Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Bit of THE BLUE BIRD (1940)

This is the Shirley Temple fantasy movie that could've been called I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD FLOPS.  That's just what it did with critics and moviegoers.  If you're a classic film enthusiast, you probably know that MGM sought to borrow 20th Century Fox's top star, Shirley Temple, to play Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Temple was the right age for Dorothy, as she is in the book.  But Fox would not loan out its star.  Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Temple was a major Hollywood star before she was 10.  She brought in big money for Fox.  Her look, her screen image, truly became the icon for the Hollywood child star.  She acted, she danced, and she sang.  She introduced songs that went on to become standards played and sung by top jazz artists.  But newcomer Judy Garland, although technically a few years too old for the role, had the extraordinary singing voice that Shirley Temple didn't and she, as an actress, had a soulfulness and depth that little Shirley didn't.  Judy Garland became Hollywood's newest teen star with THE WIZARD OF OZ and it started her on her way to becoming a Hollywood legend.  20th Century Fox came up with a Technicolor fantasy for Shirley Temple, one with household pets taking human form and accompany her on a spiritual journey somewhere over the Eastern European rainbow.  THE BLUE BIRD was based on a 1908 play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Bothersome little Mytyl and her younger brother Tyltyl are peasant kids who live with their peasant parents in the woods.  Mytyl wants to find the Blue Bird of Happiness she tells her mother about.  When she and her brother are asleep, a fairy appears and takes them on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness.
This hunk o' celluloid cheese didn't work in 1940.  It didn't work in 1976 when George Cukor directed a remake starring Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson.  The remake is, in so many ways, brilliantly bad.  It demands you watch it with a couple of gay male buddies and pitchers of Margaritas.  I remember reading newspaper reports about behind the scenes difficulties.  The main one being that no one seemed to listen to Cicely Tyson when she kept telling Mr. Cukor that he could not put her in the same lighting he was giving Taylor and Fonda because she was several shades darker than Taylor and Fonda, two Caucasian movie stars.  Cicely, of course, was right.  Cicely Tyson played the cat.

Elizabeth Taylor has four roles in the fantasy.  Her best costume is when she plays Light.  Taylor's first scene is --- are you ready? -- as the peasant Mother.  Elizabeth Taylor as a peasant woman making gruel for her kids.  In lederhosen territory.  That is when you knock back the first Margarita.  She should've gotten an Oscar nomination for that instead of BUTTERFIELD 8.  This film probably marks one of the few times Elizabeth Taylor was ever seen doing any kind of kitchen work in her adult life.
Another scene that requires a Margarita is Elizabeth Taylor as Witch and Ava Gardner as Luxury.  Ava looks like she was glued onto the saddle of the horse she's riding and the expression on her face says "That check better be on my agent's desk tomorrow" coupled with "When the hell is lunch?"
In the 1940 version, there is one sequence that fascinates me.  The fairy takes the two youngster to the Land of Unborn Souls.  They're all waiting for their turns to head to earth and be born.  There's sort of a Grecian temple set design and dozens of white kids in togas are playing, lounging or creating.  This film has an all-white cast.  Shirley goes up to one adolescent fellow who's mixing liquids with his chemistry set.  She tells her that he's inventing anesthetic drugs so people can have broken limbs operated on without pain.  Mytyl (Shirley) enthusiastically replies, "Do hurry and get yourself born."
There's a toddler girl who tries to sneak onto the Ship to Earth but she's politely told yet again that it's not her time yet.  She sneaked onto the ship twice before, was found, and quickly returned to the temple. She's probably Miscarriage.

There's a slim, tall boy leaning again a column and looking forlorn.  He tells Mytyl what he knows about life on Earth.  "There's too much unhappiness...So many are born into slavery...That's what I'm going to fight."

Mytyl (Shirley) cheerfully tells him he should look forward to being born so he can help.  With a grim expression, he predicts "They'll destroy me."

Every time I see that scene in 1940's THE BLUE BIRD, I always feels that it would have had an even stronger emotional punch if the part had been played by a black teen actor.  It's a small but substantial role that could've made a jarring yet accurate social statement, one that definitely would've resonated when looking back on the film come the end of the 1960s, a decade of the turbulent Civil Rights Movement.  And it would've been the best part of the movie.  An African-American teen actor as Studious Boy (played by Gene Reynolds) would have been a bold, strong, dramatic casting decision for that good bit part -- in my opinion.

Here's a taste of THE BLUE BIRD.  I'm going to go watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again.

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