Nobel on Film: The Blue Bird (1918 and 1976)

Film interpretations of works by Nobel Laureates in Literature

Directors: Maurice Tourneur/George Cukor
Nobel Laureate: Maurice Maeterlinck


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1911, three years after he wrote and premiered his fairytale play The Blue Bird, Count Maurice Maeterlinck of Ghent, Belgium, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee said in making its award, “In appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations.”

The Blue Bird seems to be the stuff that inspires affection from generation to generation. It has been a movie at least five times over (though surprisingly not by German-occupied France in during World War II, which would seem to be a natural fit for the French-language fairy tale)—two silent versions, a 1940 version starring Shirley Temple, an animated telling in 1970, and finally, in 1976, the first U.S.-Soviet film collaboration, with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and Ava Gardner acting alongside dancers of the Kirov Ballet. I doubt we’ll ever see another retelling. Although the story tracks fairly closely to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic The Wizard of Oz—animals and inanimate objects that can talk accompanying children on a quest through various lands of enchantment, a mistaken apprehension of all witches/fairies as being ugly, true happiness found right at home among one’s loved ones—The Blue Bird has seen little but failure at the box office. What is it about this fairy tale that fails to appeal, and do the two film versions under consideration here bear the blame for their individual failures?

The play

Maeterlinck’s play tells of a brother and sister, Tyltyl and Myltyl, who live humbly with their woodcutter father and hard-working mother, Mr. and Mrs. Tyl, their dog Tylo and their cat Tylette. One night the children observe a great celebration taking place on the other side of the woods, at a rich family’s home. When they fall asleep, they share a dream in which the Fairy Berylune, who resembles their neighbor whose daughter is sick, sends them on a quest for a blue bird that will bring happiness and ultimate power and knowledge to all humanity.

Bluebird_silent_2.jpgThe fairy gives Tyltyle a hat with a diamond on it. When he turns the diamond, he can bring forth or dismiss the spirits of animals, plants, and things. His diamond brings forth the souls of Tylo, Tylette, Sugar, Fire, Water, Bread, Milk, and most importantly, Light. These beings will accompany the children on their quest. They will die, however, when the blue bird is found and returned to the fairy. Tylette determines to spot the children one way or another, even if it means harm will come to them. Tylo considers Tyltyl and Myltyl gods who he will protect to the end.

The searchers make several stops: the Land of Memory, where the children see their Granny Tyl and Gaffer Tyl and numerous dead siblings; the castle of Night, where Tyltyl bravely enters the many chambers the hold fearsome beings of darkness (ghosts, sicknesses, war, shadows and terrors, and finally, mysteries); the forest where the trees and wild and barnyard animals determine to kill Tyltyl to stop Man from conquering them forever. They go to the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty.

The troupe visits the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty. The Luxuries try seduce the group to stay with them, but Tyltyl turns the diamond, and the troupe ends up in the Cave of Miseries, where they do not linger, and pass into the Hall of Joys. Here the children learn of all the happinesses on earth—the Happiness of Being Well, the Happiness of Pure Air, the Happiness of Blue Sky, and most important of all, the Happiness of Maternal Love.

They pass through the Graveyard and enter the Kingdom of the Future, where the children waiting to be born work on the gifts they must take with them into the world—from the ability to achieve pure joy to leading a united solar system. The children meet their brother, who is to be born the following year and who will die quickly of the diseases he brings with him to the world.

At last, the children bid farewell to their companions, watching them fall silent again and facing fairy Berylune to tell her they failed to find the blue bird. At that moment, they see how beautiful their own home is. Of course, their parents are dumbfounded at their actions and their story about all the places they visited. Suddenly Tyltyl and Myltyl realize that their pet turtle dove is blue. Overjoyed, they run with it to the sick girl to help her feel better. She pets the bird, but it escapes. Tyltyl tells her, “Never mind…don’t cry…I will catch him again.”

The films

Each film, with some adjustments, is surprisingly faithful to the source material. With a six-act play, some shortening was called for. The silent film omits the forest scene and moves the Land of Memory to just before the children return home. The 1976 film shortens the Land of Happiness to include only Maternal Love’s encounter with her children and omits the beasts from the forest scene.

