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Retro Movie Review: The Blue Bird (1940)

Posted in movies, retro, reviews by commorancy on April 11, 2023

TitleScreenThis Shirley Temple film vehicle, The Blue Bird, attempts to be a then modern fairy tale. It also wants to be technically trendy (for 1940) all while attempting to reboot Shirley Temple’s career. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully succeed at any of these. At the same time, it has some oddly creepy moments. The artwork created within the pages of the book used in the title sequence is quite impressive. Makes you wonder if the book survived the production. Let’s explore.

The 1940s

This film was released in 1940, but portions may have been filmed in 1939, the same year that the MGM’s Wizard of Oz released, starring Judy Garland. Apparently, Shirley Temple was considered for the role of Dorothy Gale, but we know the part was ultimately given to Judy Garland… and the rest was history. However, this film may have been designed to be a similar vehicle to compete with The Wizard of Oz.

The Blue Bird

DinnerIt’s easy to draw many parallels between 1940’s The Blue Bird and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz’s in technical execution, in that both films begin with a black and white opening sequence. Each film then segues into a full Technicolor fantasy romp. One might even argue that The Blue Bird’s producers lifted this Technicolor idea directly from The Wizard of Oz film. Still, with The Blue Bird, switching to color portions makes sense strictly because of the story. Since the story revolves around a blue bird, filming this one black and white throughout would make it difficult to understand this color aspect of the film. Some black and white films have tried this with marginal success. With that said, the producer’s lack of vision around the use Technicolor leaves the film somewhat poorly executed.

However, as a viewer in 2023, seeing Shirley Temple perform in color is actually treat, but strictly for nostalgic reasons, not for reasons of story. For story purposes, the Technicolor sequences are more or less dictated by the color of the bird, even though the Technicolor sequences are mostly wasted because the audience literally won’t see the blue bird until the final 2 minutes of the film. Talk about slow burn.

Story Analysis

Even though there are obvious technical execution similarities between The Wizard of Oz and The Blue Bird, the stories themselves are wholly dissimilar. Here’s where a lot of reviewers drop the review ball. The Wizard of Oz is more or less a modern story (at the time) about a girl and her dog seeking to get back home after being thrust into the fantasy world of Oz.

Tyltyl-Mytyl-TallThe Blue Bird hearkens back to ye olde traditional Germanic fairy tales (complete with Lederhosen, Dirndl dresses and even includes a character devoted to toy wood carving). This film’s story, like many fairy tales, features children in peril all throughout the tale. Where The Wizard of Oz uses modern names like Dorothy for the main character, The Blue Bird chooses the odd fairy tale names of Mytyl and Tyltyl for the two main children.

Honestly, what sane parent would ever name their child Mytyl or Tyltyl? Ignoring these oddly strange fairy tale Mxyzptlk-style names and the Technicolor sequence, the story itself remains mostly dissimilar to The Wizard of Oz.

The Blue Bird‘s story starts off with two children, Mytyl and Tyltyl in a forest.. the primary character of the two being played by Shirley Temple as Mytyl, pronounced as me till. The boy child is played by Johnny Russel as Tyltyl, pronounced as till till. Unfortunately, the character of Tyltyl remains more or less background fodder throughout this film and is intentionally underused to focus the spotlight on Shirley Temple. Clearly, the person intended to carry this fantasy fairy tale romp is Shirley Temple. This is also one of Shirley Temple’s later films in her career, where she had lost much of her younger child cuteness and exuberance. However, a small amount of that allure does remain, but in only a few scenes.

By the filming of The Blue Bird, Temple was clearly on the edge of losing her child actor badge when filming began. Still, some of her child charisma does remain, but in many scenes it’s entirely gone. Mostly this is due to the story seeing the Mytyl character waver between being an ungrateful, unhappy, selfish spoiled brat and, much more rarely, being a loving, thoughtful, sweet child; the latter being what you’d expect from a Shirley Temple film.

