Mytyl (Shirley Temple) is a selfish, unappreciative little girl who lives in a poverty stricken village with her younger brother Tyltyl (Johnny Russell). Desperately unhappy, her only solace is a captive bird she cruelly refuses to share with Angela (Sybil Jason), her sick friend. Mytyl’s father (Russell Hicks) is called to war, leaving the family devastated. That night, the children receive a visit from the fairy Berylune (Jessie Ralph) who sends them on a magical quest, alongside their transformed dog Tylo (Eddie Griffin), cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard), and kindly guide Light (Helen Ericson). Mytyl and Tyltyl journey to the Land of Memories, the Land of Luxury, and the Kingdom of the Future, in search of the elusive Bluebird of Happiness.
Revisiting childhood favourites can be a daunting experience. Candy often doesn’t taste as sweet the second time around. This obscure fantasy was a TV fixture throughout my childhood years abroad, and I suspect I’m among few who look upon it fondly. The Blue Bird was 20th Century Fox’s gift to Shirley Temple for not letting her star in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). Based on a popular play by Maurice Maeterlinck, it had already been filmed in 1918 by Maurice Tourneur and would be again in 1976, as an American/Soviet Russian co-production with an all-star cast headlined by a young Patsy Kensit and directed by George Cukor. All three versions were box office flops, and even Temple disparaged the film in her autobiography. Her fans did not welcome seeing her play a selfish brat, but Mytyl is an agreeably complex heroine, one more in need of a life lesson than sweet Dorothy Gale. She rejects charity and struggles to define just why she is so unhappy, establishing the film’s ambitious theme: how do we define happiness? Mytyl’s quest takes in nostalgia, material wealth, family, youthful idealism, and hope. The preachy tone is symptomatic of the times, but its heart is in the right place. Instead of a clear cut, good and evil dichotomy, the film tries to explore light and dark aspects inherent in all concepts of happiness. The village scenes with the sick, little girl are quite affecting, while the looming spectre of war provides a stronger real world threat than Oz’s freak tornado and nasty neighbour.
The segue from black and white into glorious Technicolor isn’t as artfully achieved as Oz’s, but the children’s thrilling dash through a burning forest is exceptionally well realised – a vivid nightmare of exploding trees and hellish flames. Eddie Griffin can do little with Tylo since the man-dog merely tags along, offering little beyond tiresome comic relief. As duplicitous Tylette, Gale Sondergaard (who nearly was cast as Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West) remains sublime, although her motivation for bringing the children harm remains sketchy at best. It might have been more interesting if, instead of a femme fatale, Tylette had been a worldly-wise guardian to the children, reflecting the film’s merging of light and dark. Lovely Helen Ericson is appropriately luminous as Light, although Walter Lang’s adaptation neglects other characters (Fire, Sugar and Bread) included in Tourneur and Cukor’s versions.
Light’s manifestations, bathing lavish sets in her warm glow, are among the film’s most charming effects. The magical worlds Lang conjures have a theatrical quality, while beneath the appealing, chocolate box visuals lies a twinge of melancholy. The Land of Memories, where the children are reunited with their late grandparents conveys a child’s simple joy at seeing loved ones again. Yet aside from Grandpa’s delightful dancing toys and Temple’s yodelling song, what lingers is Grandma’s plea to be remembered (“It was nice to have them remember us at all.”). The Land of Luxury (featuring Nigel Bruce – Watson in Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films – and Laura Hope Crews) convincingly embodies childish desires, where endless sweets and toys quickly turn them into brats. The most thoughtful and beautiful sequence remains the Kingdom of the Future, a children’s paradise of hope and boundless idealism. It has been criticised as trite or dour, but the little dramas are sincerely played by the young cast and still leave a lump in my throat. They include a little girl anxious to be born, a lovestruck young couple tragically separated, an encounter with an idealistic boy genius fated to be killed (Gene Reynolds, playing what the script hints is Abraham Lincoln), and most of all, Mytyl meeting her adorable, unborn sister (Ann Todd) – almost unbearably poignant as they realise she will die young. Mytyl’s silent understanding of the transient nature of happiness reveals Temple had a bit more going on as an actress than just cuteness.
It may be a foregone conclusion that Mytyl finds the Bluebird in her own home. But the message goes beyond “there’s no place like home”. Mytyl selflessly gives Angela the magical bird and helps her recover. The Blue Bird may not have found much love over the decades, but the suggestion that altruism is the source of true happiness remains a pleasing note sounded in a cynical world.