Of all the ways to give Shirley Temple (entering that awkward age for child stars) a Wizard of Oz she could star in and call her own, Walter Lang’s film of Maurice Maeterlink’s play The Blue Bird was high on the list of bad ideas. The problem starts with the source material, which is a singularly depressing work — and the film retained most of the play’s ideas and tone. Really, a family fantasy with such things as the land of the past where we learn that our dead loved ones only get to “live” when people think about them is not a hot idea. That probably pales, however, when put up against a sequence set in the land of the future. Here we find that prior to birth we already know our fates, so that the little girl who’s going to be Shirley’s little sister knows she won’t live very long. We also get a gloomy young man who’s going to preach peace and knows he’ll be killed for his pains. And then we have young lovers separated by the birth of one of them—knowing they will never see each other again and will always be alone. This is just not the stuff to feed audiences wanting another trip down the Yellow Brick Road. It was a huge flop.
The truth is, though, that it’s not at all a bad movie—it’s just not a lot of fun. I wonder if it was ever really meant to be. This is a movie with an extended creepy sequence in a graveyard with imagery that deliberately evokes Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead — one of the most disturbing paintings I’ve ever seen (or five paintings, since there were five versions of it). It also boasts a beautifully done and quite terrifying forest fire. I really don’t see how the people making the film thought it was light fantasy. There are splendid performances— often in supporting roles — but the standout is Gale Sondergaard as the human incarnation of Tylette the cat. It’s typical anti-cat propaganda (cats almost never get a break in the movies), but Sondergaard is exquisitely feline. Temple is OK, but she’s saddled with a role that calls for her to be unlikable for a large portion of the film. That, and being nearly 12, make this a long way from her most popular movies.