The Blue Bird

It's Pam again. Today I'm going to review a movie that cost considerably more to make than the usual MMT fare. It's The Blue Bird, starring Shirley Temple. It was supposed to be Twentieth-Century-Fox's answer to MGM's The Wizard of Oz, for which as it happened Shirley Temple was under consideration to play Dorothy. However, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Twentieth-Century-Fox, refused to lend her to MGM, for which we lovers of The Wizard of Oz can be grateful. The Wizard of Oz did much better at the box office than expected, and Zanuck decided that he would make a similar movie that would, he hoped, be as successful. For reasons unknown, he chose to make a movie out of Maurice Maeterlinck's play, The Blue Bird. Shirley Temple was chosen to star in the movie.

The movie turned out to be a flop, and it lost a considerable amount of money. Most sources blame Shirley Temple for the failure, although they don't actually say that she was a bad actress. Instead they claim that the character she played was a brat, and the audiences couldn't accept sweet little Shirley Temple playing anybody unpleasant. This may possibly have had something to do with the failure of the movie, although Shirley Temple's star was beginning to set anyway, and she wasn't the box-office draw that she had been a couple of years before. Unfortunately this movie didn't help her career. It would continue to decline, and she would make fewer and fewer movies until she retired from the screen in 1950.

So why didn't The Blue Bird do well? Was it only that Shirley Temple was miscast as the main character? I have my own opinions on why it didn't do well, and as I review this movie, I'll have more to say on why I think it failed.

Like The Wizard of Oz, this movie starts out in black and white and changes to color later. The opening scene gives us an idea of the kind of place the movie is set in.

Not very friendly

I don't know what country this is. It's obviously a monarchy, and probably not in the present day. The only "Rudolph IV" known to Wikipedia is a 14th-century Austrian duke, but that would be much too early, based on the clothes people we will see are wearing. It's some mountainous country where the inhabitants dress in dirndls and lederhosen, but other than that, the movie will never state explicitly where they are.

Immediately we meet the two protagonists of this movie, Mytyl and Tyltyl, walking in the forbidden area. Tyltyl is the boy, and he's played by Johnny Russell, a child actor who stopped getting parts as he grew up. However, instead of turning to alcohol or drugs, he stopped acting, graduated from college, served in the Air Force, and became a career diplomat. His real name is John Russell Counselman. He was six years old when he made this movie, and as of this writing is still alive. The second child in this scene is, of course, Shirley Temple. She was 12 years old when she made this movie, and her career would only go downhill from here. Mytyl is the name of her character.

Can't they read?

So what are the two little scofflaws doing here? A couple of shots of Mytyl setting up a small box trap cut with shots of a bird on a tree suggest that they're out to catch a bird. They're successful, but once the bird is securely in the trap, Mytyl and Tyltyl are chased off by a gun-carrying gamekeeper.

To be honest, this would scare me off

This seems a little excessive for trespassing. I was joking when I asked if they couldn't read the sign, but I realized that as peasant children living in a monarchy sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, it's quite possible that they can't read and won't be taught to. It seems odd they would be so eager to catch a bird that they'd risk encountering an armed gamekeeper. There's no guarantee that he'd go easy on them just because they were children; European nobility and royalty of that period were very protective of their game, and generally considered that a deer was more valuable than a peasant. Poachers were dealt with harshly, and trespassers were generally assumed to be poachers. And why did Mytyl need to trespass onto the King's land to catch what looks like an ordinary bird?

Back in their village, Mytyl and Tyltyl are accosted by an acquaintance, Angela, who is leaning out of her bedroom window. Poor Angela is sick and has been confined to her bed for some time, and she really likes the bird. First she begs Mytyl to trade the bird for her doll, but Mytyl points out contemptuously that the doll is old and worn. Finally Angela begs Mytyl just to give her the bird, but Mytyl refuses. Angela's mother comes in at this point and says scornfully that it's no use, Mytyl won't give anybody anything. This scene is intended to show how mean and selfish Mytyl is, but after all, Mytyl went to a lot of trouble to catch the bird, and invalid or not, it seems presumptuous of Angela to expect Mytyl simply to give her the bird.

