The Blue Bird (1918)

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  • directed by Maurice Tourneur
  • starring Tula Belle, Robin Macdougall, Lillian Cook, Gertrude McCoy, Lyn Donelson, Charles Ascot, Tom Corless
  • Two peasant children, Mytyl and Tyltyl, are led by a fairy to search for the Blue Bird of Happiness.

What could have been a standard and straightforward children’s film was for me elevated by some of the most beautiful, moody, and haunting imagery I’ve ever seen, which at times had it playing more like a deep, atmospheric examination on the childhood experience. A popular way to market animated or children’s films, especially today with Pixar films or the rare ones from other studios, is to say your kid will love it and you as an adult will be able to happily endure it whether for its humor or somewhat mature undercurrent. The Blue Bird achieves that, for me due to its incredible look and mood, and then goes one better by using its visionary and at times abstract visual environments to transport whoever is watching, at whatever age, back to the time of seeing films and the world from a child’s eyes.

Sometimes that was a very specific reaction to something in the film, like the juxtaposition of cutting back and forth between the children sleeping and journeying through the magical landscape. Other times it’s an obscure feeling, like the look of the pair that Tourneur cast as the kids’ grandparents and how they viewed or treated their elders, that brought back long-ago feelings of family responsibility or simply just being a child and figuring out one’s role in life.

The film really kicks in with Fairy Berylune showing the children the world beneath the surface and the souls of all the everyday things they’ve until now taken for granted. Their pets come to life as humans and little vignettes introduce human characters dressed to represent the soul of water, the soul of fire, and the soul of sugar, for instance. There was a bride that forms from a spilled pitcher of milk and a guy who plays “wholesome bread,” shot screaming out of an oven. Before long the children’s house turns into a complete menagerie of animals, spirits, and self-moving furniture. I’ve never seen anything like it. The crew takes off in search of the bird and from there we experience scene after scene of pure imagination and inventive, artistic direction by Tourneur. I was surprised to find that Tourneur really did construct what was a perfect template for children’s fantasy films, both dark and juvenile, from The Wizard of Oz to later ones like Labyrinth.

Some films are made primarily to entertain, but then there are those with the sole purpose of making you feel something. In The Blue Bird, Tourneur was relentlessly hammering away at my sense of nostalgia and presenting a lot of ideas and scenes that I feel I’ve seen hundreds of times whether on film or in dreams.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin
  • A boot camp private goes on a daring mission behind enemy lines.

“How did you capture 13 soldiers?”

“I surrounded them.”

I wouldn’t call this one of Chaplin’s most charming films by any means, but Shoulder Arms was the earliest piece of evidence I’ve seen in which the performer went to great lengths to find the funny in otherwise supremely unfunny situations. Producers warned against centering a comedy on war, especially since the first World War had been going on for four years at this point, but Chaplin was excited by it and audiences ate it up, including the doughboys who returned from the actual war a month after the film’s release. It was his most popular film up until then both critically and commercially and also his shortest feature film.

The first part of Shoulder Arms takes place in the trenches and is segmented by the non-battle day to day routines of a soldier at war—lunch, sleep, a bit of strategizing—nothing extraordinary but all filled with enough gags to keep the story going. There was also a brief bout of loneliness and homesickness that Charlie experiences and it was my favorite scene because there’s nobody that can wear forlorn like he can.

The film doesn’t stay sentimental for too long and it all gets much sillier when the actual fighting begins, for example Charlie donning a tree costume in order to sidle within branches-length of the enemy. Here, and in the other battle scenes that followed, Chaplin seemed to move away from a realistic depiction of the war environment. Aside from all the slapstick in the first half, all of the trench scenes were believable and felt real enough. There was even a nice Paths of Glory-esque tracking shot. Whenever opposing forces shared the screen, however, Chaplin turned the mood and staging into something more akin to an Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny sequence. It was a smart and balanced approach to take for such subject matter during such a sensitive time, but overall as a film it never came together for me. I have to think that there was a bit of second guessing and on the fly self-censoring that was going on that held the film back, but still, it was good to see Chaplin begin to show his penchant for edgy material and darker tones in his comedy.

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

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  • directed by Victor Sjöström
  • starring Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, John Ekman,
  • Eyvind and Halla flee town and become two of the many outlaws of Iceland’s mountains.

“None can escape his fate, even were he to run more swiftly than the wind.”

As far as I see it, Victor Sjöström accomplished a great deal with The Outlaw and His Wife. Through brilliant directing, writing, and an impressive acting turn as Eyvind, he put everything he had into a film that wasn’t only advanced for 1918 but one with a universal impact that could stand up and deliver even as the film industry and technology advanced. People are quick to point to Sjöström’s The Wind as one of the titans of cinema history, and it sure as hell is, but if anyone was paying attention years earlier he had released in Outlaw a complete blueprint for mature, emotional, and invigorating filmmaking.

It’s no surprise to me that the director had such a disinterest in film after sound made its way into the picture. With this film and The Wind, the only two of his I’ve seen so far, I’ve recognized a director working at something much deeper and soul-entwined than any typical dialogue-driven narrative can afford. As I make my way through this particular era of cinema, I notice that few filmmakers were confident enough to deliver a scene that strayed from showing the major action in anything less than an overt or emphasized manner.  At one time I thought that’s what you had to do without the benefits of sound and thorough dialogue. I’m constantly looking for the stage to be set a little more and Sjöström did just that, cutting to little details in a room or the many pieces of the natural set in lieu of just Eyvind and Halla or outraged townspeople. The couple’s story–meeting in town and then having to take up a life on the run–made up the entire film, but there were elements both natural and Sjöström-manufactured that made me feel more than most silent efforts. It rejuvenated my waning enthusiasm for silent films after the otherwise crude and underdeveloped ones of the pre 1920 years.

As for the story, Eyvind and his wife head for the wild Icelandic mountains, an area we are told is teeming with outlaws and other citizens unfit for town life.  Five years later the couple is still being hunted by the law but now have a child and have taken in a drifter that appears to have mixed intentions. Ejvind hunts, Halla washes clothes, the child does child things, but it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on at this point, because the story is so simple, the mood so prevalent, and the setting so gorgeous.

I’m always put off by hearing people say, “the setting was one of the main characters in the film,” because more often than not a statement like that turns out to be nonsense. Sjöström did one better than that, not only using the mountains and surrounding scenery as backdrops, though those contributed to a unique look for the film, but instead hanging his characters (himself, no less) off of cliffs, bathing in raging waterfalls and hot springs, and somehow making the weather and temperature palpable throughout. I wouldn’t call the setting a character in the film because that would diminish the singular energy that pulsed throughout. The characters, the story, and the setting came together as one in a sensual and emotional way thanks also to longer dialogue cards, which provided depth to Eyvind and Halla, and Sjöström expertly capturing the elements, not to mention a rather devastating finale.

Goodnight, Nurse! (1918)

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  • directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
  • starring Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake
  • Roscoe’s wife wants him committed to the No Hope Sanitarium for a cure from drink.

Another film grouping Arbuckle, Keaton, and St. John, Goodnight, Nurse! begins with Fatty trying to light a cigarette in a downpour before the wind kicks up and a few other characters—a policeman and two panhandling musicians–are literally blown into the scene. He then retreats to his home with the couple and there he finds a cranky wife who has just read of a just-discovered cure for alcoholism in the newspaper.

The next day his fed-up wife drags him to the No Hope Sanitarium, a place where he meets the head doctor played by Buster Keaton. After some hijinks and a few escape attempts, Arbuckle finally flees in the end and is chased by a Keaton-led pack of hospital staff. The runners unintentionally get mixed up in an actual race, which was funny, and Arbuckle wins. A great ending would have been him using his winnings to go buy a drink, but instead he was brought back to No Hope. The end.

The jokes and choreography weren’t as sharp here as they were in The Cook, but the film is interesting considering Arbuckle’s personal history with alcohol and substance abuse. In the performances of Arbuckle, Keaton, and Chaplin that I’ve seen so far, there is at times sentimentality present, mostly with Chaplin in a universal sense, and personal experiences obviously inform the creation of the characters they created, but rarely in this era of comedy do a performer’s personal matters and chief onscreen persona converge. Here, there was obviously a very real and raw truth under the surface, but the treatment of the performer’s dark history could not have gotten a lighter treatment than it did.

I’m probably reading too much into the alcoholism subplot of Goodnight, Nurse!, but I’m forced to because as I said the comedy didn’t work as well as I’m used to it working with these guys.

The Cook (1918)

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  • directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
  • starring Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John
  • The chef of an oceanside restaurant and his assistant wreak havoc in the establishment.

The first part of The Cook is an exercise in how many physical gags you can cram into a typical busy restaurant setting. In the kitchen of the Bull Pup Cafe, the eggs bounce like ping pong balls, pancakes are smashed by foot, all food gets juggled, and all garbage gets thrown into the same vat, the same magical vat that spews out chicken soup, ice cream, coffee, milk, and even Arbuckle’s coat at the end of a shift.

Buster Keaton is the waiter who shouts orders from the dining room, the film then cuts to Roscoe on the stove who puts it together in his own balletic way, Keaton steps one foot into the kitchen door, is thrown the order, it all lands right side up in his hand, and he exits. This sequence goes on repeating for the first half of the 20-minute runtime and never gets old.

The food service is at one point broken up by a piece of dinner entertainment, a dance sequence by Keaton and a woman that is contagious enough to spill into the kitchen, and then a fight scene between a thief and the staff, which leads to a chase straight into the ocean at the end.

The film is full of the simplest of concepts gloriously executed, including the staff lunch, which features the many hilarious ways that one can eat spaghetti. One guy brings a forkful over his head and basically dumps it on his face, Arbuckle twirls it around his index finger and at one point slurps up his tie, and best of all Keaton dumps a mound of it into a teacup, trims off the overload with scissors, and sits there sipping it.

