The Blue Bird (1940)

The Blue Bird (1940)

The Blue Bird (1940). 88 minutes. Directed by Walter Lang. Starring Shirley Temple (as Mytyl), Johnny Russell (as Tyltyl), Eddie Collins (as Tylo), Gale Sondergaard (as Tylette), Helen Ericson (as Light), Spring Byington (as Mummy Tyl), Russell Hicks (as Daddy Tyl), Cecilia Loftus (as Granny Tyl), Al Shean (as Grandpa Tyl), Sybil Jason (as Angela), Nigel Bruce (as Mr. Luxury), Laura Hope Crews (as Mrs. Luxury), Thurston Hall (as Father Time), Jessie Ralph (as Fairy Berylune). Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

The Blue Bird is one of the worst movies from early cinema that I have yet reviewed, and I have written about both Reefer Madness (1936) and Maniac (1934). It is certainly one of the most expensive bad movies that I have reviewed, featuring one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Shirley Temple. The Blue Bird caused problems for Temple and for her studio, 20th Century Fox, as it failed to prove a profitable counter to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), which was critically praised in its time but was similarly unsuccessful at the box office. If you have read anything about The Blue Bird and its failure, you have probably encountered the argument that audiences who were expecting a repackaged singing, tap-dancing moppet a la other Temple successes such as Curly Top (1935) and Heidi (1937) were turned off by Temple’s character—a largely bratty and ungrateful girl. But the real reason that The Blue Bird was a failure is much simpler than a story of misplaced expectations: that is because The Blue Bird is terrible in nearly every way that a movie can be terrible, and deliciously so. Its constant implicit references to its competitor, the vastly superior Oz, only reinforce for us that we are not watching the delightful and charming Dorothy and Toto. Additionally, The Blue Bird’s fantasy world is unconvincing because its dialogue is insipid and its characterizations lackluster. And finally, it is infused with an unbearable and ubiquitous saccharine glurge, oozing sentimentality and precocious sweetness at every turn. It is most interesting today for its fascinating competitive energy and its tantalizing blunders, which much like the proverbial car accident are difficult to look away from. The Blue Bird will likely reinforce to anyone who is a fan of Oz just how special the Judy Garland film is.

The Blue Bird opens in nineteenth-century Europe, where young Mytyl captures a bird in the forest that she is unwilling to share with her sick acquaintance Angela. At home she is mean and uncharitable to her parents, even when the family learns that her father must report in the morning for service in the Napoleonic Wars. Mytyl and her brother Tyltyl go to bed and are awakened in the night by the fairy Berylune, who tells them they must go off in search of the mystical blue bird of happiness. They will be led through the past, present, and future by the figure Light, accompanied by their dog and cat, Tylo and Tylette, who metamorphose into human form and remain that way for the duration of the quest. The group visits the deceased Tyl grandparents, the House of Luxury, and the children of the future. Tylette, who does not want to return to her cat life and be beholden to humans, attempts to kill Mytyl and Tyltyl in a forest fire but instead is destroyed in the cataclysm herself. The children return home without the blue bird, but when they awaken and learn that the battle their father was conscripted for has been called off, they find the bird they had caught in the woods the previous day has turned blue. Mytyl, transformed into a well-behaved girl, rushes to Angela and gives her the bird as a present. When it escapes and flies away, Mytyl reassures Angela by telling her she now knows where to find it.

It is seemingly impossible to have a conversation about The Blue Bird without mentioning The Wizard of Oz. The two films have much superficially in common. Both are adaptations of early twentieth-century fantasy stories (Oz is based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and The Blue Bird is based on the French play L’Oiseau bleu by Maurice Maeterlinck). The two films similarly focus on a young female protagonist who is whisked away into a magical dream world. There, she undertakes a goal-oriented journey in which she encounters a number of different lands and characters, including a fairy who sets her on her path (or, in the case of Oz, a good witch), anthropomorphic animals, and talking trees.

