'The Blue Bird' or: How Shirley Temple became the ambassador to Czechoslovakia
In 1939, former soldier, steelworker, and boxer Darryl F. Zanuck realized that what people really wanted to watch were children's fantasy adventure movies. This thought was based entirely on the success of "The Wizard Of Oz," which was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) the year prior. Zanuck, who was allegedly barely literate, had ruled over studio giant 20th Century Fox for five years when he invested $2 million (about $40 million today) into adapting Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1909 play "The Blue Bird" into a musical film starring child actor Shirley Temple. The end product is one of the most utterly strange and terrifyingly existential children's films ever, and one that must be watched because it should never be forgotten.
The adaptation is quite loose, here. It adds songs, lavish new settings, and a completely new script to the brief Belgian play. The film also changes the setting of the play to Germany during the Napoleonic wars in order to draw a comparison to the then-ongoing Second World War, which America was about a year away from entering. "The Blue Bird" is very nearly in the ballpark of “rip-off” in regards to its inspiration, "The Wizard of Oz." It even opens with the use of black-and-white film for the opening scenes, which "dramatically” shifts to technicolor once the fantasy world is entered (though, for some infuriatingly unknown reason, the opening credits ARE in color). It is in these opening scenes that we are introduced to our central character, Mytyl (Mya-tel), played by Shirley Temple, who was at the height of her success and seen as one of the greatest assets of 20th Century Fox. Notable in her success was her continued portrayal of a kindhearted, joyous, and innocent little girl. However, at the start of "The Blue Bird," this previous persona is thrown out the window, as she is shown capturing a bird along with her brother Tyltyl (Teal-tel), and refusing to give it to her sick and dying friend Angela in the opening scene. When she returns home to Mummy Tyl and Daddy Tyl, who all speak with American accents, she insults her mother’s cooking and insists that her woodcutter father provides her with nothing (she clarifies that she would like it if he could afford to buy her a servant). Suddenly, a man with a big hat enters the scene and tells poor Daddy Tyl that he will be leaving for war tomorrow, where he will probably die.
The children are woken up the next morning by Berylune, a fairy who transforms their dog and cat (of course named Tylo and Tylette) into humans. She tells the children and human-animals that they need to find the bluebird of happiness — kinda just because she said to. So, with nothing else to do, the children, the animals, and their lamp (which is also transformed into a human) set off on an adventure to find the obscure bird of happiness. The first place they look is a graveyard.
We get our first taste of the film's existential ambiguity here. After the children stumble across their grandparents' grave, the grandparents (you can guess their names) appear. They awaken because “somebody must be thinking of them” and are immediately filled with energy and joy as they hear the children coming towards them. This scene strangely notes that the family celebrated Easter together, though these religious practices are at odds with the eternal state as beings that just exist to be thought of, only truly dying once they are forgotten. The children spend a brief bit of time with their grandparents, and just leave when they find no further help in getting the blue bird. Everything about this scene makes me extremely uncomfortable and puts me in a state of mild depression. The first time I saw the grandparents fade back into nothingness, I started weeping. I used to wonder why the hell this scene is in a movie that is supposed to be a competitor of one of the most renowned light-hearted family movies of its time. And while no one will ever be able to answer that, I have come to accept that out of that context, part of me is glad that this was made. If not just because of how impactful parts of it can be on me, and maybe others. I guess that's why I am hoping you will watch this movie, and believe me, there is so much I didn’t mention here that is absolutely insane and worth watching. It is free, probably illegally, on YouTube, and even if you find the story and characters to be utter nonsense, you will be wowed by the massive, visually stunning sets. This is clearly where most of the budget went, and they make sure to capitalize on each moment.
The kids don’t even find the blue bird in the end. After venturing to the kingdom of unborn children, where they meet a girl who says she will one day be their little sister, and a boy who will be born as Abraham Lincoln (yes, this really happens), the children return home empty-handed, only to realize that the bird that they had caught at the beginning of the movie was blue, and they had just not realized this. I think the audiences that panned this movie at the time of its release probably could have learned something from this ending.
To promote the movie, a half-hour radio play was produced live for a studio audience a month prior to its release. During this performance, a woman rose from the audience with a gun and tried to shoot Shirley Temple in the face, because she thought that she had stolen the soul of her dead daughter. This, the failure of the movie (which did not return its mighty investment at the box office), and Temple’s following film with 20th Century Fox, pushed her childhood career into nothing, with continued unsuccessful roles. Apparently, “miserable little shit” was not a side of Shirley that the public wanted to see, and so she was forgotten. She did little acting once she stopped making films at the age of 26, and turned to politics in the '80s. After successful work with Richard Nixon in the United Nations General Assembly, she was appointed by George H. W. Bush to be the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia.