Shirley Temple meets her unborn sister in The Blue Bird.
To paraphrase William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, I last watched The Blue Bird more than twelve thousand midnights ago. I retained only the vaguest memories of it. Now after seeing it again for the first time since approximately 1977, I can honestly say it's pretty dreadful. In fact, after six years of box office magic this was the first Shirley Temple movie to lose money.
This was intended to be 20th Century Fox's answer to MGM's The Wizard of Oz. It emulates many things from that iconic movie but fails utterly to recapture the magic. Based on the 1908 play L'Oiseau bleu by Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird is a fantasy about two woodcutter's children living in a small village in Germany during the Napoleonic wars. Together they share a magical adventure. Like The Wizard of Oz it begins in B&W before becoming Technicolor. Although it fails to match the brilliantly symbolic manner in which the color is introduced in that MGM classic. Here we simply go from a black and white scene to the next one being in color.
A fairy (Jessie Ralph) visits two young children (a girl and her younger brother) after their father goes off to war. She sends them on a quest into the past, present and future, to find the elusive Blue Bird of Happiness. For companions she changes their pets - a cat and a dog - into human form. She also turns their lantern into a beautiful woman (think Glinda the Good Witch) in the form of Light to help them on their journey. They visit several enchanted kingdoms, including The Land of Luxury, before returning home to find that Happiness was waiting there all along. Sounds familiar right? And the similarities with TWOZ don't end there. There is also a scene where the travelers are confronted by human-like trees!
Perhaps oddest of all is the scene set in the future. The siblings meet unborn children of varying ages. There are even a romantic pair of teenagers that get separated by Father Time. Shirley and her brother meet their own unborn future sister who tells them she won't be with them long. Shirley acts completely unfazed by this sad bit of information. She hugs her future sister and cheerfully states, “I'll tell mother to expect you!” WTF!?
Shirley Temple had been originally considered for the role of Dorothy Gale and this was her consolation prize. Audiences didn't want to see America's Sweetheart playing a spoiled brat however. Gale Sondergaard had been the original choice for The Wicked Witch of the West. She was far too glamorous for that part but here she gets to play the wicked cat after she is changed into human form. Eddie Collins makes like Bert Lahr as the dog Tylo that becomes human – only without the costume his behavior is just plain stupid looking. Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat from GWTW) and Nigel Bruce play Mr. and Mrs. Luxury, while movie buffs will also recognize Spring Byington as the mother.
There was a tragic event connected to this movie. A four-year-old actress named Caryll Ann Ekelund played an unborn child in the future segment of the movie. She has a scene where she tries to sneak aboard a boat. On Halloween, 1939, not long after filming her scenes, Caryll's costume caught fire from the candle in a jack-o-lantern. She died from her burn injuries several days later and was buried in her costume from the movie. Despite all the negativity surrounding this movie, The Blue Bird was remade as a musical in 1976. The impressive cast included Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner and Cicely Tyson. Like the original version it was a box office flop.
The cast gives it their all and the sets are extravagant, particularly in The Land of Luxury scenes. The special effects are good for the time, most notably during a blazing forest fire, but The Blue Bird lacks imagination and whimsy. It has an odd tone from beginning to end and Shirley Temple plays quite an unsympathetic child.
Today The Blue Bird is remembered only as an expensive flop that in no way advanced the careers of anyone involved. It is worth watching as a curiosity alone. You will find yourself scratching your head and asking, “What the hell were they thinking?” It's spectacularly awful.
Photos © Copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (1940)