The Sunday Intertitle: The Soul of Sugar

As I was saying, last week

Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 film of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, THE BLUEBIRD, is a cockeyed allegory featuring characters who are the literal embodiments of household objects and phenomena — there’s Bread, Sugar, Cat and Dog, as well as Light and Fire. The standard problem with allegory very much applies: it’s like poetry read with a codebook, where the work is done for you and deeper meanings need not be sought because it’s all laid out. But, being a silent film by a great filmmaker, THE BLUEBIRD escapes the worst problems associated with this form, partly because the visual action leaves us room to think for ourselves, and partly because the images are so beautiful and evocative.

My favourite of the film’s Platonic Ideals is Fire. You know those fake fires you get, made from translucent material, brightly underlit and blasted with air to make it flicker? That’s Fire’s costume, and he dances about in it, adding to the effect. But it’s useless showing you Fire in a still image, since his whole schtick is motion-based.

Instead, here are the Wan Illnesses which menace one of the young heroes —

Since all the supporting cast are somewhat archetypal figures, it helps that the two children at the centre of the action are wonderfully naturalistic. That’s something Tourneur père has in common with his son, along with expressive shadows: a fondness for low-key perfs amid the low-key lighting. There’s also a surprising focus on the unconscious sensuality of children’s bodies, which strikes me as quite innocent and proper, but alien to modern audiences, grown used to the idea of a naked child as a frightening, uncomfortable object.

In this early scene, the kids change for bed, and little Tula Belle flexes her biceps (you don’t associate child actors with names like Tula Belle with either naturalistic, un-cutesy performances, or the flexing of biceps, but thanks to Tourneur we get both). It’s a sweet and beautiful moment, all the nicer for being strange and surprising.

And in the Palace of Night, Night’s children can be seen sleeping. The Palace is full of draped nudes, actually, evidence that this movie was not thought of as specifically a kids’ film (Jan Svankmajer argues strongly against the principle that children’s movies should even exist, and he has a point, I think, but it’s utopian to imagine such categories being abandoned: too useful to parents and the market, although whether kids themselves benefit is debatable). Or else it argues that in 1918, artistic nudity in movies, like the nudity of classical paintings and sculpture, was considered child-safe.

I remember being creeped out by the 1940 remake, an inoffensive film, you would think. But what got me was the scene in Heaven with all the little children waiting to be born. And they’re all white. Perhaps I was being oversensitive: the innocent explanation would be that this is the dream of a couple of European children from a certain period of history (this is also why we don’t see any Germans in the Heaven of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — David Niven wouldn’t have put them there). This is easier to support in the silent movie, where the kids are all draped in veils anyhow, and there could conceivably be some off-white tots lurking in the throng. But in the Shirley Temple movie, everybody has an American accent, so it feels more uncomfortable. Non-Aryan children either don’t have souls, or don’t actually exist at all in the 20th Century Fox universe.

The sick child, a neighbour who motivates the story’s quest, is modelled directly on Munch’s painting,The Sick Child. And why not?

I’ve only seen a fragment of George Cukor’s 1976 version, a Soviet production with a boggling cast. If you’re casting Platonic Ideals, and your aim is High Camp, how could you do better than Ava Gardner as Luxury, Liz Taylor as both Queen of Light AND Maternal Love… even further down the cast, Cicely Tyson as the Cat and George Cole as the Dog, and Robert Morley as Father Time and Harry Andrews as The Oak… was ever an actor more oaken? I would watch this in a nanosecond save for the fact that Patsy Kensit gives me diabetes.

The Tourneur version is available from Kino, and you should see it.

The Blue Bird

As the blurb says, it predates CALIGARI and yet cheerfully and unselfconsciously uses blatantly artificial sets — even more remarkably, it uses realistic ones for the framing narrative, so there’s no doubt that viewers were expected to notice the unreality and accept it.

Tourneur is truly the daddy.


12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Soul of Sugar”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    One film-director who uses the silent-movie approach to allegory is Philippe Garrel, in his films he often creates spaces for brief fantastic scenes, like 18th Century revolutionaries in modern France, which can look naive but he outfits with freshness each time. Carax also goes for that naivete and manages to pull it off. That’s one way the French avant-garde has maintained links with their silent forbear in Tourneur the First. One striking difference between Father and Son, is how the Son always dodges or deflates the allegory.

    In AMOLAD, Powell banishes Germans, but there are plenty of the non-white soldiers who served in the British Army in the afterlife(he explicitly didn’t want to call it “Heaven”), especially Pathans and Sikhs and black soldiers.

