifts the veil from our eyes so that we may perceive the marvels all around us.

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Cinema’s magic arsenal easily lends itself to the depiction of sickening violence and ugliness. The first ever film edit, a hidden cut in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, served the purpose of portraying a decapitation in horrifying, realistic detail. One of the most iconic breaking-the-fourth-wall shots in film history, from The Great Train Robbery, was exactly that—a shot right at the audience, a gesture of idiotic, unreasoning aggression. We associate expressionism with horror movies, and, today, CGI generates grotesque, turgid battle scenes, slip n’ slides of hemoglobin and sweat.

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The Blue Bird proves to us that cinema’s magic apparatus can marshal its powers for good as well as evil.

This masterpiece stands as an elegant example of what a film built on special effects ought to be; that is, Tourneur’s many forays into silly hidden cuts and double exposures all strive to shed light on a character or hint at a universal truth about the human condition.  Reversed footage makes ordinary objects dance, and trick editing delivers fanciful, symbolic creatures into being. The Kuleshov Effect assembles a palace of wonders and curiosities—behind each door, impossible landscapes wait to be discovered.

If I ever go to heaven, I hope it looks like this movie. In any case, The Blue Bird shows how art can make heaven on earth.

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You can watch The Blue Bird on YouTube right now or download it for free at the Internet Archive. I strongly urge you to do do. Really. I shudder in horror at the thought that I might have gone through my whole life and not seen this movie.

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