THE BLUE BIRD (20th Century-Fox, 1940),directed by Walter Lang, adapted from the story by Maurice Masterlinck, is an interesting failure in Shirley Temple's movie career. A worthy follow-up to her previous success of THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939),a family oriented story also produced with lavish scale settings and glossy Technicolor, THE BLUE BIRD, a dream-like fantasy often labeled as the studio's answer to THE WIZARD OF OZ (MGM, 1939) starring Judy Garland, could have or should have become a box office success, but it didn't. Using the same opening credit method from Temple's HEIDI (1937) introducing the cast and staff through a series of flipped pages from an open book, THE BLUE BIRD, coming nearly three years later, did allow the now taller Temple to break away from her sweet wholesome image to a selfish, disagreeable adolescent. Unlike her most typical films where she often played either an orphan, or a daughter of a widowed parent, THE BLUE BIRD gives her a set of parents as well as a little brother.
Black and White prologue: Set on Christmas Eve in a little German town sometime in the 19th Century, Mytyl Tyl (Shirley Temple),and her little brother, Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) at the Royal Forest are introduced trapping a rare little bird into a cage. On the way home, Mytyl is called over by Angela Berlinger (Sybil Jason),a sickly child resting by her bedroom window, if she would be interested in trading the bird with one of her possessions, but is refused. Aside from Angela's mother (Leona Roberts) who labels Myrtyl as a selfish child, so do her parents (Russell Hicks and Spring Byington),which explains why Mytyl is never very happy. Problems soon arise for the family when Mytyl's woodcutting father is called to war and to report Christmas day. As the children go to bed for the night, (shift to Technicolor) they each dream of themselves searching for the Blue Bird of Happiness, thus, meeting with numerous characters to guide them: Fairy Berylune (Jessie Ralph),Light (Helen Ericson),their dog and cat, Tylo and Tylette (Eddie Collins and Gale Sondergaard),magically changed to human form. While going through many aspects of human experience, Mytyl and Tyltyl visit the past, going to the land of memories in the cemetery where they are briefly reunited with their deceased grandparents (Al Shean and Cecilia Loftus); living the life of richness in the mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Luxury (Nigel Bruce and Laura Hope Crews); roaming through the forest where danger awaits, with uprooted trees and blazing fire; and moving into the future where the children visit the Palace of the Unborn where they make the acquaintance of children awaiting to be born before finding their destinies on Earth - but still no finding of the blue bird of happiness. Upon their awakening, further events await them. (While it would be asking too much to accept two children to be having the exact same dream while sleeping, but considering this to be a fantasy, it's possible acceptance to the viewer).
Other members of the cast are Thurston Hall (Father Time); Sterling Holloway (Wild Plum Tree); and possibly every child actor in the movie business appearing briefly as Gene Reynolds; Ann E. Todd, Scotty Beckett, Billy Cook, Diane Fisher, among others. Johnny Russell, the doll-faced little boy has that rare distinction of having and sharing equal time with Temple, while the lesser known name of Helen Ericson as Light stands out as a sort of glowing guardian dressed in white angel with that Heavenly glow.
First produced as a stage play, then adapted as a silent movie (Paramount, 1918),and much later retold again (20th Century-Fox, 1976) directed by George Cukor, regardless of its negative reputation, it's the 1940 edition that's become the best known of the three due to frequent television broadcasts starting in the late 1960s, usually around the Christmas season. Though there are those who claim this BLUE BIRD has laid an egg, overlooking some dull passages, it does contain some fine moments of honorable mention: lavish scale settings with crisp, glossy Technicolor; the beautiful yet haunting score to "Through the World so Far Away" sung by children on with giant ship with the golden sail on their way to be born, this being one of the longer dream segments of the dream; and one with an important message. Reportedly consisting of occasional song numbers, all except one, "Lay Dee O," sung and danced by Shirley Temple to her grandparents, remains in final cut. In fact, this is one of the few instances where the film comes to life, being a sheer reminder of formula Temple cheerfulness. Eddie Collins adds occasional humor as the humanly frightful dog while Gale Sondergaard adds tastes of cat-eye wickedness, but no threat to Margaret Hamilton's scene stealing Wicked Witch of the West from THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Formerly available as part of the Shirley Temple Playhouse on video cassette in 1989, and later in DVD format, THE BLUE BIRD has turned up on numerous cable channels over the years, ranging from The Disney Channel (1980s),American Movie Classics (1996-2001),Fox Movie Channel, and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 20, 2015). With the reportedly heavy editing of songs and scenes to abide to Temple's attention throughout, it's a wonder how THE BLUE BIRD might have turned out theatrically in completed form of more musical sequences as opposed to its 83 minute release of the blue bird search for happiness? Whether it would have made a difference between success and failure is anybody's guess. (***1/2)