But at all times, The Blue Bird seems like a poor man’s Wizard of Oz. Whereas Oz is a spirited musical, full of memorable songs that range from the quirky (“If I Only Had a Brain”) to the sublime (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and that reinforce the core elements of the film, there is only one brief musical moment in The Blue Bird (the yodeling song “Lay-De-O”). Moreover, whereas Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz neatly follows a clearly demarcated and linear yellow brick road through the country of Oz towards the Emerald City, Mytyl proceeds through a fantasy world that cuts erratically and clumsily across time; she visits the past and future as well as incongruous locales such as the House of Luxury and a magical forest that are thrown in for reasons that are unclear. Finally, while Dorothy encounters the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion and journeys with them on her way to meet the Wizard so that they all may seek out magical solutions to their problems and fulfill their private needs, Mytyl is assigned the quest to find the blue bird as a kind of vague task that does not develop out of an internal desire, and when she encounters people, she disposes of them; the characters she keeps with her from the journey’s onset (Tyltyl, Tylo, Tylette, and Light) have no discernable personal requirement for seeking out the object of their quest, and together with Mytyl, they lack the vulnerability of Dorothy and her friends.

The Blue Bird’s attempt to imitate Oz in terms of plot and genre will be most immediately obvious to viewers, but consider also how closely The Blue Bird positions itself to Oz in terms of even its visual texture. Both films open in a non-color phase (sepia tint in Oz, black and white in The Blue Bird) and subsequently enter a fantasy world signified by the introduction of Technicolor photography. But in The Blue Bird when the children’s quest begins and the movie transitions out of its initial black and white, the moment involves an abrupt and lackluster cut from the children in their atonal bedroom to the interior side of a color door constructed of plain brown wood that is being knocked upon from outside. The flat surface of the door, its unremarkable shade, and the dull pounding that accompanies the image together cause us to enter leadenly and unexceptionally into the film’s magical territory; in contrast, the transition from sepia to color in Oz opens up a whole fantastic plane with bizarre flowers, flamboyant buildings, and the yellow brick road encompassed in a single shot.

Elsewhere Oz’s Technicolor world shows a consistent effort to present the audience with bright and vivid symbols, such as the sparkling ruby slippers and the gleaming Emerald City. In The Blue Bird, however, the bird’s hue is challenging to even perceive consistently in the animal’s few scenes, and as a result there is a lack of support in terms of the film’s color rendering for the story’s most potent symbol and the subject that provides the very title of the movie. The Blue Bird’s use of color is just one example of its attempt to mimic Oz without demonstrating a deeper commitment to the precision and significance of its competitor’s images.

In part because of The Blue Bird’s imitative gestures, the movie never achieves the independence or the soulfulness of Oz. There is a sad, spiritual quality to Dorothy’s journey that Mytyl’s does not share; it begins with Dorothy’s rural malaise and transforms into the deep yearning of her displacement. To be fair, Oz’s Dorothy is played by Judy Garland, a teenager, and Garland’s ability to bring depth, including notes of sorrow, to her character is greater in part because of her skills as an actress but also because she is essentially a young adult. Shirley Temple in contrast is playing a child’s role that emphasizes precociousness and cheer, much as in her other early performances. Although the makers of The Blue Bird were attempting to transform Temple’s career by giving her a different type of role to play (i.e., that of a disobedient and unkind girl), they were not attempting to make her into more of a grown up—nor could they, given her youth. It is therefore not surprising that Oz feels more mature and profound than The Blue Bird; the latter through its star is attempting something very different with fewer emotions at stake, and accordingly it challenges us much less deliberately.

At the very least, if The Blue Bird were to succeed as a fantasy film independently, it would need sufficiently immersive dialogue and characters who convince us that they are from another realm. Yet the movie’s fantasy elements, rather than impressing us with their authenticity, are often unintentionally funny, much like the bathetic door being pounded upon in the transition to color. This is especially true when the film makes an attempt at expansive dialogue that ushers in or comments on the fantasy world. For example, it is hard to imagine that someone who is miraculously transported across time would utter the words that Mytyl does at the start of her journey (“This is the past, isn’t it?”). Moreover, rather than infusing the first scene of the quest with other-worldly sparkle, the fairy Berylune instead has some unmomentous words to share: she tells the children that they must search for “the bird that is blue—the blue bird,” and the repetition/clarification is neither necessary nor helpful. Later in the same scene, she asks the children, “Don’t you know that the blue bird means happiness?” suggesting that this is the most obvious thing in the world when it is anything but. Even the movie’s fantastic geography is presented in the flattest way imaginable via the characters’ language. In one scene where Mytyl asks, “Is the future far?” Light responds, “No, it’s just over the hill,” making the unique opportunity to glimpse the future sound as anticlimactic as the act of mounting a pedestrian incline.