BirdTrapThe story opens in a “Royal Forest” with Mytyl and Tyltyl capturing a bird in a small trap. If you’re clueful enough, you might even see where this is leading. From here, the children head home with the bird (ignoring the separate “sick kid” scene that’s solely used to establish how selfish Mytyl is). After a contentious dinner exchange where Mytyl more or less tongue lashes her parents, further establishing Mytyl’s grumpy selfishness, Mytyl and Tyltyl head to bed.

Upon waking to the sound of confused knocking, gone is the black and white sequence and now the film reveals its now grander Technicolor portion. Clearly, this falling asleep in black and white and waking up in color is almost identical to The Wizard of Oz. Even though this Technicolor use is nearly identical between both films, this story completely diverges at this point. No tornadoes. No Toto. No witches on broomsticks.

Instead, lifting its heaviest story cues almost directly from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Blue Bird plods Dickens’s story onward through the veil of a fairy tale.

FairyBeryluneIn fact, within moments of becoming Technicolor, Fairy Berylune (played by Jessie Ralph) appears as an old woman wrapped in what seems to be a psychedelic tattered and patched garb, like 60’s second-hand clothing. In fact, Fairy Berylune actually appears to be more of a psychedelic witch (kind of like Witchiepoo in Lidsville, played by Billie Hayes… that 1971 trippy Sid and Marty Kroft kid’s show on Saturday mornings). I’ll let this bit of misplaced psychedelia slide, however.

Fairy Berylune’s costume is probably the only costume in this entire film that seems to understand the purposes and uses of Technicolor. Just look at it! Unfortunately, that costume and the character of Fairy Berylune only appear briefly in the opening of the Technicolor sequence, never to be seen again. It’s too bad, too. The Fairy Berylune character could have been brilliantly used all throughout.

ThreeGuardiansFairy Berylune, nevertheless, works hard (a little too hard) to sell this opening setup of the film’s story along with turning a dog, a lamp and a cat into humans (Cinderella much?). Why humans? Of course, to help Mytyl and Tyltyl find “The blue bird of happiness!”, according to Berylune … duh!

After Fairy Berylune transforms such into humans, she summarily disappears and leaves the children to their own devices and fully in the care of these now very strange, newly minted companions. The kids’ dog in human form, Tylo (pictured left), becomes a cowardly man dressed in brown and white garb. Their cat, Tylette (pictured right), becomes a mischievous woman, dressed in black with white trim and a big red bow, reminiscent of Cruella De Vil. Their lamp becomes the character Light (pictured center); a blonde, blue, female dressed very much like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Though while Light, in fact, comes and goes like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, Light ultimately becomes the children’s new guardian for the remainder of this film’s tale. Though unlike Glinda, Light performs no magic other than producing light.

Before departing, Fairy Berylune asserts that the children MUST look for a blue bird to find their happiness, simply because she says so. It’s actually the whole pretext of this film. Exactly where should the children look? According to Fairy Berylune, in the past, present and future (just like A Christmas Carol). Mytyl has proven herself to be a grouchy, stingy, difficult person, too much like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Mytyl doesn’t ever outright say “Bah Humbug”, but you can see this behavior driving her very language and body mannerisms. Further, Fairy Berylune reminds us heavily of the Fairy Godmother who appears in Cinderella to transform Cinderella, a pumpkin and some mice… even though the primary story of this film most matches the story ideas presented in A Christmas Carol. You should be able to figure out how this all ends for Mytyl. The writers, however, clearly borrowed from wherever they could to tell this story.

Because Mytyl and Tyltyl are told by Fairy Berylune to search everywhere including in the past, present and future, this is where the story ultimately begins.

CreepyDoll2Story wise, the past is taken quite literally when Mytyl and Tyltyl must traverse through a graveyard in the dark, complete with skeletons, bones and open graves. After making their way through this scary graveyard, they remember their dead grandparents and end up revisiting their grandparents’ home complete with their grandparents now very much alive; the grandfather being a wood toy carver of somewhat creepy dolls with heads that move.

