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.
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.