The problem of sustaining the fantasy world through visuals and dialogue multiplies when the film introduces its numerous conceptual characters, which tend to be feebly rendered. When Light explains to the children at the end of the film that even though she is saying goodbye, she will be in every moonbeam, she asks, “You understand, don’t you?” to which Mytyl responds weakly, “Yes, I think so.” But this scene, in addition to revealing another unsuccessful moment in dialogue, also raises the question of what on earth Light is meant to be or symbolize. Is she actually the family oil lamp come to life, as is depicted in the first scene of the dream quest when the camera lingers over the luminous object while it transforms into a person? Or is she like a Greco-Roman god who governs light in all of its forms? Regardless of her true identity, it is unclear why she should know where the blue bird is (especially because she does not help them to find it), or why she in her capacity as Light should have the power to navigate through the epochs and worlds that she serves as a guide to. Moreover, why should we care? As she floats along in her billowing gown ahead of the children, she has little of substance to say.

What makes The Blue Bird transform into something especially challenging to watch is its glurge factor: that is, its reliance on cloying, manipulative sweetness to influence how we perceive characters and events at every step of Mytyl’s journey. There is probably no better example of the film’s inclinations towards the saccharine than the sequence where Mytyl and Tyltyl visit the future, a land of small grade-school-age children who represent the souls of people unborn on earth and who live on a Grecian plane outfitted with tall, antique marble columns. There they play, fall in love, inexplicably run science experiments, and take turns getting ferried into the living world as the voices of their future mothers serenade them.

The scene is overly sweet conceptually, with its darling children running free in a kind of alternate heaven, but it becomes unbearable when it focuses on a pair of children who are apparently doomed lovers and must be separated as one is called to the ferry before the other—the two contend with the understanding that they will not be incarnated at compatible times by weeping, thrashing, and screaming. And then there is the uncomfortable episode with a girl who excitedly greets Mytyl and Tyltyl and tells them that she is coming to earth to be their sister. When she confides in them that she will only be their sister for a while because she will die young, the scene adopts a weirdly creepy contour.

Other vignettes offer deranged messages about human progress. One of the silliest moments in a sequence full of silly moments involves a scientist child who bewilderingly invents anesthesia while in future heaven but must wait to be born and grow up in order to disseminate his discovery. “It will be very helpful, don’t you think?” he says, to which Mytyl responds “Oh yes! Do hurry and get yourself born!” And then there is the child who is destined to be born as a philosopher but does not relish being incarnated; he sees misery and slavery on earth, he tells Mytyl, and his mission will be to convince people that all humans are free and equal, but it will not go well. Given that we have just seen Tylette burn to death in a fiery, punishing conflagration as she revolts against her human masters—because, as she explicitly puts it, she does not want to be a slave—the philosopher child’s determination to free all living things does not, shall we say, appear to be the consistent message of the larger film.

As if a visit to future child heaven were not enough to convince us that the film’s priorities are sentimental in nature, The Blue Bird also piles on feelings of sweetness, remorse, and guilt in the visit to Granny and Grandpa Tyl’s house. The elder Tyls reside in a graveyard, and given that we get a glimpse of the future as a kind of heaven, I began to consider how near Granny and Grandpa Tyl’s house was to hell. (Very near was my conclusion.) While the elder Tyls are sweet and good natured, they also appear to be greedy time demons, there to ensnare the children with the largest apple tart imaginable, dancing wooden figurines, and a clock on the wall that only activates when Mytyl thinks of it and that traps the visitors, once they are distracted, in a world of lost hours. (Their house would fit well into a Twilight Zone episode where someone with a fantastic childhood memory of deceased relatives must contend as a grown up with their true forms as devils in another dimension.)