Each version uses a great deal of the dialogue Maeterlinck wrote, preserving his lessons about the state of the world and the important things in life. In Tourneur’s film, the ghosts in the castle of Night shrivel a bit. Night (Lyn Donelson) says, “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously.” In Cukor’s film, the ghosts are actually frightened by the children. Costuming is different as well, with the silent ghosts little more than sheets and the more contemporary ghosts depicting famous specters, such as the Headless Horseman.

Nonetheless, despite its sometimes stagebound scenes and more rudimentary sets and costumes, Maurice Tourneur’s The Blue Bird is much more highly regarded that the star-studding, international creation of George Cukor. I’ll hazard a few guesses why.

Perhaps most importantly, the children who play Tyltyl and Myltyl in the silent version, Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle, are much more natural and realistic as country rustics than the cloying Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit. A good example is one scene in which the children bring back a dozen blue birds they’ve caught in the castle of Night, only to see them die when exposed to light. Macdougall and Belle are perplexed and saddened that they got fooled into catching blue birds that were not the authentic blue bird of happiness. In Cukor’s production, these avian deaths are an excuse to rustle up a song as his camera positively oozes over the crying faces of Lookinland and Kensit. Plus, I was distracted that the latter pair spoke with American and British accents, respectively.

The music is another important difference between these films. The Tourneur version features a brilliant new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that is one of the best silent film scores I’ve ever heard, bringing drama, humor, and mystery in just the right amounts, and featuring sound effects that add to the pleasure of viewing the film. Irwin Kostal, a film scorer for Disney, turns in a banal, even laughable orchestration for the few songs that made the final cut. His Russian collaborator, composer Andrei Petrov, was singularly uninspired in creating songs for this film. His ballet for the genuine Blue Bird as beautifully danced by Nadezhda Pavlova and other members of the Kirov was the lone musical highlight.

Of course, another major difference is the cavalcade of Hollywood legends that lend their talents to Mr. Cukor’s effort. Elizabeth Taylor plays several roles (Mrs. Tyl, Fairy Berylune, Light, and Maternal Love). It has become fashionable to diss Taylor’s work of the 1970s as unbearable kitsch, but I think she does a good job in this children’s film. Her mother Tyl is a bit too harsh and wooden at first, but she is, well, a luminous Light in whose care I would happily put my trust if I were Myltyl or Tyltyl. Jane Fonda as Night plays her part as though she’s always aware that she’s in a children’s film; a more natural, less wicked witch, approach would have served the film better. Cicely Tyson as Tylette is completely wasted in a highly truncated role.


There is no single star better in this film than Ava Gardner as Luxury. She is dressed beautifully in red and moves among the circus performers, gluttons, idlers, and narcissists with ironic self-indulgence. In an exchange written for the film, Tyltyl asks her which Luxury she is. Her saucy, perfect answer is, “You’ll understand more about that when you’re older.” Cukor’s hand is most evident in bringing this fun performance out of Gardner. Indeed, the entire Luxuries scene is extravagantly entertaining.

Blue_Bird_silent_3.jpgThe Tourneur film, with its color tints and some effective special effects, really has the air of enchantment about it. (I’m told by a friend who saw it at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years ago that it’s absolutely stunning on the big screen.) For example, in a close-up of the kitchen hearth from which Fire (S. E. Potapovitch) emerges, dancing flames are superimposed upon a writhing figure as the body of a man slowly comes into focus. It’s a great effect. Tom Corless as Tylette is absolutely wonderful, mimicking feline movements and habits with great skill and charm. It’s a shame his character is made out to be so nasty, but it certainly shows that actors have more fun playing characters that are bad rather than virtuous.

