MAURICE MAETERLINCK'S THE BLUE BIRD (1940)
**½/**** Image C Sound B-
starring Shirley Temple, Spring Byington, Nigel Bruce, Gale Sondergaard
screenplay by Ernest Pascal
directed by Walter Lang
THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939)
**½/**** Image B Sound B
starring Shirley Temple, Richard Greene, Anita Louise, Ian Hunter
screenplay by Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
directed by Walter Lang
STAND UP AND CHEER! (1934)
***½/**** Image D+ Sound C+
starring Shirley Temple, Warner Baxter, James Dunn, Nigel Bruce
story by Will Rogers and Philip Klein, dialogue by Ralph Spence
directed by Hamilton MacFadden
by Alex Jackson As you might know, Shirley Temple had been considered for the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz but was eventually passed over either because her singing voice was inadequate or because MGM and 20th Century Fox couldn't come up with a satisfactory trade. In an attempt to beat MGM at their own game, Fox bought the rights to playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's "L'Oiseau Bleu" ("The Blue Bird") with an eye on Temple for the lead. Ironically, The Blue Bird became her very first box-office dud and signalled the end of her career as a child actress.
Ultimately, audiences were right in not making it a hit; The Blue Bird is no The Wizard of Oz. There's only one musical number and it's pretty modest. There are no flying monkeys, no anthropomorphic trees. It has Shirley Temple instead of Judy Garland, and it probably goes without saying that Garland is a more soulful presence. And there is no Margaret Hamilton, either. Hamilton brought a physicality and post-modern wit to her Wicked Witch of the West that preserves the film's appeal for adult audiences. She was kind of a precursor to Freddy Krueger, playing it up to the assholes in the audience who would love to see the sickly-sweet Dorothy and Toto get theirs. There is nothing so sophisticated or colourful in The Blue Bird. It's not just the cast and the production values, mind you--compared to The Wizard of Oz, the material is heavy-handed and uninspired.
Temple plays Mytle, a selfish young girl who is depressed by the fact that her family doesn't have much money. One night, Light (Helen Ericson) decides to help Mytle and her brother Tytle (Johnny Russell) locate the Blue Bird of Happiness. She transports them into the past (where they meet their deceased grandparents), to the Land of Luxury (where they receive anything their hearts desire), and into the future (where they meet children who have yet to be born). To keep them company on their quest, Light transforms the siblings' dog Tylo (Eddie Collins) and cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard) into human form. Wanting free of her masters, Tylette attempts to sabotage their quest for happiness so that they never return home and she never has to go back to being a cat.
The diabolical Tylette illustrates the filmmakers' speciest biases against cats; meanwhile, as Tylo, Collins plays the part Stepin Fetchit surely would have four or five years earlier. Collins gets scared a lot and runs away from danger in exaggerated fast motion. He doesn't buy into Tylette's schemes of sabotage because he likes things the way they are now, with Man as the master. There's something blithely unexamined about the way Tylette is portrayed as villainous for trying to escape bondage while Tylo is lovable for accepting his place on the totem pole.
At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy summarizes the film's message thusly:
Well, I think that it-it wasn't enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em--and it's that, if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!
Well, no, Dorothy. There is nothing wrong with wanting to leave Kansas. It's called growing up. However effective it is as a cautionary tale against the dangers of adulthood, The Wizard of Oz is problematic in refusing to acknowledge that social and scientific progress are intrinsically linked to a dissatisfaction with the world at its present state. Particularly in light of the dichotomy between Tylette and Tylo, The Blue Bird apparently subscribes to this same simplistic philosophy, going so far as to equate looking for happiness outside of your own backyard with such anti-social values as selfishness and avarice. Still, I appreciate the film on a superficial level as an anti-consumerist fairytale. Consumerism is my big soapbox issue, I guess. As social evils go, it's among the most prevalent but underexposed. The desire to medicate boredom and unhappiness by exchanging money for goods and services is one that hits pretty close to the bone for me. It's probably just as well that we've never really had a junkie film substituting credit cards for hypodermic needles, as such a thing would likely be unbearable to watch. (Indeed, the birthday party episode of "Big Love" has to be one of the most terrifying hours of television I have ever seen.)