Granny and Grandpa Tyl delay the children on their quest during this uncomfortable episode, but they also lay down a fantastic guilt trip: as it happens, they are only dead (and thus “asleep”) when they are forgotten, but as soon as the children think of them, the grandparents become activated, awake, and alive. Grandpa takes up his whittling again as soon as he comes to—he complains that he is not awake often enough (and therefore not thought of sufficiently frequently) to get on with his carving projects. Without putting too fine of a point on it, Grandpa Tyl says enough to imply whose fault that is. At the end of the visit, Grandpa Tyl calls out to the children, “Don’t wait too long to come to us again!” Granny Tyl chimes in: “Think of us often—you don’t know how much it means!” As the pair slowly drifts off into slumber again, we hear them mutter, “It was nice to have them remember us at all.” The message is clear enough: Mytyl and Tyltyl’s grandparents are dissatisfied with the afterlife because of their descendants’ thoughtlessness. We in the audience by extension are disappointing our relatives even in death by not visiting them enough in our thoughts. That the movie finds time to nag us about our deficient family relationships in the middle of a fairy story is fairly astonishing but makes sense given the story’s priorities. The Blue Bird is content not to advance the fantasy or the quest element of the plot if it means that it can baste itself in the juices of guilt and sentimentality.

In the end, Mytyl and Tyltyl are restored to their waking lives and lumber towards a conclusion that serves as the film’s final attempt at audience manipulation. The revelation that their journey was only a dream but, on second thought, perhaps was not after all (i.e., the bird in the cage that Mytyl had captured has transformed into a blue bird) feels hackneyed and cheap, but the movie’s final moment is perhaps even worse in terms of its squirm-inducing effects. With the war called off and peace restored, Mytyl, who has transformed into a good girl, rushes to her sickly friend Angela to bestow the blue bird upon her. When it escapes and flies off, Mytyl turns to the camera and addresses us directly, breaking the fourth wall to say, “But we know where to find it, don’t we?”

This is perhaps the film’s most manipulative move, ensnaring the protagonist to assert that not only she but also her audience have all learned something together, and that what we have learned is where to find the blue bird and presumably the happiness it represents. Pointing to the audience at the end of The Blue Bird is a way of cutting corners, of appealing to us directly, and of asserting that we agree on what we have learned—without having to do the hard work of bringing us more naturally to the same conclusion through the language of cinema and its often indirect means of encouraging us to think and feel.

Imagine Dorothy at the end of Oz, turning to the camera and looking directly into the lens to say “We know there’s no place like home, don’t we?” to us—she does not need to, and that is not Oz’s style. The Blue Bird ends in a different place because it begins in and moves through different rhetorical territory. From the fairy Berylune explaining at the onset of the children’s quest that the blue bird is “the bird that is blue” and the shot of the pounding door that underscores someone is outside knocking, to close-ups of Granny and Grandpa Tyl passive-aggressively complaining about their inconsiderate relatives back on earth as they fall back into soul sleep, to characters asking the children if they understand something that has just been explained—the movie implies throughout that it does not trust us to make connections, especially connections about its themes, on our own. It is too bad; more subtle messaging would not save The Blue Bird, but it would make it more pleasurable to watch.

I will leave you with the thought that weirdly, and perhaps even obscenely, The Blue Bird actually manages on top of everything to be a Christmas movie. Early on we see from the street a house’s interior with a large Christmas tree and dancers swirling around it at a ball. In front of the window a man holds a platter of festive cookies that he offers to Mytyl and Tyltyl. The front door at the Tyl home is decorated with greenery, and when a messenger brings the Tyl family the good news that the war has been called off, Daddy Tyl calls him Santa Claus. The Christmas theme is not picked up and further developed during the quest portion of the film, which means that The Blue Bird is only a part-time holiday story, dwelling on Christmas details only during the scenes that make up the frame narrative.

It is a symptom of the film’s desperation that it must pile on the festive sentiment in addition to everything else, and yet even then I was not moved. The only thing that stirred my emotions in this film was seeing the blue bird fly away at the end, and those were feelings of relief that the film was over. The bird has the right idea; it is a pity that it must endure 88 minutes of the story to make its escape, and it is even worse that we must wait along with it.