Forgotten Movies: "The Blue Bird" (1976)

by AnomalousArtist

Once considered a legendary bad film/box-office disaster George Cukor's odd, gentle Soviet/US co-production is all but forgotten the US...

Film, and the art of filmmaking, was once considered a form of art; some called it the only true art of the 20th century. It was a special kind of medium for an artist in that it was by design a collaborative process...generally speaking even the famous auteurs (Hitchcock, Wells, Spielberg) were dependent on their teams of craftspeople and technicians. Another major factor that made filmmaking special: it was an expensive medium.

I doubt anyone would use "art" and George Cukor's film, "The Blue Bird," in the same sentence. But if the measure of artistic success is how much money the art generated then most masters would be considered failures. If the work in question reflects the vision of the artist and is appreciated by the audience it was intended for, it could be considered a success.

"The Blue Bird," from 1976, is an odd film to be sure, and it may not even be a good film; but it is certainly a lost film--only connoisseurs of bad film history (and the "Golden Turkey" books of the Medved Brothers) remember the film today and even less people care, which is odd considering it was a big-budget production with a roster of name stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson to name a few) and a legendary director at the helm.

Is the movie as bad as everyone claims it is? Did the film deserve to be buried and made the butt of jokes? In this article I explore the film and try to find some answers...

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1) The Blue Bird Is Born

Maurice Maeterlinck was a Belgian author who was successful in Europe in the early 1900s.  His writing showed an obsession with the themes of death and the meaning of life and caused outrage along with popularity.  He eventually became associated with the "symbolist" movement of art; representation rather than reality.

In 1908 he penned a play, "L'Oiseau Bleu" that was performed in Moscow and went on to be interpreted many times, with varying degrees of success, in theater, film, radio, dance, opera and even a TV series.

The story concerns two children of working class parents who are visited by a good fairy.  The fairy takes the children on a journey to find the blue bird of happiness, which they more or less discover resides in their "own back yard" (the realization made by a famous heroine played by Judy Garland in the 1940s!).

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2) The Blue Bird Of Bad Luck...?

While the story of Mytyl and Tytyl, the two blue-bird-questing children of "L'Oiseau Bleu" may have enchanted children and adults around the world, for some reason the story never caught on in the United States and is generally not regarded as a classic as, say, "Wizard Of Oz," "Alice In Wonderland," "The Snow Queen" and other similar fare.  Further, the story seems to have had a troubled trail when it comes to adaptation. 

Most notoriously (before the 1976 film financial fiasco) was a film version starring Shirley Temple in 1940.  As most "Wizard Of Oz" fans know, Temple lost the role of "Dorothy" to relative unknown Judy Garland, both because Temple had prior commitments and because she wasn't a strong enough singer.  Temple's version of "The Blue Bird" was meant to be a response to "Oz" and mirrors it in some ways--it begins in black and white and jumps to color, it concerns a girl in the "real world" who goes on a journey though a fantasyland/dreamworld and the both films take place on fantastic indoor sets.

The 1940 film is notorious mostly for being Shirley Temple's first "flop," the first unsuccessful film she starred in.  Most critics believe audiences weren't happy seeing Shirley Temple play a bratty child who had to be reprimanded, but the film itself is problematic in that it doesn't have a clear "through line." Like many stories about adventures through fantasyland the driving force keeping the heroes of the story going must be strong--they either have to be running towards or away from someone/something--or there's no momentum.  Without a "Wicked Witch Of The West" or some other peril Shirley and the actor who played her brother seem to be just wandering around big, Technicolor sets--great stuff for young children but not compelling enough to set it apart for mass audiences, at least at the time.

The failure of "The Blue Bird" at the box office was considered a surprise to the producers, who believed the internationally beloved story must have appeal, and a door was left open for another interpretation.

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3) The Pursuit Of Happiness In The 1970s...

The 70s was a time of great political tension, at odds with the fanciful image often associated with it, that of "Brady Bunch Clothes," disco and bad variety specials.  Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the last traces of The Cold War and eventually concerns about nuclear weaponry pervaded the nightly news. 

In an attempt to bridge some gaps of political tensions film producers from the Soviet Union and Hollywood got together with an idea to do a joint-venture film as part of the détente movement.  Taking the classic filmmaking techniques, names and know-how from Hollywood and mixing it with Soviet inspiration and creativity, names and money seemed like a good idea at the time and most of the cast and crew of the production seem to have viewed it as a great opportunity to mix things up in a positive way.

