8th 09 - 2008 | 6 comments »

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.

6th 08 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Nobel on Film: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)

Film interpretations of works by Nobel Laureates in Literature

Director: Caspar Wrede
Nobel Laureate: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past Sunday, literary giant and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died. His 89 years on this planet were dramatic and eventful—a true, larger-than-life Tolstovian existence. During my Russian literature phase, Solzhenitsyn was my favorite. He was contemporary, he wrote about lives I couldn’t begin to live, but to which I could somehow relate. He was a towering figure who lived in exile in my country during the years that I read his novels—I never thought he would return to his beloved Russia. But he did, and thankfully, that is where he died.

The first novel he published, in 1962, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which chronicles his own experiences as a political prisoner in a work camp in Kazahkstan. The film of this work appeared the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other versions have been filmed since then, but none took the risks director Caspar Wrede did by filming in the snow and cold of northern Norway and creating equally inhospitable sets for his players.

The film opens on a long aerial shot of pinpoints of light in a sea of darkness. As the camera moves us closer, the outlines of a prison camp emerge. Soon, as though we had been air-dropped into the camp, we enter a barracks and the mind of a man, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (Tom Courtenay). It is the beginning of his day, the reality of his life in bondage, and he longs to stay asleep. In voiceover are words from the novel:

Ivan Denisovich always got up at once. Not today, though. Hadn’t felt right since the night before—had the shivers, and some sort of ache. And hadn’t gotten really warm all night. In his sleep he kept fancying he was seriously ill, then feeling a bit better. Kept hoping morning would never come.

But it arrived on time.

Ivan Denisovich dallies in his bunk, an infraction that is punished, of course. Every human action that deviates from the deeply circumscribed routine of each day in the gulag is punished.

The inmates, once roused, are herded by work team into a ramshackle mess hall where they are served boiled grass and a disgusting-looking bowl of fish soup filled with bones the men chew laboriously to get whatever nourishment and relief from their gnawing, empty bellies they can. Ivan Denisovich balks, however, when he finds a large fish eye in his bowl. He shifts to his bowl of boiled grass, “Somebody’s bright idea, serving it instead of meal. Seemed they got it from the Chinese.” Never fills you up, but its one virtue is that it tastes like nothing.

Ivan Denisovich goes to sick bay, worrying that his team might be sent to a frozen wasteland called Sotsgorodok to begin construction on a cultural arts center in a place with no people. The orderly on duty says he can only exempt two people a day, and he has already done that. Ivan Denisovich insists he doesn’t feel well “all over.” “But I’ve already drawn the line.” Ivan Denisovich’s temperature is only 99.2. He’ll have to join his team.

“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”

Before the team is allowed out of the camp to the work site, they must be inspected for contraband. The inmates are forced to open their jackets. Anyone wearing more than one shirt must strip it off on the spot. One of the men (Eric Thompson) protests. This will cost him later in the film the worst of all physical punishments—10 days in an unheated cell without any blankets. The team is marched to the brick building they are constructing, hands behind their backs, four abreast, warned not to step to the left or right, as it will be considered an escape attempt. Once there, they must pound at the frozen tundra with pick axes to get material with which to make mortar.

On the work site, the team leader (Espen Skjonberg) must push his men to get their quota of work done so they will be paid the best price. He also must manage to keep his men alive and out of trouble with the authorities with everything from bribes to trickery. He tells one of his men to find something with which to cover the open windows. Ivan Denisovich steals off with one of the men, who has hidden some roofing sheets in the snow for just this purpose. Then, the hard labor of hand-tossing and carrying bricks, hand mixing and carrying flats of mortar up a flight of stairs, and laying brick as rapidly as possible commences. Ivan Denisovich finds a broken tip of a hacksaw; delighted, he slips it into his coat.