As Mytyl and Tyltyl are on their way home, their attention is caught by the sight of a big party in a sumptuous mansion. There's a Christmas tree that reaches to the ceiling of a ballroom, and there are children dancing around it. As they are looking in the window, a servant comes out and politely offers them some cake. Mytyl replies haughtily that they aren't rich, but they aren't beggars, and stalks off with Tyltyl following.

Back in their house, Mytyl is scolded by her father for catching birds, and by her mother for refusing to give Angela the bird. Mytyl retaliates by complaining about their "poverty," and her parents in turn point out the many things that she does have. In fact, the family seems to be poor only in comparison to the rich people in their mansion. (Mytyl and her family have to eat in the kitchen! How too, too dreadful!) This I'm sure was supposed to reinforce the fact that Mytyl is selfish and greedy, although I think that most children, and adults for that matter, go through spells when it seems as though everybody else has everything and they have nothing. But for once Shirley Temple is doing some real acting here, using a natural style instead of her usual artificial exaggerated cuteness.

However, there are things worse than not having a ballroom. A knock on the door brings the news that Mytyl's father has been called up for military duty. The messenger's statement that "Andreas Hofer" has ordered the citizen to mobilize because Napoleon's soldiers are on the march tells us where and when we must be: the Tyrol in 1809. Mytyl's father says that he'll get ready, and we get a scene typical of most Shirley Temple movies when Mytyl cries and asks her father why there has to be war.

I think there's a similar shot in every Shirley Temple movie

As Mytyl's mother comes to tuck her into bed, Mytyl apologizes for the way she acted at supper, and says she doesn't know why she acts that way. As I said, it seems to be no more than a normal spell of discontentment, but her mother says solemnly that Mytyl has to find out why she's not satisfied with what she has, or she'll always be unhappy. This seems like a lot to lay on a child, but Mytyl hugs her mother and assures her that her father will come back.

Sometimes more than one

So far the movie has been in black and white, probably in imitation of The Wizard of Oz. However, as Mytyl wakes up to the sound of knocking, we see that everything is now in color. Mytyl and Tyltyl run into the kitchen to answer the door, to find that an elderly and sharp-spoken woman is there. She introduces herself as the fairy Berylune (I know how this is spelled because I looked it up on IMDb).

Not exactly Glinda

So why did this rather cut-rate-looking fairy turn up? It seems she has come to help. She knows how unhappy Mytyl has been, and unlike Mytyl's mother, she knows the cure: Mytyl has to find the Blue Bird. Mytyl is understandably skeptical that a bird can make her happy, and after all, the one she just caught didn't, so I guess she ought to know. Berylune seems to believe in action, not words, so instead of arguing with Mytyl, she waves her magic stick, and presto! Mytyl and Tyltyl are now fully dressed.

My response is that this is a nice power to have, but it doesn't really demonstrate that finding a blue bird will make Mytyl happy. But Mytyl is a child, after all, and she immediately agrees to go out and look. Reasonably enough she asks Berylune where she should look, but all Berylune has to say is that Mytyl has to look in the past, the future, and everywhere. This doesn't seem to narrow it down much, but Berylune also suggests that in addition to Tyltyl, Mytyl can take their pet dog Tylo and their pet cat Tylette to help. In case you're wondering just how much help a dog and a cat would be in searching through all of time and space, Berylune is ahead of you. She transforms Tylo and Tylette into adult humans, albeit rather unattractive ones.

Tylo and Tylette

Berylune also provides Light to illuminate their way.


In view of the fact that Mytyl has a vast territory to search through, it's helpful that Light knows how to get to places where the Blue Bird is likely to be found. It's probably not a coincidence that Light strongly resembles Glinda. Light suggests they start off with the Past, and off our gallant band sets.

It shortly develops that their journey won't be quite like following the yellow brick road. Light informs them sweetly that in order to get to the past, they have to go through a graveyard. What's more, she isn't going with them. Finally, they have to be back in less than an hour, or they'll be stuck in the past forever. Little Tyltyl doesn't think going to the past is a good idea, and I can only agree. Tylo and Tylette don't seem enthused either, but Mytyl insists that they all follow her.

The graveyard is no better than you'd expect.

Not the Emerald City

The only birds they encounter are crows and owls, and Tylo falls into an open grave. Tylette is doing her best to scare everybody, apparently out of sheer meanness. They never do really get through the graveyard, but Mytyl and Tyltyl come across their grandparents' graves, and once Mytyl mentions their grandparents, the scene shifts from the graveyard to a pretty little cottage with an elderly man and woman sitting in front of it. Granny Tyl explains to the children that when living people think of the dead, the dead come to life.

