Despite being a box office flop and losing money, the film was later nominated for two Academy Awards. It is available on both VHS and DVD.
The setting is Germany in the late 18th century. Mytyl (Shirley Temple), the bratty and ungrateful daughter of a woodcutter (Russell Hicks), finds a unique bird in the Royal Forest and selfishly refuses to give it to her sick friend. Mother (Spring Byington) and Father are mortified at Mytyl's behavior. That evening, Father is called on to report for duty the next morning in an unspecified war. That same night, Mytyl is visited in a dream by a fairy named Berylune (Jessie Ralph) who sends her and her brother Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) to search for the Blue Bird of Happiness. To accompany them, the fairy magically transforms their dog Tylo (Eddie Collins), cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard), and lantern ("Light") into human form. The children have a number of adventures: they visit the past (meeting their dead grandparents who come to life because they are being remembered), have a scary adventure in the forest, experience the life of luxury, and see the future, a land of yet-to-be born children. The dream journey makes Mytyl awake as a kinder and gentler girl who has learned to appreciate all the comforts and joys of her home and family. In the morning, Father receives word that a truce has been called and he does not have to go to war.
The film, although following the basic plot of the stage version, highly embellishes it, and does not literally use the original dialogue. The opening black-and-white scenes and the war subplot were invented for the film. Mytyl's selfishness, the basic trait of her personality, was a plot thread specifically written into the motion picture. It is not in the original play.
The play begins with the children already asleep and the dream about to begin; there is no depiction of the family's daily life, as there is in the 1940 film.Shirley Temple as Mytyl
Spring Byington as Mummy Tyl
Nigel Bruce as Mr. Luxury
Gale Sondergaard as Tylette (the cat)
Eddie Collins as Tylo (the dog)
Sybil Jason as Angela Berlingot
Helen Ericson as Light
Johnny Russell as Tytyl
Laura Hope Crews as Mrs. Luxury
Russell Hicks as Daddy Tyl
Cecilia Loftus as Granny Tyl
Al Shean as Grandpa Tyl
Leona Roberts as Mrs. Berlingyl
Gene Reynolds as Studious Boy
Stanley Andrews as Wilhelm
Alice Armand as Weeping Willow
Sterling Holloway as Wild Plum
Thurston Hall as Father Time
Frank Dawson as Caller of the Roll
Edwin Maxwell as Oak
Four-year-old Caryll Ann Ekelund (credited as Caryll N. Ekelund), appears as an unborn child in the film. On Halloween 1939, Ekelund's costume caught fire from a lit jack-o-lantern. She died from her burns several days later and was buried in her costume from the film. Ekelund came from a show business family, and her older sister was actress Jana Lund.
Twentieth Century-Fox made the film as an answer to MGM's The Wizard of Oz. There is a myth that Shirley Temple was to be cast in Oz; however this is mostly untrue. She was considered, but only very briefly. Executives at MGM wanted Shirley because she was a proven box office draw. Arthur Freed, an uncredited producer on Oz, wanted the role to go to rising child star Judy Garland. When producers listened to Shirley, they were unimpressed with her vocal talents, and even if they were ready to offer the role Fox refused to loan her out. When Oz was a success, and shot Judy Garland to fame, Fox decided to create their own fantasy feature using Shirley Temple. They chose the fantasy play by Maurice Maeterlinck.
In imitation of The Wizard of Oz, the opening scenes are in black-and-white, although the opening credits are in color. However, sepia tint is not used. But unlike Oz, once the film changes to full color it stays that way for the remainder of its running time.
While writing the screenplay, It was decided to cast the role of Temple's brother to the much younger Johnny Russell, as Zanuck felt that in casting a boy of a similar age to Temple he would have to be mentally incompetent to allow a girl to take leadership away from him and Zanuck decided to drop some of the characters in the original story such as Bread, Water, Fire, Milk, Sugar, and Night, as he wanted the story more focused on her as the star of the movie. The tension between the Temples and Zanuck reached a boiling point during the writing stage, as Temple's mother objected first to Temple's characterization as too nice, and then had concerns about the script not being focused enough on Temple. Things came to a head when Zanuck threatened suspension. After consulting their lawyer, the Temples decided to go forward with the movie as planned.
The Blue Bird was Shirley Temple's first box-office flop in her six years as a child star. Audiences disliked the idea of Shirley as a nasty character needing to learn a lesson. While many of Temple's films show her character misbehaving in various ways, this is the only one to show her being truly punished. Early in the film, her brattiness earns her a reprimand from her mother.
Almost a month prior to the film's release, The Blue Bird was dramatized as a half-hour radio play on the December 24, 1939, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, starring Shirley Temple and Nelson Eddy. It was during this radio performance that a crazed woman made an attempt on Temple's life. As Temple was singing "Someday You'll Find Your Bluebird," the woman arose from her seat and pulled out a handgun, pointing it directly at her. The woman froze just long enough for police to get to her. It was later discovered that the woman had lost a child on the day it was publicly stated that Temple was born, and she blamed Shirley for stealing her daughter's soul. The woman did not know that Temple was born in 1928, not 1929.
Alfred Newman's original score to The Blue Bird was released in 2003 by Screen Archives Entertainment, Chelsea Rialto Studios and Fox Music. The album contains the entire score as heard in the film in chronological order. It was produced using rare preservation copies of the original nitrate optical scoring sessions which were digitally restored by Ray Faiola. This rare limited edition includes a lavishly illustrated 24 page color booklet with extensive and exclusive liner notes by film and music historians Jon Burlingame and Ray Faiola.
- Main Title 1:17
- The Royal Forest 3:19
- Selfish Mytyl/Come O Children One And All/Returning Home With The Bird 7:32
- Awaking In Technicolor/Tylo And Tylette On Two Legs/Search For The Blue Bird 10:04
- In The Graveyard 3:44
- There Are No Dead People/Granny And Grandpa 4:57
- Lay-De-O (sung by Shirley Temple) 1:00
- Leaving Granny And Grandpa 1:29
- The Land Of Luxury 4:44
- Carousel In The Foyer :40
- Fighting Over The Horse 1:13
- Fed Up With The Land Of Luxury 5:35
- Escape 1:51
- Return To "Light" 1:43
- Tylette Summons The Trees/Forest Fire 8:09
- Boat To Safety/The Land Of Unborn Children 5:30
- Father Time/The Children Are Born 8:01
- Returning Home 1:57
- Waking Up/Finale 5:15
- End Cast :58
Total Time: 79:12
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards at the 13th Academy Awards ceremony:Academy Award for Best Cinematography - (Arthur Miller, Ray Rennahan)
Academy Award for Best Visual Effects - (Fred Sersen (photographic), Edmund H. Hansen (sound))