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.

Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.