The cottage is actually quite nice, but not a single blue bird is to be found. Mytyl is disappointed, but for some reason she feels the need to stop, sing a little song, and do a little dance.

There's one of these shots in every Shirley Temple movie, too. Also a creepy old man.

She's back to her standard excruciatingly cutesy style here, and although she can carry a tune, her voice is not even remotely at Judy Garland's level. But time is getting on, and Mytyl and Tyltyl have to be going. Once they're gone, poor old Granny and Grandpa sink down on a bench and fall asleep, although at least we don't see their tombstones again.

Not having found the Blue Bird, Mytyl and Tyltyl return to Tylo, Tylette, and Light. Mytyl is wondering where they should go next, and Tylette speaks up to suggest they go to the Land of Luxury to look for the Blue Bird. Again, Light doesn't know how to get there, but Tylette knows exactly what path to take, and shortly the four arrive at a magnificent palace.

Pretty ritzy

A footman summons Mr. and Mrs. Luxury, the owners of this palace. The Luxurys seem rather silly (they enter the hall by sliding down the bannisters), but they also seem to be kind and generous.

The aptly named Luxurys

Mr. and Mrs. Luxury have bedrooms prepared for the new arrivals, with the exception of poor Tylo, who has to sleep in the kennel. Mr. Luxury even gives little Tyltyl a piggyback ride upstairs. In the next scene, we see Tylette lounging on a chaise longue, sipping a glass of milk; Mytyl riding on a small merry-go-round (indoors!); and Tyltyl sitting on a pony. Mytyl and Tyltyl are dressed in fancy new clothes. Surely the Blue Bird will be found here?

Well, maybe not. Mytyl and Tyltyl fight over who gets to ride the pony while Tylette looks at them and smirks. When Mr. Luxury orders a servant to bring the two children another pony, Mytyl and Tyltyl fight over who gets the new pony. That night, Mytyl cries in her elaborate bed in an enormous room complete with crystal chandelier. Unable to sleep, she gets up and wanders around until she finds Mr. Luxury reading. His right foot is propped up on a footstool, and he's rather sharp as he tells Mytyl that he has gout and she's not to come anywhere near his foot. He also declines to read her a bedtime story, and after he reluctantly allows her to kiss him goodnight, he yells at her and shoves her away when she accidentally touches his gouty foot. It begins to appear that the Blue Bird is not to be found here after all.

It seems that Tylo isn't happy here either, as the other dogs in the kennel won't have anything to do with him because he doesn't have a pedigree. When he and Mytyl go looking for Tyltyl, they find him crying in his bed, too. After Mytyl apologizes to him, he admits that he too isn't happy here, and they agree to leave. Just then Tylette walks in, and although she says that she likes it here, she agrees to go with the others. However, as they're heading for the front door, Tylette pushes over a large vase, which breaks and alerts the servants and Mr. Luxury. (She claims that it was an accident.) Mr. Luxury orders the servants to catch the children, although one would think he'd be only too happy to see the last of the whiny quarrelsome brats, but the four manage to outrun the servants and escape from the house, with a little slapstick action to boot.

Our four meet up with Light and decide to take a nap before they start searching for the Blue Bird again. Tylette, however, seems to have something up her sleeve. She slips away into the forest and starts summoning - trees? Yes, she calls oaks, elms, willows, and numerous other types of trees, and shortly she's surrounded by trees personified in the persons of men and one woman (the weeping willow, naturally).

Tylette and the trees

Why is she calling the trees? She wants them to scare the children so they'll give up their search and go home. I suppose she dislikes travel and wants the comforts of her home, but why she doesn't just turn around and go home on her own is not explained. I don't know why the trees care whether or not the children are looking for the Blue Bird, but they not only agree to cooperate, they go Tylette one better: they decide to destroy the children! This is even more inexplicable, but the oak tree says it's in revenge for the centuries that men have been chopping down trees, and Tylette did mention that the children's father is a woodcutter. Or maybe Tylo's been peeing on the trees.

