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.

Time on Her Side: She (1935)

“How do you think I rule these people? Not by force, but by terror. My empire is of the imagination.”

—Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep or She (Helen Gahagan)

In her own way, She Who Must Be Obeyed, ageless goddess of the forgotten realm of Kor, Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep offers the perfect counterpoint to King Kong.

Both King Kong and She were produced by Merian C. Cooper and the films distinctly echo each other, although I would argue that Irving Pichel’s directorial contributions to She makes it the subtler and more complex of the two. Both movies involve intrepid protagonists’ epic journeys into dangerous, exotic locations, reluctantly accompanied by female love-interests, to search for an elusive vestige of another time (Kong or, in She, the Eternal Flame of youth) which they hope to bring back to civilization. The somewhat expedient, bare plots of both films are constructed around the prospect of extreme spectacles.

Most importantly, both films center on magnetic archetypes: a giant, ferocious ape, the ultimate incarnation of primitive maleness, or an ethereal, willful witch/goddess/queen, the quintessence of daunting femininity. Both “monsters” show up at almost the midpoint of the movies after long, drawn-out ceremonial door-openings.

Let’s face it, we don’t care half as much about the dashing protagonists or their shrieking girls as we do about Kong and She. So, of course, these forces of nature have to succumb to the nice, mediocre couple in the end, but I love that Kong and She both allow us as audience members to unleash our inner demons for about an hour-and-a-half.  And, despite whatever anyone wants to say about this film’s flaws (and there are plenty), that’s enough to make me like it.

Dressed to Kill

No discussion of this film would be complete without mentioning the art direction by Van Nest Polglase (who also did the iconic art direction for Citizen Kane) which I can only describe as bitchin’. Huge deco statues of man-beasts? Yup.

Honeycomb walls? Uh-huh.

Silver branches, ring-shaped gongs, cliffside arbors? Oh, yes!

The slick, exaggerated old-new mash-up of She’s palace endows this film with both a genius camp silliness and a mythic power. Just as She is both a modern woman and some kind of medieval dream witch (very Parsifal), the set looks both backwards and forwards in the chronology of design. It’s like Lang’s Metropolis and Karnak had a baby. Or like a production of The Ten Commandments on LSD.

She Who Must Be Obeyed’s costumes also reflect this past-future duality. Her archaic tunics and medieval-ish crowns marry with a Flash Gordon sensibility that makes her wardrobe difficult to place in a distinct era. She is unbound by the time we know. Her path and her world is a tangent, blazing away from the accepted arc of history.

Timeless

Just the other day, I was joking with my wonderful father that women are the keepers of remembrance. You will never trump our memory. We are the ones who recall every detail. Do not refer to yesterday without consulting us. It may be history that men traditionally chronicle—a triumphal linear narrative—but women own the subjective past, the uncanny and un-pin-down-able flow of time and experience. Time is our province. Trespass on it, and you will regret it. (Accept it: you DID NOT take the trash out yesterday.)

Again, I was jesting, but, like all glittering generalities, this one encloses a glimmer of truth.

Which is why She is such an interesting character. She brings a whole new hallucinatory awareness of time and space to the film, which had previously consisted of rather conventional adventure epic sequences. For instance, the first time we see her as a physical form, not just a smoke shadow, an ecstatic crane shot rises to meet her, surging up a set of stairs. A piercing, operatic scream (Helen Gahagan was an accomplished opera singer) punctuates the moment with a flat, vibrato-less “white voice” that deserves comparison with Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein swan hiss.

The next shot, this time focusing on the object of her affections, the unconscious Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), swoops right into him from above.

Upwards, then downwards, these tricky camera movements serve up far more visual exhilaration than all the tiresome avalanches and Arctic matte shots in the film.

Anyway, in case you haven’t seen the film, She believes that Vincey is the reincarnation of his doppelganger ancestor, whom she loved and killed in a fit of jealousy… and whose corpse she keeps around, for God knows what purpose. So, she decides that this time she’ll get it right by keeping the boy toy in her enchanted kingdom and giving him eternal life. She makes a vision of this doomed romance appear in her gazing pool.

This flashback in the water closely mirrors the scene in The Mummy when Imhotep reveals the past to Helen. In that case, though, the past returns as a narrative, a film within a film, in the style of the silent cinema. For She, the past is a superimposed recollection—a moment in time that she calls forth.

As She strokes the water to dismiss the mirage, there’s a personal quality, and intimacy to the eternalized kiss that makes it less creepy than Imhotep’s replay of the past. Imhotep is a conjurer, a magician. She is the mistress of time, comfortable with its ins and outs. She can swim in time’s waters without rupturing the narrative like Imhotep.

I also find it amusing that we’re supposed to consider She Who Must Be Obeyed cruel and inhuman. Umm… her desire for vengeance and for eternal love are very human indeed. What else brings us to the movie theater if not our own impossible fantasies? Is it so wrong that this woman gets to live them out for us?

It’s not just the average person’s fantasy she’s living out. She has also attained the dream of generations of scientists and rational men. After all, the film opens with a shot of a ticking pendulum clock and the last wishes of a dying scientist, Dr. John Vincey—dying of radium poisoning which he ironically suffered as a result of his efforts to find a chemical source of immortality.

Pointing to the solemn pendulum clock, the invalid explains that he longs to conquer time and hopes that his long-lost relative, Leo, will carry on the quest for eternal youth by searching for it in northern Russia. So, basically, this wise, paternal figure is just a less successful version of She, longing for the eternal youth she attained?

For me, the most insightful shot of the movie (and Lansing Holden and Irving Pichel’s direction provides many such moments) comes when John Vincey dies in at the end of a grandiloquent monologue about vanquishing death. He collapses in his chair and the camera moves in to single out a gold figurine of She on his desk.

This shot links the two together and hints that, however uncanny and foreign She might be, She really represents something fundamental in mankind—the hope of living forever.

Of course, because it’s 1935 Hollywood, no badass queen gets to live forever. She dies pathetically, withering in the very flame that gave her 500 years of youth.

The only eternal flame is the one that lives in every home’s heart and hearth, we’re told at the end. The mighty mountaintop blaze even dissolves into the cozy little flames in the fireplace grate. Hurrah for domesticity!

But I find it hard to believe that, settling in his armchair in England, Leo, who threw over a She for a mortal, won’t be thinking of that dangerous goddess as his joints grow weak and his eyes grow dim. The genius of this movie is that, despite the hokey ending, we all share a glint of She’s wisdom. We see through the cute bunk and, seduced by the deco trappings and the maddened, fiery glow of Helen Gahagan’s eyes, we dream of ageless paradise.

Even the rather conservative Photoplay magazine gushed about the film, “Here is a spectacle of magnificent proportions with the decadent effluvium of the tomb period.” Alas, in 1935, this rare orchid of a film nevertheless flopped—I would argue, primarily because of its incomplete escapism, marred by an unconvincing and somewhat bland ending. We almost lost this treasure to the ravages of time and neglect.

However, fortunately She’s lost dominion has been recovered today… thanks to Buster Keaton no less, who kept a print of the film in his house!

Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep’s empire is “of the imagination.” And there, curiosity and longing will always triumph over quotidian things.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

My reflections on this film were very much stimulated by watching it as a tweet-along with the #driveinmob crew. I particularly appreciated the sharp observations of @CulturalGutter and @Drive-In-Mob. I can’t recommend this weekly movie-event enough. Check out Drive-In-Mob and join us!

The high quality images featured in this article also come from Dr. Macro. I intend no commercial gain from use of these files and ask that you please not use them for commercial ends, either. Thank you.