The Blue Bird is bold (albeit moralistically so) in depicting the patented Shirley Temple wallow-in-wealth as a quick fix to a deep-seated problem. When Mytle and Tytle arrive at the Land of Luxury, they are gifted with a pony but can't decide how to share it. Their caregivers agree that they were stupid in not thinking to give a pony to each child and order up a second one, but then the kids argue over who's more deserving of the newer, likely superior pony. No matter how much these children get they find they are never truly fulfilled, and by the end of the night they are prepared to run away.
According to legend, the film bombed because audiences disliked seeing Temple as a spoiled brat. This is probably overly generous: The Blue Bird simply isn't all that great once you've been exposed to The Wizard of Oz. But it does have a real edginess to it. As the film begins, Temple has captured a finch in the woods and is taking it home as a pet. A sick, homebound girl catches sight of her and offers a trade: her tattered but beloved doll for the bird. Temple mulls it over and says that she doesn't want the doll. It's too mangy and old. Besides, there's already another girl she wants to have the bird. As they walk away, her confused brother asks her for whom she got the bird. "Myself," she smugly replies.
You can imagine how this played to audiences raised on Temple's films. Her persona was that of a populist hero who, even if she did acquire lots of wealth throughout her adventures, never forgot about the little people. Here the privileged Shirley Temple waves her socio-economic superiority in our face. It's doubly disturbing that she's a child. As children in general are more attuned to their inner natures, when they are elitist snobs, it somehow speaks to the incontrovertible truth of social Darwinist philosophy. Moreover, when Temple changes and learns her lesson, it's that money can't buy happiness. Temple's films never explicitly stated that money bought happiness, of course, yet it was always sort of a given--that was part of the fantasy. The Blue Bird peddles the standard Shirley Temple materialism only to deride the audience for buying it. In that sense, the film is a fascinatingly subversive bit of anti-entertainment.
The Little Princess is the good Dr. Jekyll to The Blue Bird's wicked Mr. Hyde. Here, Temple is the filthy-rich Sara Crewe, the daughter of Captain Reginald Crewe (Ian Hunter), who enrols her in boarding school after he is called to fight in the Boer War. The schoolmistress, Amanda Michin (Mary Nash), receives news of Captain Crewe's death and learns that Sara is now a pauper. Since she can no longer pay for her education, Sara is demoted to servant girl and forced to wait on her snotty peers. Sara takes this humiliation in stride, however. Knowing in her heart that her father hasn't died, she makes finding him her life's work.
Importantly, Sara is not humbled by her experiences and doesn't learn to appreciate those toiling on the bottom rung of the ladder. She was already perfectly nice to the help. On her birthday, Sara decides that she wants to buy everybody else birthday presents and saves some special ones for the Cockney servant girl Becky (Sybil Jason) whom she had recently befriended. Sara is no spoiled brat. She appreciates nice clothes and pony rides, but other people, in particular her father, are always the most important thing in her life. She's so selfless that in a fantasy sequence where she is a queen and the school's employees are her loyal subjects, Michin is vilified not for demoting Sara to servant but for breaking up the romance of her two favourite teachers.
Even though Sara doesn't exactly develop or learn anything, the film never feels dramatically inert. That aside, I do find it suspicious how she is lionized for her charity. The film takes the existing caste system for granted and argues that it's the duty of the rich to throw a bone to the poor every once in a while rather than labour to shorten the gap between the two. If The Little Princess is saying anything, it's that materialism is OK as long as you aren't selfish about it. Cockney servant girls want beautiful petticoats, too, and if you buy them beautiful petticoats they'll be happy and love you for it.
The Little Princess is prototypical Shirley Temple and it's probably not entirely inaccurate to call it the best of Temple's star vehicles. (The Blue Bird is the "lesser" film in a sense, but it's also the more interesting one.) Director Walter Lang is no Alfonso Cuarón (who helmed his own adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett book in 1995), but he's a solid enough filmmaker. Temple's rendition of "Wot Cher" with Arthur Treacher has a sense of spontaneity and the aforementioned fantasy sequence is admirably slick. Although The Little Princess was shot in Technicolor, Lang tends to dress the cast in drab black clothes and, aside from a couple of musical numbers, the film has no score. It's surprisingly sombre for the most part.
