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.

The Fallen Idol (1948): Learning to Lie

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A child of eight can’t act. I wasn’t looking for an exhibitionist. Adults have habitual features and defenses. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create a role. 

But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him. 

—Sir Carol Reed

 

To call Bobby Henrey a “child actor” would disgrace the uncanny skill and patience of such professional children as Freddie Bartholomew and company.

Bobby starred in only two films: one of them a masterpiece, the other a flop. According to Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, “Bobby had the concentration of a demented flea.” He succumbed easily to boredom and never ceased fidgeting. Co-star Ralph Richardson refused to act with Bobby at a certain point. A padded-up Hamilton often stood in to preserve Richardson’s sanity.

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However, seen by the camera and reassembled by editing, Bobby emerged as something much more extraordinary. He wasn’t acting the part of a child, full of calculated dimples and Victorian postcard sweetness. He was simply, sincerely, and sometimes maddeningly a child.

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Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, scripted by the great Graham Greene, refreshes the tropes of noir by making this child an unwilling participant in a lurid quadrangle of passion and betrayal. Bains, an English butler working at the French embassy in London, falls in love with Julie, a typist working there, and the pair conceal their relationship from Bains’s shrill, vindictive housekeeper wife.

Left in the care of Bains and Mrs. Bains, little Philippe, or ‘Phile’ (pronounced ‘Phil’), the lonely son of the ambassador, gets embroiled in this tangle of lies and conflicting loyalties. When Mrs. Bains accidentally plummets to her death in the midst of a jealous rage, the child witnesses only part of the scene and concludes that Bains, his hero, murdered her.

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Unlike the typical voyeur-witness in film noir, with an obvious duty to tell the truth and shame the devil as in Rear Window or The Window, Phile toddles into a complex empirical and ethical situation. Should he tell the truth and risk incriminating his idol? Or keep on lying—which might put Bains’s head in the noose even more quickly?

The fact that a twitchy, rather selfish child has to navigate this labyrinth of moral quandaries not only heightens the suspense, but also suggests how these kinds of human heart dilemmas bewilder us all—reducing us to little more than children.

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When Phile cries out, “We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time!” at a key tense moment of the film, he’s actually articulating the code of the adult world, a protocol of deception, running the gamut from genteel fibs to half-truths to full-on backstabbing.

Like his character Phile, Bobby Henrey also encountered an adult world far too soon. The French-born only child of two writers, he grew up in the bomb-shattered London of World War II. No wonder he had the attention span of a “demented flea,” with bombs going off around him during his formative years!

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 2.12.51 PMBobby’s silky blond hair and bow lips gave him a fragile, angelic appearance. When the boy’s parents featured him on the cover of one of their books, A Village in Piccadilly, the brilliant English director Carol Reed spotted the child and resolved to cast him in The Fallen Idol. Serendipitously, Bobby spoke French as well as English, and the script called for just such a bilingual child.

Even when speaking English, the lispy remnants of a French accent—R’s catching in his throat, S’s and T’s bleeding into each other—made Bobby’s treble voice both more adorable and more annoying. We sense his displacement every time he opens his mouth.

His strange inflections remind us of the difficulty of making oneself clear as a child. Just as all children wrestle with understanding the world around them, even the most verbal child struggles to make himself understood to the world. These little people grasp for words, putting together sentences like small-holed beads not easily strung together. Bobby spoke his lines like that: haltingly, off-key.

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And yet, I marvel at his casual fluency in adult idioms of the “old chap” variety.

When asked whether or not he’d like an ice cream cone, he stodgily replies, “I wouldn’t say no, Bains. “As he pours himself a drink, he mutters, “Hit me,” like a businessman after a long day at work.

We can imagine him echoing his diplomat father when he moans, “Now, will someone listen to me?” as though he were corralling a contentious summit of attachés.

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More important, Bobby’s Phile shines with a need to give love that rescues him from the label of the incorrigible embassy brat. You can feel a lingering and intimate engrossment in close shots of Phile’s hand caressing MacGregor, a glistening garden snake—the boy’s only friend other than Bains. Those images come across as some of the most poignant (and unlikely, given how little boys love to torment creepy-crawlies) representations of childhood affection ever to grace the screen.

Not realizing that snakes can’t recognize themselves, he puts a pocket mirror up to the tiny serpent, whispering, “Hello, MacGregor. Look—you’re very pretty, you know.” I’m sorry, I know of very few eight-year-old boys who profess their love to reptiles. He wants so badly to share his tenderness with something, even the most cold-blooded of critters.

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Bobby’s rendition of Phile thus plays out as one-third little girl, one-third little gentleman, and one-third utter terror. In his unformed innocence, he contains fragments of all of the other characters in the film: Bains’s sedate bravado, Julie’s melancholic kindness, and Mrs. Bain’s self-absorption.

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The Fallen Idol opens with an iteration of its most striking motif. Phile peers through the bannister bars of the ornate townhouse that he calls home, looking down at the people who bustle around on the parquet floor below. In the language of the camera, high angle shots usually suggest superiority, literally looking down on others.

Yet, In a peculiar way, we recognize Phile as both a mini-tyrant—forever showing up at exasperating times, puncturing a tragic romance with impunity—and a victim.

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Throughout the film, Phile’s point-of-view shots often observe the comings-and-goings of the characters from this vantage point, from a high perch.

Staring down at the drama from his roost, he sees things he really shouldn’t, traumatic, twisted adult things that he’s not ready to see. The high angle shots reveal both Phile’s precarious isolation and the odd degree of power that he ends up holding over the fates of the main characters.

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Only towards the end of the film do we see Phile from the vantage point that once was his, after his lies have spun completely out of control and his credibility has totally collapsed.

