Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Blue Bird (1940)

As I have written previously, I enjoy watching Shirley Temple's 1930s' movies despite myself for the innocent charm that she purveys. I am not that enchanted by her later roles. It's been a while since I last watched this fantasy based on the allegorical 1908 play by Maeterlinck. It was filmed at least twice as a silent (neither of which I have seen) and in 1976 remade in an overblown joint US-Russian production with the young Patsy Kensit in the Temple lead. This version was rushed out by 20th Century Fox after the critical success of "The Wizard of Oz" the previous year and proved to be their young star's first commercial flop. I am not too surprised, since at 12 years she was beginning to lose her childish innocence and in fact comes across as somewhat bolshy and petulant in this role. Added to the somewhat saccharine whimsy of the tale as filmed, the movie possibly had little appeal to a world on the edge of war.

Shirley and her more than chubby little brother play the children of a woodcutter and his wife in another time when war threatens. Shirley moans about their humble life and is told by a fairy to set off to find the blue bird of the title. Joined by human embodiments of their own cat and dog, played by the ever-treacherous Gale Sondergaard and vaudeville comic Eddie Collins in his penultimate role, their journey takes them in search of some elusive happiness. First they visit the past as represented by a graveyard, where they encounter their now-dead grand-parents and learn the lesson that people are only dead when they are forgotten. Next they visit the house of Luxury where everything may be available but where they learn that material goods alone do not bring happiness; Shirley realizes that her family is not poor -- they just don't have any money! There is then a scary section where they are lost in the forest. The wicked Sondergaard encourages the trees and their associates, fire and wind, to destroy the woodcutter's kids; that the trees end up destroying themselves makes little sense when you think about it. They next visit the future as represented by a world of unborn children, a collection of would-be Shirley Temples, and get to meet their little sister-to-be and some coming scientists and potential peace-makers. It is only when they return home that they discover that the blue bird of happiness was there the whole time, reminiscent of the no-place-like-home moral of Oz, but without the seamless magic of that film.

Shirley went on to make one last film for Fox before taking on some disposable teenaged roles, ultimately leaving movies for bigger and better things. There is no doubt that she brought much joy to many people during the Depression years and her charm is evident even now. However this particular movie is not one that reinforces her lasting legacy.

RIP World Movies: I am sad to report that this recently discovered satellite channel has now bitten the dust. I did write that I was mystified how they managed to survive for even a year without subscriptions or advertising -- and now I know the ultimate answer. They couldn't! I'm so sorry to see them go since they really tried to provide something rather different and wonderful.
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