The film breaks away from the source novel in allowing Captain Crewe to live but hints at the horrors of war all the same in giving him shell-shock so severe that he is temporarily unable to recognize his daughter. There's a good scene late in the film where Sara interviews patients in an army hospital while searching for her father. One soldier is cutting out paper dolls to help fight the war, saying they'll be braver than he was. Sara soon realizes he is mentally ill and backs away with a wounded look on her face. There's something about him that is beyond her realm of experience and Sara is corrupted a bit by their encounter. We get the impression that there are facets of human experience the cinema of Shirley Temple is frightened to explore.
The odd duck of the box set under review is 1934's Stand Up and Cheer!. Inexplicably, Fox has ranked these in reverse chronological order: The Blue Bird is number 13, The Little Princess 14, and this 15. After some internal debate, I decided to watch and review them in that order. I'm telling you this because I want you to know that after having only mildly positive reactions to Temple's two best-known films, my expectations were pretty much shot to hell and conceivably anything could've exceeded them. Maybe not, though: Stand Up and Cheer! came at the end of a long night and by the end of it I felt rejuvenated and renewed. I even annoyed my wife days afterward singing the show-stopping number "I'm Laughing."
Seeing a need to distract the nation from the Great Depression, the President of the United States appoints Broadway showman Lawrence Cromwell (Warner Baxter) to the newly-created position of "Secretary of Amusement." A secret society of evil industrialists profiting from the Depression is threatened by the people's newfound optimism and conspire to bring Cromwell down. This plot is essentially a clothesline on which to hang a number of truly remarkable (and wonderfully strange) musical numbers and vaudeville routines; all the same, I was impressed and indeed humbled by how clearly the film argues for the legitimacy of the musical genre. The great "I'm Laughing" number cuts across the country to working stiffs claiming that they're laughing despite having nothing to laugh about, culminating with an orgasmic rendition by the voluptuous Tess Gardella (billed as Aunt Jemima). These people haven't forgotten their troubles or grown complacent. They know they can complain and they do. But now that they're "amused" and "laughing," the ordeal of living has become a lot less painful.
One of the best things about the film is that Shirley Temple is barely in it. While this wasn't her first picture, she was still very fresh at this point. She knew only one song, "Baby Take a Bow" (which would be the title of a subsequent feature), and was picked up and put in the movie not because she could sing or act but because she could dance. She is a solid actress in The Blue Bird and The Little Princess and those are good films for showing off her "range," but she has this creepy habit of hugging her caretakers cheek-to-cheek so that the camera can pick up the expression of affection or loss on her face. Stand Up and Cheer! was the first of her performances where I felt anything magical happening. She's blissfully unprofessional here, constantly fidgeting and going through a gamut of unrelated emotions, sometimes staring out into space during her dance numbers. The film actually allows her to be a little girl.
Temple's non-performance adds to Stand Up and Cheer!'s grungy, unrefined sense of spontaneity. This is easily the most visceral title of the three. The Blue Bird and The Little Princess have a staginess that exposes them as factory products. In contrast, Stand Up and Cheer! feels refreshingly unfettered, as though they were operating under the radar when nobody was looking. Completely lacking in terms of narrative (I love how nobody is credited for writing a proper screenplay--it's just "story idea" by Will Rogers and Philip Klein and "dialogue" by Ralph Spence), the film is basically the 1930s version of "The Gong Show" or "America's Got Talent", a talent revue in the spirit of Rogers's own "Follies", and as such it's perfect for appropriation by the YouTube generation. It's pure spectacle and visual non-sequitur, operating on a wavelength both below and beyond that of a conventional musical.
