When I was little I came across the 1940 SHIRLEY TEMPLE movie THE BLUE BIRD several times on television. It’s sort of the poor man’s THE WIZARD OF OZ with SHIRLEY playing the part of a girl named Mytyl who along with her brother Tytyl embarks on a journey through the past and future searching for happiness in the form of the title bird. The children are aided by their dog Tylo and their cat Tylette, who thanks to some fairy magic, have taken human form.
Based on a 1908 play by MAURICE MAETERLINCK, there’s plenty to find alarming about THE BLUE BIRD. The children’s journey begins in a vast graveyard, their dead grandparents show up to pelt them with guilt, trees transform into vigilantes and finally they end up in some weird limbo place where unborn children in togas howl and cry about how short their time on Earth will be. Personally I was unmoved by any and all of the insanity on display except the unfortunate and fiery death of my favorite character, the cat lady Tylette.
As I watched THE BLUE BIRD again recently as an adult I can see that much of it flew over my head as a kid, most notably the fact that Tylette the cat is clearly drawn as a sinister, mischievous presence and that her demise is meant to be somewhat deserved. Was there something wrong with me as a kid that I would automatically gravitate toward this malevolent malcontent? Before you judge, look at how awesome she is…
To be honest, even as an adult I have sympathy for this devil. She knows that if the children were to discover the blue bird of happiness that she would have to revert back to her former self and remain a “dumb slave to man” forever. So what if a couple tykes have to die in order for her to remain master of her own fate? Let’s face it; with names like Mytyl and Tytyl, those kids were bound for hard times anyway.
Tylette is brought to life by Oscar-winner GALE SONDERGAARD, who would go on to appear in several UNIVERSAL horror films like THE BLACK CAT (1941), THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944) and THE SPIDER WOMAN RETURNS (1946) (in which, again, GALE’s death is caused by fire.) She was originally cast as the wicked witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ who was first conceived as a sinister glamour-puss similar to the evil queen in Disney’s SNOW WHITE. When it was decided that a more haggard version of the witch was the way to go, GALE split and in came MARGARET HAMILTON. (HAMILTON nearly abandoned WIZARD herself when her costume caught fire and she was severely burned.) SODDENGAARD’s career was seriously hampered when her husband, director HERBERT BIBERMAN, was accused of being a communist during the infamous red scare of the early ‘50s; she died in 1985
You know, as unhappy as I may still be with Tylette’s fiery fate, there’s no way around the fact that her death is the most exciting part of the film. In fact, the movie kind of looses its steam as soon as she departs. I know we are meant to learn from this tale that happiness can only be found at home but if you ask me, without an evil, self-serving sociopath like Tylette to share it with, happiness is for the birds.
CREEPY NOTE: During the filming of THE BLUE BIRD four year old actress CARYLL ANN EKELUND was burned to death off set when her birthday dress (or Halloween costume, depending on your source) caught on fire. She was buried in the clothes she wore in the film.
ALSO: I feel I should warn you that THE BLUE BIRD was made into a musical in 1976 starring JANE FONDA, ELIZABETH TAYLOR and a tiny PATSY KENSIT as Mytyl. Believe it or not, this American, Soviet Union co-production was directed by legendary director GEORGE CUKOR. It could very well be one of the worst movies of all time and masochists can find it on Youtube. In this version, Tylette is portrayed by CICELY TYSON. CUCKOR accused TYSON of using voodoo to curse the film.
MORE CREEPY: No joke, I was in a thrift store yesterday and this song was playing on the loudspeaker…(yes, I’ve double checked the smoke alarms)