As a new day dawns, the four walk through the forest. (Light wandered off somewhere while the children and Tylo were napping.) Before they get very far, a storm blows up, and a lightning strike sets fire to a tree. As they run through the forest, more lightning strikes start more fires, and the winds blow down trees. Pretty soon trees start toppling down all around the foursome, and they're surrounded by burning trees. Tylette disappears into the flames, but Tylo fortunately comes across a boat and a stream, and he and the children escape as the entire forest burns. So, the trees essentially commit suicide and destroy their home to "get even" with a couple of children? Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Whew, that was quite an experience, wasn't it? Surely the by-now-thoroughly-traumatized children will be begging to go home, having been convinced that the Blue Bird can be found in any place where you're not in immediate danger of being burned to death? But no. The boat pulls up to a grassy bank where Light is waiting, the two children jump out, and Light hugs them. There's not so much as a scorch mark on their or Tylo's clothes, and Shirley Temple's curls are pristine. They're only minimally distressed at the loss of Tylette, although considering the way she'd been acting, they really can't be blamed for not being particularly sad. Light now recommends looking into the Future for the Blue Bird. The children agree eagerly, but Tylo says he's going to sit this one out, his bunions are hurting. Perhaps he should see a vet.

Light leads the children to a tall stone staircase that reaches up into the clouds. This, she says, is the way to the future. Once again, she declines to accompany the children, although by now you'd think the children would refuse to go someplace where Light won't go. When the children finally reach the top of the stairs, they emerge into an open area in front of a large building that vaguely resembles a Greek temple. There are a lot of children playing in there. In keeping with the architecture, the children of the future are wearing something that resembles a Greek chiton - boys in blue, girls in pink.

So this is the future

The children of the future sense that there is something different about Mytyl and Tyltyl. The future children remark that Mytyl and Tyltyl are alive, but they themselves are not, at least not yet. They're all there waiting to be born, and they already know when they'll be born and what they'll be doing after they're born. As Mytyl and Tyltyl are chatting with the future children, a little dark-haired girl runs up and hugs Mytyl. She tells Mytyl and Tyltyl that she's going to be their little sister and will be born in about a year.

The siblings meet

This seems to be a happy place. All the children are playing together cheerfully, with no bickering or quarrelling to be heard, and some of the older children (all boys) are doing various work that will prepare them for their lives on Earth. Is it possible that the Blue Bird is here? I suspect not. Mytyl and Tyltyl are happy that they're going to have a little sister, but when they tell the little girl this, she looks sad and says that she'll be with them for only a little while. Tyltyl wants to know the point of her coming, then, and she says that they aren't allow to pick and choose where they'll be born.

As if that wasn't depressing enough, Mytyl and Tyltyl come across a tall dark-haired teenage boy. He tells them he'll be born almost any day, but he doesn't seem happy about this. He says that the world is an unhappy place and so many people are born into slavery. But he's going to fight to free the slaves! However, his opponents are going to destroy him. Who, oh who, can this be?

Just then a trumpet sounds, a large door opens, and in walks a white-haired bearded man carrying a sickle. A sailboat pulls up outside the door, and some of the children run to the door and jump into the boat as their names are called.

The truth about how children are born

Most of the children seen happy to be called, but two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are clinging to each other and sobbing. They're in love, but he's to be born now, and she won't be born for so long that he'll die before she's born, so they'll never see each other again. They beg to stay together, but nothing can be done, and as the boy walks slowly onto the boat, the girl collapses onto the floor, crying. Another unhappy child is the dark-haired teenage boy, whose time it is to be born (it's 1809, remember). He walks slowly but stoically onto the boat.

So the Future proves a bust as far as the Blue Bird is concerned. Light shows up just then and escorts the children back to their home. I guess they've had enough of adventures, because they seem happy enough to stop looking for the Blue Bird and to go home. Somewhere along the way they must have picked up Tylo, because he's here too. Light sees them to their front door, tells them she has to go because she has other work to do (not that she did much here), and she'll be with them in every moonbeam, lamplight, etc., etc. Then she walks off for good.

Comes the dawn, and Mytyl and Tyltyl wake up to find themselves in their own beds with their mother opening the curtains. Their mother is surprised but pleased at the enthusiasm of their greeting, as it seems that such cheerfulness has up to now not been a frequent thing in Mytyl. Their father is also hugged and kissed when he comes in. And better news comes - a treaty has been signed and their father won't have to go to war after all. The children also find that Tylette is alive and well in the kitchen, but they are understandably less than enthusiastic to see her. Berylune is MIA.