Stepin Fetchit is in the film. Cromwell is told that George Bernard Shaw wants to see him and when Shaw comes into the office we see that it's Stepin Fetchit! "George Bernard Shaw?!" Cromwell asks. "Yassuh," replies Shaw. "You're a little sunburned, aren't you?" "Yassuh, but, see, I'm an outdoorsman." Cromwell tells him to go outdoors then and returns to work. Meanwhile, Shaw does his tap-dance routine for him. There's a detach between the two actors, as though they aren't occupying the same space. A short while later, Cromwell decides that he can't put Shaw into his show but needs somebody to fill in when his secretary is out to lunch. "You won't let anybody get by?" he asks. "Nossuh. Nobody can get by now nohow, 'cause last three years I just been barely gettin' by myself."
When next we see Fetchit's Shaw, he's greeting a penguin wearing a tweed outfit and talking like Jimmy Durante. Shaw seems to believe that this is Jimmy Durante himself. The penguin goes through a Durante-esque rant of colourful wordplay complaining about how "they" cut him down. Shaw picks him up and the penguin calls him "slavey" and "black Friday." Insulted, Shaw takes him outside and tries to put him in a vase but the penguin escapes back into the office and jumps into the fish tank for a bite to eat. When he gets out he complains that they don't have any halibut. Insisting that they do in fact have halibut, Shaw dives into the fish tank to prove it.
What's it all about? I have no idea, but the inexplicable alien sense of humour is no doubt the entire point. In the otherwise utterly conventional Shirley Temple vehicle Dimples, Fetchit was an iconoclastic presence, flipping black degradation into a form of black militancy. When you watch that film, he's the only thing you notice. He obliterates the Shirley Temple genre film from the sidelines. In Stand Up and Cheer!, though, when combined with stuff like the "I'm Laughing" number (where everybody across the country is singing the same song, à la P.T. Anderson's Magnolia) or the "Baby Take a Bow" number (where the dancers dress their calves up like dolls, creating a miniature chorus-line), the racism is part and parcel of the film's overall surreal effect.
Stand Up and Cheer! isn't offensive; it occupies a territory beyond the offensive, where you temporarily suspend any faith in reason or an order to the universe. The discomfort you feel is merely another facet of the puzzlement and disorientation. I suppose this is what I was hoping to encounter in voluntarily sitting through Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg's Date Movie and Epic Movie. The effect is somehow much richer when employing Stepin Fetchit as "George Bernard Shaw" and a penguin that sounds like Jimmy Durante. Unlike the Seltzer/Friedberg films, there's no cynicism to it, just a purely wrong-headed sensibility. And as far as ironic hipster kitsch appeal goes, Stand Up and Cheer! blows The Blue Bird clear out of the fuckin' water.
Of the trio of films reaching DVD via Volume 5 of Fox's "Shirley Temple: America's Sweetheart Collection", The Little Princess appears to have been shown the most tender loving care and Stand Up and Cheer! the least, with The Blue Bird ranking somewhere in the middle. Ripping off The Wizard of Oz, the beginning of The Blue Bird is in black-and-white and turns to Technicolor once the fantasy sequences start. Fox's 1:33.1 full-frame transfer renders the initial scenes grainy and dark but image clarity noticeably improves with the change to Technicolor. (Alas, there are the expected but by no means ruinous registration issues with both colour films.) The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is clear and free of distortion, if a little weak. A virtually indistinguishable stereo mix is on offer as well.
The fullscreen transfer of The Little Princess sports stronger colours than The Blue Bird but is nonetheless somewhat grittier and blotchier. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is a minor step up from that of The Blue Bird, punchier albeit finally not much more than passable. Again the stereo alternative is nearly identical. The good news about Stand Up and Cheer! is that Fox hasn't bothered to colorize it as they have with previous b&w entries in the Temple catalogue. The bad news is that neither have they bothered to restore it. The 1.33:1 full-frame transfer looks pretty grungy: the frame-rate is off, the print is badly-scratched, and the picture is generally very grainy and fuzzy. The DD 2.0 mono track is OK; although dialogue is understandable, there's some minor static and the whole thing sounds brittle and hollow. An optional stereo remix fails to utilize the channels in a discrete fashion. While none of the three discs come with extras, The Blue Bird and Stand Up and Cheer! each contain a trailer for The Little Princess advertised as a "Shirley Temple Theater featurette" on the cover art. Originally published: July 30, 2007.