In Winona, Minnesota, there is a tooth-shaped pillar of rock atop one of the steep, green bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river. The bluff and its molar-like excrescence at its crest is called "the Sugar Loaf" and it is a local landmark. No one really stops to think about what the term "sugar loaf" means. But, in fact, a century ago sugar was, apparently, sold in crystallized pillars or blocks, columns of sugar that were called "loaves." This is apparent from Maurice Tourneur's intensely poetic fantasy film, The Blue Bird, a picture that was famous in 1918. In that film, a character, the mother of the child-protagonists, bids her daughter Myltyl to bring "the sugar loaf" to the table; the girl obliges by taking from the shelf a two-foot high stela , a rounded pillar of marble-white sugar that looks, more or less, like the leading edge of a tube of lipstick. Made 98 years ago, The Blue Bird is intrinsically foreign to modern viewers -- it contains a lyrical glimpse into a world that is long-gone, the world of the diaphanous symbolic impressionism too fragile and esthetically intricate to survive its brutal bludgeoning by World War I.
The Blue Bird is a fairy-tale based on a symbolic play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a theatrical spectacle from 1908 that was widely popular before the Great War. The film version is, as it were, an after-vision of that once famous spectacle of son et lumiere, a fading bruise on the retina like a shadow retained in the eye after we have gazed at something too bright for us. The story is a literary attempt to capture the evanescent and primordial simplicity of a fairy tale. Two children, Tyltyl and his sister Myltyl live in a humble foresters's cabin in the middle of a forest -- on one side of their cottage, there is a shanty occupied by a poor sick girl and her hideous mother; on the other side of their home, a palace rises above the trees, the domicile of the rich children. The mother of the poor dying girl visits our hero and heroine and asks of they will give her a "blue bird" that might cure her sick daughter. The little boy and his sister are afraid of the hag -- she is stooped, carries a club-like crutch under her arm, and has masculine features sometimes half-concealed by grotesque round goggles that she wears. The children fear the witch and refuse to help her. Tourneur cuts periodically away from the encounter between the hag and the children showing the dying child, a little girl propped up in her bed and delicately lit by the window through which she gazes -- the composition and lighting is derived from Edvard Munch's painting and engraving of "a dying girl." The children go to sleep and dream. In their vision, household objects become "ensouled" (a concept that their mother has earlier impressed upon them.) We see the soul of the water, the fire in the hearth, and, most remarkably, the bread and sugar-loaf in their kitchen. The family's dog and car appear as dancers crouching yet graceful and the hag from next-door is transmuted into a fairy. It is evident that imagery from this film had a long and profound influence on later Hollywood pictures: in particular, the fairy is, more or less, identical with the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, likewise the dog, who seems a bit humble and cowardly, later disports himself with pugilistic gestures that are exactly imitated by the cowardly lion in that same film from 1939. In the company of the fairy and the various ensouled and animate household items, the boy and girl depart on a mystical journey, seeking the elusive "blue bird of happiness."
On the evidence of this film, Maurice Tourneur was one of the great fabulists in film history. The fantastic journey undertaken by his protagonists delves into a number of magical realms, all of them portrayed vigorously and with ingenious and effective special effects. The film's lyrical fantasy is grounded in periodic glimpses of a solid, realistic world -- the children's parents share a single grubby bed and wear shabby nightclothes: they look convincingly intimate in a way that later films would censor and repress: by the thirties, men and women could not be shown occupying the same bed. Periodically, Tourneur cuts away from the arabesques and fantasy chiaroscuro of his elaborate sets to simple outdoor landscape -- and the effect is invariably invigorating. Like Griffith, Tourneur knows how to turn an unprepossessing stretch of real estate -- a stony beach or a curving path up a hill in a forest, into mysterious and beautiful landscapes. Much of the film is set before spectacular black silhouette castles and palace or spiky landscapes of stylized trees -- these sorts of silhouette furnishings are very similar, and precursors to, the German film made a decade later, The Adventures of Prince Achmed directed by Lotte Reiniger. Conceived as a series of ordeals that the enterprising children must survive, The Blue Bird explores dream terrain expressionistically imagined to correspond with certain psychic states. The Palace of Night is full of dark chambers and menacing veiled figures; pale gibbering faces loom out of the darkness -- these are night terrors, brooding thoughts, images of sickness. Obligatory to all epics styled on the Odyssey is the visit to the underworld and the spirits of the dead -- here the children encounter their dead grandparents, visualized as living cadavers convincingly palsied with age -- a baby with a peculiarly shaped face and head creeps on the floor and a mob of dead children gather around a dinner table. (The film reminds us that in 1918 most people had more dead, than living, children.) One of the film's rare dollying shots tracks into the cottage filled with dead children and there is packed into that slight camera motion more wonder and dread than you might find in a half-dozen Marvel comic book superhero stories. In the ornate Palace of Happiness, true and false pleasures vie with one another in a placid, neo-classical garden -- they are sylphs that leap and caper like Isadora Duncan. A final stop in this phantasmagoric itinerary is a garden where the souls of unborn children wait to be born, an astonishing vision: grizzled Father Time opens the gates and the children stream forth to find their mothers -- throughout the film, Tourneur luxuriates in pale Madonna-like mothers, figures such as might have been painted by Raphael. In our world of abortion on demand, I think, that it can't be denied that mawkish Victorian imagery of this sort, when thoroughly and unabashedly expressed, has a peculiar power and disquieting effect. A fundamental esthetic device is inducing surprise in viewers and every shot in this film contains something strange, inexplicable, or unexpected. At the end of the film, the children approach the camera and address the audience directly -- of course, the blue bird of happiness, the antidote to the dying girl's sickness, was always at home, always singing in its neglected cage in the corner of the cottage but disregarded by all those around, a memorandum later developed at the end of The Wizard of Oz.
The 1918 version of the film is, probably, the third adaptation of Maeterlinck's play. The play was adapted two more times, including in the early nineteen-seventies by George Cukor. Cukor undoubtedly had seen Tourneur's version when he was a young and, probably, was influenced by it. But this strange and poetic film is now almost a hundred years old, belongs to a different world, and, probably, has lost its ability to impress filmmakers today and, so, I suppose no more versions of the story will be filmed. The carefully conserved version of the film shown on Turner Classic Movies was badly damaged and to viewers used to HD TV probably unwatchable -- the decomposition was like a silvery waterfall pouring over the images or, sometimes, vertical columns flickering like fire on the edge of the image. This is a patina that appeals to me but would repel most people.