As you may have gathered, Shirley Temple has long since reverted to her trademark dimpled perky self. She skips over to look at the bird she caught yesterday, to see that what was a bird-colored bird only hours before is now a bright blue bird! Not blue-jay blue, but a bright indigo blue all over. I wonder if the bird was dyed?

Off Mytyl runs to show the bird to Angela. Apparently the bird can make the previously bedridden girl get up and walk around, or maybe it's just shock at the change in Mytyl. To no one's surprise, Mytyl gives the bird to Angela. Unfortunately Angela lets the bird escape, but instead of yelling at her, Mytyl assures that they'll find the Blue Bird again, because now they know where to look for it. (We can only hope that the reformed Mytyl has learned enough sense so she doesn't return to the King's gamekeeper-protected property to catch another bird.) And with a close-up of a smiling Shirley Temple, the movie ends.

Our little heroine

I think I've figured out why this movie didn't do very well. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there was very little about it that was charming. Dorothy got the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion as traveling companions; Mytyl and Tyltyl got a dog-turned-human who resembled Curly of the Three Stooges and sometimes acted like him, and a cat-turned-human that seemed to hate them. (Whoever wrote the script must not have liked cats.) Dorothy had Glinda to help her; Mytyl and Tyltyl had a frowsy-looking fairy who showed up once, then never appeared again, and a beautiful personification of Light who wasn't around much more than Berylune. A flashlight would have been of more use than Light was. Dorothy defeated the Wicked Witch and brought freedom to the Winkies; Mytyl and Tyltyl did - what? Gave a sick girl a pretty bird and stopped bugging their parents about being poor?

True, Dorothy was threatened by the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys, but Mytyl and Tyltyl came within a hair of being burned to death in a fire that looked terrifyingly real. (I assume that for most of the fire scene, the actors were projected onto a film of a forest fire, since I can't imagine that the filmmakers actually built such a big fire.) Were the hostile trees in this movie meant to resemble the annoying but harmless apple-throwing trees in The Wizard of Oz? If so, whoever wrote this segment overshot the mark by quite a bit.

Like The Wizard of Oz, the message here seems to be that happiness is to be found in your own home, not by wealth or by dwelling on the past or the future, but there are some very depressing messages mixed in, too: that people forget you quickly after you die, that a lot of children die young, that lovers are sometimes separated forever, and that good men may be killed. The original play is available online, and it's pretty depressing too, although you won't be surprised to hear that Abraham Lincoln doesn't appear in it.

You could say that this movie has a happy ending, since in addition to finding the Blue Bird, the children also find out that their father won't have to go to war. However, this movie was made in 1940, and this probably did nothing to cheer up the people whose loved ones were going, or had already gone, to war, with no treaty in sight. Even the United States was beginning to prepare for a war that seemed inevitable.

Surprisingly some people do seem to like this movie. Almost all of the viewer comments posted on Youtube praise it. Most of them seem to be Shirley Temple junkies, and none of them seem to have pondered too deeply about what the movie is saying. I don't think Mytyl's initial selfish behavior was as off-putting in 1940 as other reviewers have said. The Youtube commenters don't seem to mind it, and she very quickly started behaving the way Shirley Temple always behaved in her movies: sugary-sweet, unnaturally cheerful, and always thinking of others. Possibly the real issue was that people in 1940 were expecting to see something resembling The Wizard of Oz, and instead got a movie that was rather disjointed and more depressing than charming.

As I mentioned at the start, Shirley Temple's career was beginning to go downhill before she made this movie. She started acting in movies at the age of four, and was five years old when she became a star. Unfortunately for her, small children grow up, and by the time she made The Blue Bird, she had nearly outgrown her "Shirley Temple" character. The last screenshot above shows that if you look past the curls and the dimples, she looked her actual age, which was twelve. She did go on to make a few more movies, but most of them didn't do well, and her acting didn't garner much praise. She made her last movie in 1949. She did a little bit of television work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and after that her acting career was over.

Watch this movie if you really like Shirley Temple or want to see how it differs from the original play. Otherwise there's not much point in spending any time on it.

Written by Pam Burda in November, 2021.

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