Saturday, 17 January 2015

Magical mystery tour... The Blue Bird (1918)

"The silent stage is a thing as much apart from the so-called 'legitimate' stage as ice skating is from roller skating." Maurice Tourneur, 1915

It's interesting to read Tourneur's views on silent film as he talked of the need for the development  of "a new sort of creative literary brain" for filmdom" an "author" who would work within the medium and not bring ideas from without: someone who could use the particular strengths of film to create disciplined art.

Such thinking aligns with that of Maurice Maeterlinck's view of acting: "the stage is a place where works of art are extinguished. ...Poems die when living people get into them." The Belgian writer enjoyed great success in the theatre but he obviously felt that the input of performers took his work off in unpredictable directions and even considered that puppets might be preferable...

What then did Monsieur Maeterlinck make of the other Maurice's production of his play The Blue Bird? Few directors of the silent period exerted such control over their work as Tourneur and as he changed the "skates" used by the Blue Bird did he move its symbolism closer to its author's original vision?

The film was released just over a year after the director's collaboration with Mary Pickford in The Poor Little Rich Girl and featured such regular collaborators as art director Ben Carré, cinematographer John van den Broke and Editor Clarence Brown. If that film was Revolver this was the full Sgt. Pepper - a flight of fantasy from start to finish: silent psychedelia in full bloom at a time when the World needed to believe in eternal truths and the truth of eternity.

Bread, faithful Dog, Water, Sugar, a Fairy, Milk, selfish Cat and Fire...
There are no puppets as such but plenty of tightly-defined fantasy constructs - humanised versions of fire, water and light, dogs, cats and wonderful "moods" such as vibrant dancers embodying The Joys of Pure Thoughts and the slightly less impressive Sleeping-More-Than-Necessary (young people in my house take note!). Tourneur also draws pure and naturalistic performances from his cast of children, 12-year old Tula Belle as Mytyl and Robin Macdougall as Tyltyl who react and act with genuine thrill to every new wonder.

Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle
The film is a sumptuous collection of visual set pieces, a hyper-creative comfort blanket that smuggles through the simple message that there's not only no place like home but that kindness must spread out from there into the heart-broken World beyond.

There seem to be few hard edges but when in the heart of their fantastic journey the two youngsters meet not only their dead grandparents but their dead brothers and sisters, there are at least ten of them... this was a time when infant mortality was high and life came with the flimsiest of "guarantees".

The Fabric of Moonbeams...
Mytyl and Tyltyl are peasant children who live in relative comfort with their parents Daddy Tyl (Edwin E. Reed) and Mummy Tyl (Emma Lowry). Their neighbours range from a rich children inhabiting a large mansion to the impoverished Widow Berlingot (a dragged-up Edward Elkas) who lives with her seriously-ill daughter (Katherine Bianchi).

Watching the party at the rich children's house
 The widow asks the children if she can borrow their pet bird to cheer her daughter up but they refuse and think nothing of it. They are not particularly selfish children but do present as complacent as they tease their mother over her attempts to get them to respect the memory of their grandmother, or to take care with their daily bread, milk and water.

Lillian Cook and Tom Corless
That night the children are woken by the appearance of their neighbour who then reveals herself to be Fairy Bérylune (Lillian Cook). The fairy gives Tyltyl a hat which enables him to see the truth of things as they really are and soon their room is filled with everyday objects come to life: Light ( Fire (S.E. Potapovitch), Water (Mary Kennedy), Sugar (Charles Craig), Milk (Eleanor Masters) and Bread (Sammy Blum). Even their faithful dog (Charles Ascot) and slightly evil Cat (Tom Corless) spring to half-human existence.

The Fairy says they must head off on a journey through mystical lands to find the Bluebird of Happiness, none of the animates will be able to return but they all agree to help the children. Off they fly, heading up to encounter all manner of wonders, with the imaginations of Tourneur and his crew barely limited by the restrictions of contemporary technology.

In Night's castle...
What follows features some of stunning set-piece visuals - as you would expect given the director's painterly background - it's pretty much un-relentingly lovely with the odd lapse into saccharine overdrive. Whether it was influenced by the earlier works of Lewis Carroll and Frank Baum it certainly had its own impact on their subsequent cinematic adaptations.
Free spirits
I watched the Kino DVD which comes with a wistful score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. It's available direct from Kino Lorber or from Amazon in the UK.

Did Tourneur succeed? The reviewer from the New York Times was in no doubt:

"M. Maeterlinck's poem has been transferred from a book to the screen, and it is a safe assertion to say that seldom, if ever, has the atmosphere and spirit of a written work been more faithfully reproduced in motion pictures."

No comments:

Post a Comment