Before entering the graveyard, Light warned the children to be back within the hour or remain forever stuck in the past. As a result, the children are in a hurry to leave, watching a wooden cuckoo clock. Unfortunately, the grandparents don’t want the children to leave because they themselves will once again fade back into death’s slumber. The children spend only a tiny bit of time dawdling at the grandparents house, long enough for Mytyl to sing a song. However, the children do understand their need to leave quickly. This is the first of many segments where Tylette actively attempts to sabotage the children by moving the clock’s hands backwards. Mytyl realizes that there’s a problem afoot with the clock and quickly decides to make haste away from her grandparents home all without finding the blue bird. Note that this “hurry up” clock-ticking trope used in this segment is entirely dropped when searching all further locations.

LuxuryTallAt this point, the children again meet up with Light who urges them to check the present, but Tylette has other ideas. Tylette interrupts and instead encourages the children to visit Luxury. Even though Light tells the children they won’t find anything there, the children head to Luxury anyway.

This part of the story is solely intended to lure the children in and, once again, strand them at Luxury by Tylette. While the children are able to get all of the material things they desire while at Luxury, including a pony, the one thing they cannot get is love and compassion from Mr. and Mrs. Luxury. This makes the children grumpy and selfish. Eventually, the children realize this, come to their senses and wish to leave. The children narrowly escape Luxury after Tylette again tries to sabotage the children’s exit.

After narrowly escaping Luxury, the children meet up again with Light who urges them to try looking in a forest, located in the present. After entering the forest, Tylette once again conspires with all of the forest creatures to lure and keep the children there. This results in a forest fire that ultimately kills Tylette (more about this later), but not Tylo or the children. The children and Tylo narrowly escape a very long winded forest fire running sequence, but they leave empty handed.

Unborn SisterAgain, the children meet up with Light who then leads the children up a staircase and into the future. The future brings us to an area with a bunch of children who are not yet born. These are to be the future children of earth. To become born, the unborn load up onto a boat with silver sails destined for Earth as their destination. After various discussions with various unborn (discussions which don’t help the story), Mytyl and Tyltyl finally leave with Tylo, again without finding the blue bird. Before leaving, however, they meet their unborn sister who explains she won’t be with them for very long. Mytyl is oddly excited by this both happy and grim news. And yet, here’s another dying reference.

As they return back home, the children awake from their slumber. Unlike The Wizard of Oz which returns back to black and white at the end when Dorothy returns home, The Blue Bird remains in color… for one very obvious reason. We haven’t yet seen the actual blue bird.

BluebirdAs the children get some good news about their father, the mother explains the father had time to craft a cage for their bird (???); the bird that Mytyl caught the day before in the Royal Forest. I’m a little perplexed at how the father could have crafted this bird cage overnight?! That is, unless the kids were in a coma-like state for days? This bird, which we couldn’t see in the small box cage earlier and which was shrouded by black and white footage anyway, we now see has been transferred into a large, fully completed bird cage. Voila, it’s now indeed a very blue bird… and with just minutes to spare! The story has come full circle.

At this point, Mytyl is so happy at these turn of events that she appears to now be “redeemed”, in the same way as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. In fact, she’s so elated that she decides to gives her sick friend her blue bird as a token of her generosity and friendship… when in the opening of this story, she refused and wanted nothing more than to keep the bird for herself.

Death and Dying Motifs

Unlike The Wizard of Oz, which that film only touches on the topic once in the beginning of the film and once again later with the Wicked Witch, The Blue Bird touches on this topic again and again by putting the children in mortal danger throughout, by traversing through a graveyard at night, by the death and redeath of the grandparents, the death of Tylette and the birth (and death) of Mytyl’s as yet unborn sister. Yes, a lot of death and dying references make their way into this film. A little bit overly morbid and macabre for a fairy tale.

Overall

The film is interesting for its age. It touches on many topics which are sometimes typical of actual fairy tales, but which border on the macabre. However, this film also does it in an oddly weird and creepy way. Tylette in particular is one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen in a film of this type. This character easily exceeds the creep factor of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Tylette also meets her demise in fire almost in similar, but opposite fashion to The Wicked Witch with water. These story similarities are obvious.

The Blue Bird film itself doesn’t mimic The Wizard of Oz with the exception of a handful of mostly technical similarities. The Blue Bird also bombed at the box office, unlike The Wizard of Oz, even though this film was later nominated for awards.

