With its fairy-tale setting, The Blue Bird is generally considered a children’s fantasy, and the 1918 film version was presented as one. Yet the original play by Maurice Maeterlinck has roots in the French Symbolist literary movement, and the film has the visual sophistication that marks the work of director Maurice Tourneur.
An influential cinema pioneer, Tourneur brought theatrical experience to the films he made in France and America. His talent for composition, combined with his knowledge of literature, produced films of visual and emotional impact. Tourneur is remembered in America mostly for The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and The Last of the Mohicans (1920). But French cinephiles celebrate Tourneur’s later films, many of which influenced the development of French film noir.
Born in 1876 in Paris, Tourneur trained as an illustrator, worked as an assistant to sculptor Auguste Rodin, and acted in theater. In 1912, Tourneur started working at the Éclair film studio, where he established the formula for detective pictures in his first solo directing effort, an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le mystère de la chambre jaune (1913). That same year, he also filmed a Grand Guignol production of the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”
The English-speaking Tourneur was chosen to head Éclair’s American studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1914. When World War I broke out in Europe, Tourneur remained in America and assembled a permanent film crew, including editor (and future director) Clarence Brown and the soon-to-be famous actor John Gilbert.
Mary Pickford was an established star in 1917 when Tourneur directed her in The Pride of the Clan, about a seafaring family’s tragedies and triumphs. Film historian Richard Koszarski later described the film’s visual mastery as “ten years ahead of its time.” In Tourneur’s next film with Pickford, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), he established a sophisticated visual trick for filming the star, who frequently played a child, by placing her in oversized sets.
In 1918, Tourneur filmed The Blue Bird, based on playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s play L’oiseau bleu. The Belgian-born Maeterlinck had met French Symbolist poets when he visited Paris and was inspired by this literary form, which used allegory to define truth. In The Blue Bird, the fantasy characters represent aspects of human existence: the Dog symbolizes faithfulness; self-interest is embodied in the Cat.
The Blue Bird had been successful since its first production at Moscow’s Art Theatre in 1908, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Despite the apparent contradiction of one of the greatest advocates of theatrical realism producing a play that features characters who are meant to represent things such as the living embodiment of Bread, it was a natural fit. As Lee Strasberg noted in Definition of Acting: “The fundamentals of the actor’s art remain the same no matter how bizarre the dramatic context: the actors may be abstractions, for example, as in Stanislavsky’s 1908 production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s allegorical fantasy The Blue Bird.”
For his film of the play, Tourneur and French artist Andre lbels designed sets and lighting tricks that created expressionistic images, one year before Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The Blue Bird was popular with critics and audiences. Upon its release, Photoplay described the film as “one of the most important photodramas ever made.”
Following the success of The Blue Bird, Tourneur established his own company, Maurice Tourneur Productions, and moved to Hollywood in late 1918 where he continued to work in various genres. He used shadows and unusual camera angles to create a sense of dread in Victory (1919), based on the Joseph Conrad story and featuring Lon Chaney as a murderous desperado in the East Indies. In 1920, he returned to his Grand Guignol roots with While Paris Sleeps, with Chaney as a deranged sculptor.
Chafing under the directives of executives at Paramount Pictures, which distributed his films, Tourneur joined Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, and others to form their own distribution company, Associated Producers Inc. in 1920. His hope was to avoid becoming a cog in the increasingly factory-like Hollywood system. “American producers will have to change entirely their machine-made stories and come to a closer and truer view of humanity,” he said in announcing the new partnership, “or the foreign market is going to sweep us out with their pictures, made in an inferior way but carried over by human, possible, different stories.”
During the filming of The Last of the Mohicans (1920) Tourneur was injured in a fall. Clarence Brown supervised most of the filming, following Tourneur’s instructions. The film was faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel and enjoyed critical and popular success upon its release. In 1995, it was added to the National Registry of the American Film Institute.
Unable to compete with the distribution networks of companies like Paramount and First National, which owned theater chains, Associated Producers folded in 1921. Maurice Tourneur Productions made another six features, including the rural horse-racing melodrama The County Fair (1920). Tourneur then became a freelance director, working for Paramount, First National, and Universal.
Tourneur began directing Mysterious Island for MGM in 1926. After four days of shooting, Tourneur discovered that studio head Louis B. Mayer had provided a supervisor to ensure that budgets were met. When Tourneur’s demands that the producer be removed were ignored, he walked off the production and returned to France. He was the first of many European directors to abandon Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the great filmmakers Victor Sjöström and Josef von Sternberg.
In France, Tourneur found that many of his countrymen considered him a coward for having spent World War I in America. Because of this resentment, Tourneur went to Germany to make his first European film in 16 years, Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (filmed in 1927, released in 1929), which features one of the last silent film appearances of Marlene Dietrich.
He then returned to France to shoot a World War I drama, L’équipage (1928). Adapted from a novel about early air warfare by French aviator Joseph Kessel, the blatantly patriotic film did much to restore Tourneur to favor in France. In 1932, Tourneur returned to his love of crime stories for Au nom de la loi, featuring a drug smuggling anti-heroine, conflicted and brutal police officers, betrayal, murder, and suicide, filmed on stylish sets filled with ominous shadows. It served as a warm-up for his best-remembered French film, Justin de Marseille (1935), a story about rival gang leaders, which influenced Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937).
After completing Impasse des deux anges in 1948, Tourneur was struck by a car and lost a leg. He never made another film. He turned to translating American and British crime novels into French and died in 1961, aged 85.
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music John Mirsalis