One of the “capos,” seeing the roofing covering the windows, threatens to report the theft of the roofing materials. The team leader, confronting him, says that if he squeals, that day will be his last day on earth. The capo backs off, knowing that informers often are found with their throats cut. As darkness descends and the various teams from different parts of the area start their march back to camp, Ivan Denisovich works even harder to try to make the team’s quota of bricks laid. The team leader tells his men to cover the remaining mortar with snow to hide it from inspection. Ivan Denisovich and the team leader must run to rejoin their team, but make it back in time. One of their number, however, is brought in by guards. He was asleep on a scaffolding and late to rejoin the group. The officer in charge tacks another 10 years to his sentence on the spot. People rarely leave when their sentences are served.

More scrambling for dinner, as Ivan Denisovich gets separated from his team and fights his way into the mess hall ahead of the other teams. Packages from home are inspected, destroyed, or confiscated, and the remains are handed back to the recipient. Before lights out, guards empty the barracks to inspect for contraband. Ivan Denisovich helps one of his team hide his cache of goods. As they get ready for bed, the guards do a second inspection. When it really is time for lights out, each inmate wraps himself sleeping-bag style in the thin blankets he is provided and hunkers down for the night. Ivan Denisovich bites into a small sausage the team member he helped gave him.

At the end of the day, Ivan Denisovich is feeling pretty pleased with himself:

A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole (cells). The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.

I’ve duplicated text from the Russian-to-English translation of the book for this review, but the screenplay by Ronald Harwood mentions few names and uses the Russian-to-Finnish-to-English translation as the basis for his screenplay. This depersonalization of most of the characters except for Ivan Denisovich was intentional, according to Harwood:

“We were charged, therefore, with creating an understanding of one man’s existence, one man’s fate, so that a cinema audience could feel for him and with him, and at the same time grasp the enormity of the background, which was the herding together of people in great numbers, with the result that one ceased to think of them as human beings. This, we had heard, endorsed Solzhenitsyn’s belief that the problem he dealt with in ‘One Day …’ was not specifically Soviet, but a universal dilemma, and the main one of our time. At its crudest, we understood this to mean any system which, wittingly or unwittingly, causes human beings to be divided into people, individuals on the one hand, and things, objects, animals, sewage on the other.”

The small things that the inmates do to keep a measure of their humanity—refusing to pick cigarette butts off the ground, using a handkerchief as a placemat at meals—seem futile in the face of such atrocious living conditions. Yet, in the few conversations that take place, personalities emerge. Two men argue about the artistry or hackery of Sergei Eisenstein, one denouncing Ivan the Terrible, the other describing in fond detail the Odessa Steps scene in Potemkin. Ivan Denisovich talks about prayer and reveals his peasant background by repeating his belief that the moon is created anew every month and that stars are made from the exploded moon.

Despite these interludes and assertions I’ve read that this film is life-affirming, what comes out most clearly is just how reduced a life these men lead. Ivan Denisovich says he was arrested in 1941 and imprisoned in 1942; he can’t remember what his wife looks like. He does favors to get favors in return. This seems to work out for him in the film, but in the book, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that there are so many volunteers, so many people wanting to exchange favor for favor. Are there real friends in this film or only people using and abusing each other to survive?

It was difficult for me to understand a lot of the dialogue because every actor spoke with an accent, some more recognizable than others from the British/Scandinavian cast. Copies of this film are hard to come by, so you get what you get. The images on the VHS tape I got from Facets were murky, and the colors were distorted. Many scenes take place in the dark, which can make for some difficult viewing on tapes like the one I saw. All of these inconveniences can take one out of the film to some extent, but it is the brutality of the life that had me wanting to run away, yet forcing me to keep with it. This isn’t a redeeming prison film like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s not really even a cry for reform. It is a chronicle and, at its base, the act of someone bearing witness to the soulless depravity of Stalinism. It reminded me of Michael Radford’s 1984, but it is far more chilling because it really happened.

It is “just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”

Used VHS copies of this film are available on Amazon.com. An uncensored English translation of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle is now available.

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