The Blue Bird wasn’t the first film to bomb for Shirley Temple. That distinction occurred one year before 1940’s The Blue Bird with 1939’s Susannah of the Mounties. This 1939 film bomb is what began the downward slide of Shirley Temple as a box office draw. The Blue Bird simply continued that trend for Temple. I can definitely see how this film might not appeal to children.

As a fantasy fairy tale style film, it’s okay. Not great. Not fantastic. It’s definitely no Disney film. Its fantasy is, at times, dark, creepy, macabre and meanders a lot for no good reason. While there’s no gore, the horror of some of the situations is all too real. With Tylette pretending to be a protector, but instead putting the children in harm’s way, that’s an odd play. The dialog in the film is also, at times, stilted and also unchildlike. It’s hard to believe that some of the dialog from Shirley Temple’s mouth would have ever been said by a child of that age. As for Tyltyl, he’s more or less used as a doormat.

As a color film curiosity from 1940, though not Temple’s first color film, The Blue Bird is worth seeing. The Technicolor isn’t as vibrant or as rich as I have seen in other Technicolor films, particularly The Wizard of Oz. It’s possible that costume colors may have been intentionally toned down to enhance the darker tone of the film.

There’s also a marked amount of chromatic aberration in this film’s imagery. I don’t know if this is due to the film transfer to video or if this was simply as a result of the cameras used to film this production.

MutedColorsThe costumer also seems to have chosen more earthy tones for many of the costumes versus vibrant rich reds, pinks or yellows; colors which Technicolor makes super vibrant. Instead, at Luxury where you expect such color and opulence, Temple is seen wearing a pastel rose colored satin robe before bed. When riding the carousel at Luxury, she’s seen in a somewhat muted blue dress.

Part of the reason to use Technicolor is to take advantage of the vibrant rich tonal quality of certain colors, to which the filmmakers of The Blue Bird didn’t do. However, the forest fire scenes do offer rich vibrant fire colors, which served to somewhat enhance the children’s peril in a forest fire.

Fire EffectsUnfortunately, the special effects employed during the fire scenes utilize low quality bluescreen-style effects to overlay the actors, which the questionable quality couldn’t have been lost on the producers.

The Wizard of Oz chose to employ practical effects on set; effects that at once look more realistic and make the film seem more like a stage play. The overlay special effects used in The Blue Bird, while impressive to see in a film from 1940, didn’t always sell the children’s peril, as shown in this still shot, due to the low quality result. I guess the filmmakers thought that by making the scenes shift very quickly, the viewers might not notice.

Commanding Presence

One thing that’s entirely missing from this film is a commanding adult presence. None of the adult leads in this story have enough of a role to truly lead the kids properly. Like Julie Andrews’s Maria character in The Sound of Music, Maria was front and center to always properly lead the children. This is what was needed in this film, even if the character turned out to be bad at the end. The story tried to make Tylette into that character, but the role just didn’t work. In fact, the story always attempted to shift the spotlight back onto Shirley Temple. This ultimately doesn’t work. If there had been a strong, commanding, likeable adult lead character to constantly stay with and guide Mytyl and Tyltyl, this film might have had a better chance to succeed.

Additionally, since the film also tried to introduce at least some musical elements, this film would likely have been even stronger if it had fully leaned into becoming a musical during each of the past, present, future and luxury segments, to lighten the continual dark tone of the film. Having a strong adult singer to complement Shirley’s child singing would have allowed this film to possibly have a radio hit and help carry the film. Adding a strong musical score to this film might have even made The Blue Bird a stronger film than The Wizard of Oz.

What this film all boils down to is this. The Blue Bird is a simple retelling of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, a story of redemption… sans the wintry Christmas guise, all while using a somewhat macabre fairy tale story format combined with the waning star power of Shirley Temple. Though, the screenwriter also took liberties to include concepts from the likes of Cinderella and Pinocchio along with The Wizard of Oz, but only in small amounts.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Coincidence or Unexplained Event?

Posted in Random Thoughts by commorancy on August 14, 2014

I’m focusing this article on some recent events I’ve personally had. They are a bit on the creepy side, but this one is, amazingly enough, not a rant. 