  2. Watched AMOLAD again last week. The trial features just one doubtful moment, when the international jury is transformed into an American jury and the Indian becomes African-American. Might as well have gone with American Indian, if you’re going to go for a blurry racial equivalence (and after everybody else on the jury becomes an American version of the same nationality). But it was good to see Ghurkas in the afterlife: they got in there with less of a struggle than they got into the UK.

    I don’t think you can do The Bluebird without explicit allegory, so that may not be a distinction between father and son, so much as an inherent quality of this particular project. Other MT films have allegorical elements but add more ambiguity or shading, as in Le Main du Diable.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    J’adore Nicolas Maury in LAR.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    My feeling about that transformation(which struck me too) is that Indian-Americans didn’t have much presence in American culture then and while transforming the other White immigrant minorities were important, they couldn’t NOT show an African-American just as you couldn’t NOT mention India in relation to British Colonialism(especially Raymond Massey’s comment, “Think of India!” which is doubly emphasized with a close-up on the actor’s face as he mentions it, a strong stick to colonial guilt). So it’s not so much racism there as economy of minority types.

    And personally being transformed into African-Americans is less offensive than being misconstrued for the Peoples who are called Indians simply because the geographically challenged Columbus(who as James Joyce explained is celebrated for “being the last man to discover America!”) mistook the New World for the Indies and then promptly began the long slaughter of said Peoples.

    I need to see more of Maurice Tourneur’s films. I’d especially like to see his take on Conrad’s VICTORY. One of Tourneur’s films the Island of Lost Souls was a big favourite of Hitchcock’s but apparently it’s now lost.

  5. Victory is splendid. It’s how Fiona and I saw in New Year 2010, come to think of it. Maurice is becoming a seasonal institution chez Cairns.

    I agree re the racial economy of AMOLAD. That sequence already cut so deeply that British right-wingers wrote the the press complaining that P&P were anti-British (about as far from the truth as you can get). Strictly speaking, they should have featured an African AND and Indian as victims of colonial rule, but you’re right that they probably didn’t know if there were any Indian emigrants in America at that time, and certainly wouldn’t have seen them as a recognizable minority.

  6. This looks amazing. I’m surprised though that you’ve never seen the Cukor as it seemed to be on television all the time to me when I was growing up. I’d always watch it even though I found it ugly and creepy, I remember that, maybe it made me cry. And I wouldn’t be put off by the tiny Kensit. She wasn’t born dull.

  7. Patsy Kensit is barely recognisable in the 1976 film of THE BLUE BIRD. She’s just a wee moppet…and besides, who can look at PK when there’s Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda, Robert Morley, Mona Washbourne, Cicely Tyson and a whole troupe of dishy Russian ballet dancers to drool over? In fact, I hardly noticed that Patsy Kensit was in it.

  8. I have strong, and nit very positive memories of seeing PK acting cute in commercials in “Before they were famous” type shows, and she seemed like good casting for The Soul of Sugar.

  9. Randy Byers Says:

    THE BLUE BIRD is based on a play by the Belgian writer, Maurice Maeterlinck, who is called a Symbolist and also wrote the play PELLEAS AND MELISANDE that Debussy based his opera on. One of my favorite stories about Maeterlinck, which is offered on his Wikipedia page, is that Samuel Goldwyn asked him to produce some scenarios, and Maeterlinck did one based on his play THE LIFE OF A BEE. Goldwyn is said to have burst out of his office after he started reading it, exclaiming, “My God! The hero is a bee!”

    The movie Tourneur made immediately after THE BLUE BIRD was called PRUNELLA, and it’s supposed to also have a very abstract design. It still exists, and I’d love to see it. Apparently neither movie did very well at the box office, and Tourneur left the abstract designs behind, alas.

    One of the really surprising uses of nudity in early Hollywood is Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES (1915), where Truth is played by a naked young woman — literally The Naked Truth. It’s completely innocent and high-minded, too.

  10. Well, Lois Weber was a very high-minded person.

    Goldwyn’s exclamations always make me laugh. Much better than his manglings of English are his statements of principle, like “Ladies stink up the room!” (Thanks to the Self-Styled Siren for that one).

    I don’t have access to Prunella, alas, but am eager to sample Tourneur’s Scottish adventure, The Pride of the Clan, with Mary Pickford.

  11. Randy Byers Says:

    Tourneur also adapted Lorna Doone, which is very good and was released on DVD by Kino somewhere along the way. Milestone announced a couple of years ago that they were going to release another film he did with Pickford, Poor Little Rich Girl, but it hasn’t come about.

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