Thursday, September 2, 2010

"I Shall Be the Saddest Thing On Earth" : A Look at The Blue Bird (1940)

"We can't pick and choose." --Unborn Girl, The Blue Bird

Shirley Temple's movies were a staple of my childhood. Between the ages of seven and ten, I watched them ad nauseum. I had the crappy colorized VHS tapes put out by Fox Home Video in the 90's--I didn't know any better!--and they pale in comparison to the rich black and white of the DVDs available now but oh well. Young as I was, I was able to overlook glaring racism and poor literary adaptation and just focus on Shirley. She was an amazingly talented young performer, often outshining the major stars with whom she worked. Some of her movies may not hold up nowadays but she definitely does. One that got a lot of play in my collection was The Blue Bird, one of her most unusual and obscure childhood films. Most of the time, Shirley played an optimistic, hopeful little girl who inspired optimism and hope in everyone around her (usually via song and dance). She also inspired her Depression-era audiences and this was the key to her enormous popularity. What makes The Blue Bird so unique is that Shirley (then twelve years old) dared to play against type.

Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird is about a nasty young girl who gets a much-needed wakeup call after she leaves home in search of The Blue Bird of Happiness. Together with her little brother, she has all sorts of crazy adventures and gradually learns the value of kindness and selflessness. The movie was obviously an answer to The Wizard of Oz released the year before complete with a No Place Like Home moral. The filmmakers even had the audacity to start the movie in black and white and switch to color fifteen minutes in, though with none of the magic of Dorothy first stepping out into Munchkinland. Still Shirley is good in it as always and it has that fairy tale quality I can't resist. And there is one scene that fascinates me even more now than it did when I was little.

Towards the end of the movie, Shirley and her brother are sent to look for the Blue Bird "in the future." Having already been to the past (a visit with the ghosts of their dead grandparents), this makes sense but how does one visit the future? By going to Heaven and meeting the children waiting to be born. What an awesome idea. The scene does stir a little bit of ire in me. All the unborn children are, of course, white. And dressed in togas with gender normative coloring no less. Also when Shirley sees a few of the kids plying their future trades, they're all scientists and, sure enough, all boys. Because only boys are scientists. Clearly. Anyway...

Despite its flaws, I was very moved by the emotional power of this sequence. There's so much going on in it. One child suspects her parents don't really want her. Another tries to sneak away before her time. A girl reveals herself to be Shirley's future sister and has sad news about what's in store for the family. Shirley also meets the boy who will be Abraham Lincoln (never mentioned by name) already aware of and dreading the fate that awaits him. To me, the most powerful moment is when two children who have fallen in love learn they must separate. The boy must leave to be born and the girl knows she will not be born until after he's died. They will never know each other on Earth and so neither will experience love in life. ARGH! I must have seen this movie 20 times as a kid. That goodbye scene never made me cry before now. The idea of being born too soon (or too late) to be with your true love is devastating. The essence of loneliness. A very affecting scene.

The entire "unborn children" sequence is worth watching in its entirety (see below). It's easily the best part. The Blue Bird, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, marking the end of Shirley's reign as America's child star. It was too expensive to turn a profit and audiences didn't like seeing Shirley in a negative (or adolescent) light. That said, The Blue Bird is a good movie. It's beautiful to look at and Shirley's dark side is a lot of fun. If anything, it could lead you to rewatch The Wizard of Oz, which is always time well spent in my opinion.

Unborn Children Sequence First Part

Second Part


  1. Love, love, love Shirley Temple. I wore out my VHS of "The Little Princess" and I'm not ashamed to admit that I own it on DVD now that I'm (allegedly) an adult.

    I've never seen "The Blue Bird" but it's going on my Netflix queue right now!


  2. "The Little Princess" and "Heidi" were probably my favorites (though they both departed wildly from the books they were based on). Great movies and she was great in them. I need to update to DVD. My VHS tapes are getting old.

    I hope you like The Blue Bird. It's a trip but I really like it.

    Thanks for reading!