Due to health problems, ongoing drug and alcohol issues, and the much-publicized scandal that came from the death of 26-year-old Virginia Rappe at a party gone very wrong, Arbuckle’s film career never made it through the early 1920’s. After two mistrials, he was finally acquitted of manslaughter in the third, but by that time his name and public image were tarnished beyond repair. He left behind a handful of truly great comedies, The Cook included, but more than the specific works he created throughout the decade of the 1910’s, the performer’s enduring legacy has been contributing to the career launches of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the discovery of Bob Hope in 1927.

Stella Maris (1918)

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  • directed by Marshall Neilan
  • starring Mary Pickford, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Herbert Standing, Ida Waterman, Josephine Crowell
  • Stella’s well-meaning parents shield her from the world’s harsh realities, while the unloved orphan Unity suffers abuse at the hands of her alcoholic employer.

Although Stella Maris never went far enough into exploring the concept, I enjoyed the idea of a girl, shut off to the world to the point she should be bordering feral, then having the veil lifted to reveal a confusing world of hate, hurt, and nuance. Poverty, starvation, crime and were thrust on Stella very soon after she gained the use of her legs and emerged from her bedroom; it was like catching an hour of Fox News after a lifetime of blindness to all that lies outside home. It was interesting to see such a young and ignorant mind try and work out the moral arguments and purpose of something as large as war. Stella was unable to process the complexity of the men they call soldiers who on one hand “fight for existence, for principle, and for the good of humanity,” while on the other quite simply destroy the lives of their brothers.

On the other end of the spectrum, it then makes perfect sense for her to come out of an emotional coma and immediately have feelings for the man that’s been there for her all along. But to reciprocate romantic feelings more than sullies John’s image as a sympathetic character in my view. There was no backbone or moral conviction shown by John and he just bounced around basking in the adoration from each and every character without a moment of strength or character to earn it.

As compelling as most of the titular character’s journey was, the main draw of the film for me was Unity and I viewed the film from her beaten down perspective much more than I did Stella’s. Walking around all haggard and desperate for love and attention, it was very easy to get onboard and sympathize with Unity, especially after the extremely brutal scene between her and the woman she thought at one point would be a mother figure. With the character of Unity, again the film was able to tap into the theme of the yin and yang as she grew up very much the opposite of Stella, surrounded by the very worst of humanity yet always carrying on and open to the idea of a better day.

Very surprising to figure out midway through that it was the same actress playing both Stella and Unity. I imagine that audiences at the time felt similar, unless it was publicized and known, or maybe somehow I’m less sophisticated in terms of film trickery than the 1918 public. It was a new concept at the time, though, and the special effects involved along with Pickford’s talent produced something that would hold up today in terms of believability. Pickford gave the two characters enough differences that I was actually staring at Unity on pause unable to find her anywhere in there. If the performance wasn’t convincing enough, Neilan seamlessly presented both characters on screen at the same time, with different heights no less—an impressive feat for the time.

The film had a thoughtful director in Neilan who toyed with the light inside and outside of Stella’s bedroom to draw a stark contrast and swing between illustrating either the positivity or darkness of the world beyond the residence. While paralyzed and closed off, Stella’s bedroom was a warm place bathed in an all-encompassing light, but when she retreats to the same room after her dreams have been crushed by Louise, it’s dungeon-like with the only streams of light coming from the outside.

Stella’s story, the physicality of Mary Pickford as Unity, and a great, near-demonic performance by Marcia Manon were the film’s strongest points for me.

A Dog’s Life (1918)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mut
  • The Little Tramp and his dog struggle to survive in the inner city.

A Dog’s Life was Chaplin’s first release for independent distributor First National Films and starred The Tramp alongside Mut the dog, as well as his frequent co-star Edna Purviance. Chaplin’s brother Syd also appears as the lunch wagon owner; it was the first time the brothers appeared together on screen. In this film and in others, Purviance proved to be the perfect accessory to the Chaplin brand and with great physical comedic skills of her own she even stole a scene or two.

Chaplin also found a ton of personality in his canine companion, Mut, whose adorable demeanor was amplified by an equally cute theme in the score. The music in Chaplin’s films is always memorable for me–sentimental, joyful, or chaotic exactly when it needs to be and sometimes even humorous in itself—and A Dog’s Life marked the first time he composed one of his own for a film.

The dog’s existence in the first part of the film mirrors that of the Tramp with both being homeless and victimized, the dog by a pack of bully terriers and his human counterpart by the police, unemployment, and a pair of petty crooks. Their relationship also leads to a sequence that was ripped for Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which he desperately needs a belt while dancing and steals a rope that ends up being attached to a lanky, lumbering dog. These shorts are so packed with great stuff and so often overshadowed by his feature-length work that I am surprised there wasn’t a lot more borrowing of material or finding of inspirations from these earlier works than there actually was.

On top of a very nice and sweet tone throughout, hearty laughs were had from many of the gags, including using Scraps’ tail as a spoon to feed him milk, the funny scene of Purviance unattractively winking after being told that’s how you earn free drinks, and the sequence in which Chaplin uses his arms to animate the unconscious crook. In that scene, briefly swiping the crooks mouth for moisture before sifting through bills was a typical Chaplin detail that turned a funny moment into an extremely funny one.