Recently, I’ve had two unexplained events one might deem as coincidences. The first one I had definitely chalked up to coincidence. The second one, I’m not quite so sure. I typically don’t go in for the metaphysical aspect of life. I’ve also never been known to have any clairvoyant tendencies. But, these two events are so similar in what they are and how they manifested, I feel compelled to write this article. Let’s explore.

First Event

I had been recently interested in both contemporary and past vocalists. Don’t know why, I was just tired of the same old rock and wanted a change. Specifically, I had been listening to Michael Bublé, Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

In the past, I had never really gone out of my way to buy or listen to Whitney Houston when she was big in the 90s. Though, it was hard not to hear any of her music as it was playing everywhere. I’d pretty much heard all of her hits just strictly because most of them had been played on the radio, but I had never purchased a single album. While I was going through all of these vocalists, it popped into my head that I should get Whitney’s greatest hits. I hadn’t heard her music in quite some time and I should give it a fair shake with objective ears. I also realized that her voice in recent years wasn’t that great, but I still wanted to hear her early stuff. So, I placed an order on Feb 6th, 2012 for her CD. I ordered it Amazon Prime with 2 day shipping and was playing the CD by the 8th of Feb 2012. I was diggin’ it. Though, I will say at the time she was really a scream-singer. But, she had such style around it, it really worked for her.

On February 11, 2012 came word that Whitney Houston had passed away. We were all a bit shocked and saddened by this news. Though, considering the life she choose to lead, it was not at all unexpected. Note that some of my co-workers had seen me open the CD package on the 8th and were just a tad bit freaked out on the 11th. I had opened the package just 3 days before. Granted, I was a bit freaked too. For years I had largely ignored Whitney Houston’s music and 5 days before her death, it pops into my head to buy her music. It’s creepy yes, but I simply chalked it up to coincidence.

Second Event

Fast forward to 2014. August 1st, I’m poking around on various videos on YouTube and I happen across random videos in the suggestion panel. Sometimes I click. This time I happened upon a video of the creation of Marvel’s Ultron character. For whatever reason while watching that video, it popped into my head ‘nanooo nanooo’ (like saying it all slow). I don’t know why. I don’t really see any relationship to Marvel’s Ultron and that phrase, but it just popped in. I realized that nanu-nanu was what Mork used to say on Mork and Mindy. So, I searched for a full episode on YouTube. I found and watched the opening intro, then one full episode and part of another. And, that’s where it ended for me. Content with having gotten that out of my system, I moved onto many other other unrelated videos and forgot all about it.

Note that I haven’t seen a Mork and Mindy episode since it was originally on the air. I also hadn’t seen a Robin Williams movie in probably 5 years or longer. I haven’t seen Pam Dawber in anything since Mork and Mindy. So, it’s not like I’d recently had any inkling to go watch Robin Williams, Pam Dawber or a Mork and Mindy episode until I thought ‘nanooo nanooo’. 

August 11 rolls around only to find out Robin Williams is dead by asphyxiation. When I first heard the news, I actually thought it might be a hoax because few major sites were yet reporting it. It wasn’t until about an hour later that it was officially being reported on all major news sites.

Again, a creepy coincidence. Yet, because this is the second one of these I’ve had, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something else at work.

Coincidence?

But wait, it gets even creepier. Reviewing the dates of these two deaths, they both happened on the 11th of a month. February 11th, 2012 and August 11th, 2014. That leads to an 11 11.  If you do the math around all the numbers here it’s also somewhat creepy.

One more event, but not at the same level. Tonight on the way home, I happened to look up at the clock at precisely 11:11PM and then precisely again at 11:21PM. While tonight’s event isn’t related to the previous two events in type, it is related by the number 11.

I don’t know how to explain these off as mere coincidence. I want to.  One event like this I might be able to chalk to coincidence. But two with almost the same signature? The first was basically 5 days before the event. The second was 10 days before the event. Usually things tend to come in threes. So, I am now on the lookout for the third going forward. But, it may again take 2 years before the third happens. Now, I’m just waiting. If a third doesn’t happen, maybe these are coincidence. Is it a message?

Comment if you can suggest any insight or have any experience with events like these.

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