By lying poorly and slipping himself up, he casts suspicion on his hero whom he now views as a killer. And in so doing, he sheds his status, in his own eyes, as a special sort of child, a privileged charge and a secret-keeper.

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The genius of The Fallen Idol resides in its ability simultaneously to suggest the child’s perspective, to wink at the audience, and, most tantalizingly, to indicate that the Phile can digest much more than you might assume.

For instance, when Bains plots a clandestine excursion with Julie under the pretense of a visit to the zoo, Phile walks right past the door of the room where Bains is talking to her. Then, getting his wind up, he drolly tiptoes backwards. Cut to a point-of-view shot as the camera carefully tracks to eavesdrop as the butler insists, “The boy knows nothing.”

Later, when Bains pretends to be surprised at Julie showing up, Phile corrects him, saying that he was talking to her earlier. This son of a diplomat has not only been taught to lie precociously, he can also catch others in their lies, at times.

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However, we’re not encouraged to view Phile condescendingly. He only has a piece of the puzzle, true, but he’s no more muddled than any of the so-called adults.

His confused perspective parallels the equally anxious positions of the grown-ups. Indeed, the only one who gets the full story is the viewer. For instance, Mrs. Bains dies alone and only we know exactly how it happens.

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Phile watches Bains and Mrs. Bains struggle. Boy, is this kid gonna need therapy!

And so we arrive at the villain of the piece, the monstrous and pitiful Mrs. Bains. We’ve all had to deal with a Mrs. Bains. You know, that sadistic adult in your life who, out of her own bitterness, yelled at you not for doing anything really wrong but merely for being a child, for possessing the innocence and freedom that destiny had deprived her.

Now, Phile may not be the easiest child star to love, but I want to hug him when he turns to that malicious harridan over the dinner table and matter-of-factly tells her, “I hate you.”

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Her nostrils flair: “Master Philip, you’ll say you’re sorry for that.” His head barely poking up over the tablecloth, the tiny boy objects, “I’m not sorry.” As this dangerous exchange takes place, we get a reaction shot of Bains and can discern how impressed he is at Phile telling his wife what he’d probably most like to tell her!

Phile brings about this confrontation of cataclysmically pure honesty. So, of course, he’s sent to his room with no supper. It’s the last fully honest moment in the film.

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For an only or lonely child raised in an ambiance of high-stakes adult games like education or politics, childhood is a state of endlessly being patronized and dismissed.

Believe me. I know.

I grew up as a faculty brat, proud of my encyclopedic knowledge of secrets, of the petty rivalries and schemes that cropped up at the private school where my mother worked.

Take my word on it: long before most children can pronounce the word, they’ve come to hate hypocrisy. And by the time they can pronounce it, they’ve usually been coerced to embrace it.

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Children are the world’s dupes. Not because they lack intelligence, but rather because they possess far more of it than most grown-ups tend to realize. Children live in worlds governed by rules and they know all too well when they—or the adults around them—have broken a rule.

Whereas a child’s faults are often painstakingly reflected back to him and punished, the child who points out the transgressions of his elders faces a terrible and implacable resentment.  People take criticism quite easily from those who can be discounted by their own vices. But reproach from a child stings. The guilty do not like to be rebuked by the guiltless.

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We observe the double-bind that every child faces when Mrs. Bains wakes Phile up to ask him where Bains and Julie can be found in the house. The boy’s cherubic head rests on the pillow. A bobby pin drops next to him on the pillow.

Phile opens one eye. A cut comes quickly—almost too quickly—to jolt us with the frenzied face of Mrs. Bains. “Oh, you know all about them.” She hisses. “You’re not such a child as you pretend to be! You’ve got a nasty wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!”

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The jilted wife treats the child as if he’s an extension of her cheating husband. Phile’s trilling, high voice chokes with horror. He can’t totally process what fuels the adults’ envy and passion, but he knows that he has no place being talked to like this.

He’s been swapped out for a grown man in a lover’s quarrel, feeling the heat of blame for his idol’s infidelity. It scares the hell out of him. Sex is like some algebraic variable that he hasn’t discovered but can discern from the facts, leaving the entire equation lob-sided and all the more alarming.

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The Fallen Idol stands out as one of the most haunting, stomach-churningly tense films I’ve ever seen. In terms of suspense, it schools Hitchcock, whose films rarely (if ever) showcased a performance as vulnerable and exquisite as little Bobby Henrey’s.

Carol Reed, gifted at handling kids as his Oliver! proved, charmed every ounce of that child’s cuteness, his mischief, his ability to bug the living daylights out of his elders.

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Crack cameraman George Perinal, who belongs in the cinematography greats pantheon with Jack Cardiff, captures Bobby’s face so as to wring every emotional nuance out of it. In one scene, when an inspector bends over to talk to the boy, a ray of light drifts over his face, giving him the look of a living painting.

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Most stunningly, as a terrified Phile runs through the noirish streets at night, his miniscule, pajama-clad body flickers through the chiaroscuro, a single point of focus in composition after composition of slick darkness and urban decay.

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I think that I am scarcely exaggerating when I conclude that The Fallen Idol represents the best film ever made about childhood and one of life’s most important rites of passage: learning to lie. And it all would’ve been unthinkable without Bobby Henrey.

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N.B. I am very much indebted to and fully acknowledge an article in the UK Guardian, “What Bobby Saw,” about Bobby’s involvement in the film for certain quotes that I’ve cited in this post and a lot of useful background information.

Although the analysis here is all my own, I would also like to recommend Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Through a Child’s Eyes, Darkly” which comes in the Criterion Collection booklet accompanying the DVD of The Fallen Idol, which gave me some great inspiration as I wrote this post.

This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon hosted by Comet over Hollywood. Join us in celebrating child stars and heck out the other posts! They’re really wonderful.

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