The audience reception

I was reasonably engaged with both of these films, noting how they departed from the play, yet finding those choices reasonable. I was taken by individual lines in the play that found their way to the screen. For example, in the castle of Night, only War still is a potent threat to humanity. The other spirits of the night no longer hold power. “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously,” says Night. Or when Maeterlinck shows how memory keeps loved ones alive when Granny Tyl says, “We are always here, waiting for a visit from those who are alive. They come so seldom!” and Gaffer Tyl says, “Yes, we get plenty of sleep, while waiting for a thought of the Living to come and wake us. … Ah, it is good to sleep when life is done. . . . But it is pleasant also to wake up from time to time. . . .” Or when he extols the virtue of seeing beneath the surface of life, when Maternal Love says of her brilliant dress, which Tyltyl has never seen his mother wear, “No, no, I always wear it, but people do not see it, because people see nothing when their eyes are closed. . . . All mothers are rich when they love their children. . . . There are no poor mothers, no ugly ones, no old ones.”

So why has this story faded, why was the box office so quiet? The story is quite wide-ranging and a bit confusing, so that may be one problem. However, I think Maeterlinck’s philosophy of static drama, a kissing cousin to Berthold Brecht’s epic form, might be the culprit. Feeling that human beings are controlled and propelled by fate (brought out tidily in the Land of the Future episode), he preferred unemotional line readings. Certainly, the directors of these two films did not adhere to this standard, but the more global concerns of Maeterlinck meant he used his scripts as somewhat preachy bully pulpits. It seems odd that a writer who believed in fate would attempt to school people on the correct way to treat each other and the environment.

I consider these two films to be fine entertainments for children, and if you can get beyond the wretched music of the Cukor version, ones that parents might want to sit in on.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 8:13 am

    Marilyn, this is a fascinating comparison of two films I haven’t seen … I must admit to a prejudice against Liz in any movie later than about 1970, and especially of those star-studded pictures where the stars are in barely-defined roles, and we’re supposed to be delighted when they pop up, barely acting.
    But, the story sounds haunting, and so perhaps I’ll check ’em out.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/09/2008 to 8:56 am

    Rick – I was prepared not to like the later version of this story, mostly because comments on IMDb lambasted it or put it in the bizarre/campy category. But the hubby and I found ourselves wondering what was wrong with it. It’s a perfectly respectable family film that suffers from a few lousy songs.

  • Vincent Risoli-Black spoke:
    3rd/01/2009 to 1:22 pm

    I watched the 1976/George Cukor version for the first time last night. I had been aware of the critical lambasting and had believed for years it would be perhaps “bizarre/campy” and ludicrously bad, but (like Marilyn and her hubby) wonder what is wrong with it? I found the music accompanying the new Russian DVD and extras on it, to have been appealing in my recall today.

  • Julia spoke:
    19th/01/2009 to 6:23 am

    A strange dream about a bluebird last night led me to your site. I woke and looked up power animals bluebird on google and felt drawn to yours. I won’t bore you with the details, but my dream included me walking through a graveyard and being given a vision of something happening to a friends child.
    For some reason I was meant to visit your site today. There are many things in Maurice’s Maeterlinck’s ‘story’ which have given me some comfort today with a problem I have been dealing with. Nothing is given without being received. So my message for you is, ‘sometimes we do things for deeper reasons we do not always know, yet our actions send ripples out into the universe which may benefit others and ourselves in times to come’. Something you are obviously going through when you finally get to read this is for a reason and it shall eventually benefit you. Stick with it girl’. Many thanks for sharing your insights on this film and reminding people of its existence.
    Luck and Laughter to you, Julia, UK.

  • Phil Marlowe spoke:
    28th/02/2009 to 8:41 pm

    When I read Maeterlinck’s play in college years ago, I recall the professor saying there is no blue bird in Europe. Consequently happiness is not attainable. That might be in keeping with the unsentimental nature of the plot, but still, I think I’ll Google blue bird + Europe.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/03/2009 to 9:33 am

    Phil – I believe your professor is correct. I’ve never heard of a native European blue bird species. The American blue bird is a fragile species that, ironically, has been threatened by the introduction of European birds like the starling. I think reading this as a story about the fragility of happiness makes perfect sense, and perhaps from Maeterlinck’s point of view, the illusory nature of happiness (not something I believe, but it’s his story).

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