George Cukor was hired to direct; a Hollywood legend who was responsible for some of the greatest musical cinema classics in film history ("A Star Is Born" 1954, "My Fair Lady" 1964), Cukor's name would bring celebrities and further publicity to the project. 

Eventually, Elizabeth Taylor was cast as the lead (playing no less than FOUR roles!) along with Ava Gardner, Cicely Tyson, Robert Morley and Will Geer (The Waltons).  The rest of the parts were filled with actors known in the UK (George Cole) and members of the prestigious Kirov Ballet Company. 

The project was chosen for its lack of political overtones and potential mass appeal as, again, "The Blue Bird" was an internationally known story...Moscow and Leningrad would provide the beautiful locations and performers and America would provide the glitz and know-how. 

The stage was set for a classic-in-the-making, but it wasn't meant to be.  What went wrong?

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4) The Blue Bird Of Happiness Is Elusive

Things were tough from the start for the "Blue Bird" production.  Some believe Cukor was miscast as a director for such a complicated undertaking; others think a "co-production" of this kind would have been impossible for anyone at the time the film was made. Few in the film crew spoke English and the US director required an interpreter.  The equipment shipped over by MGM in the States was considered behind the times.  Troublesome details popped up right and left:  There were no indigenous blue birds in the area and so hundreds of pigeons were dyed a sickly blue color. 

The cast was another story.  Elizabeth Taylor had a long history of being "trouble" on a set, whether from her health problems, her personal intrigues or simply the star power that followed her everywhere. 

James Coco was originally set to play the personification of a pet dog but dropped out of the production after his scenes were already filmed when he got sick.  Cicely Tyson, Ava Gardner and others were vocal about the unprofessionalism and unhappy conditions of the set and shooting locations.  Word began to get out as the production dragged on and on that the movie wasn't going well and there were costly delays and false starts.

Ava Gardner was quoted as saying, "Good parts just don't seem to come along for me anymore.  At this rate I'll have to start looking for another interest.  The trouble is I've forgotten how to type."

5) "The Blue Bird" Is D.O.A.

"The Blue Bird" finally had its premiere in the US in spring of 1976.  Reviews of the film were unanimous with Vincent Canby being especially vicious, calling the film, "The bore of the year to date." 

The consensus was that the film was shabbily made, visibly unpleasant and a costly error on the part of the production team.  Aside from that the general opinion was that the source material didn't translate to film and what was supposed to have been a fanciful, lyrical children's fantasy was a sullen, morose, treacly mess.  Viewers stayed away in droves and the expensive film ( reports it cost $12 million, a very expensive film by the standards of the day) grossed only $887,000 in the US and did even less business elsewhere. 

The Soviet/US co-production experiment was considered a failure and further productions of a similar manner were abandoned. 

6) Should This "Bird" Have Flown South?

I saw "The Blue Bird" as a kid with my little brother when it came out and neither of us was very impressed--we were bored, actually--but the movie stuck with me through the years for some reason.  There was something about the melancholy tone and the lilting soundtrack I never forgot. 

When I saw the film again on TV some years later I was touched by some of the more tender and thought-provoking episodes.  There is a scene where the children are holding what they thought were blue birds but the creatures have passed away in their hands; Elizabeth Taylor as a sort of fairy godmother explains to them that the birds were just fantasies and that all fantasies die eventually.  She then sings a very sad song about children growing up and the death of childhood dreams as the two children wander through a field, holding the limp birds in their hands and crying very realistically.

In another scene the children find themselves in a sort of "holding pen" for children about to be born.  They encounter a boy and a girl who beg not to be born because they'll be separated.  The boy says to the girl that she'll know him if she finds him on earth, "I'll be the saddest man you've ever seen."  Mytyl and Tytyl meet their future brother who explains excitedly that their mother doesn't even know she's pregnant yet, but that his time on earth won't last--he'll die after only a few years.

It's hardly the stuff of uplifting childhood film fun, but as an adult viewer I find it takes on a new meaning.  I disagree that the music is forgettable; When I heard the songs again as an adult I had remembered every word and note.  Also as an adult, some of the long stretches of ballet dancing that I found interminable as a kid now appear to be beautiful to me.

I think the movie IS clunky, poorly constructed and perhaps a bit too bland, lacking in the sort of Disney spark of magic most audiences are used to.  I think the best way to approach it, in any country, is as one would approach any film made in ANOTHER country.  In the same way that appreciating Japanese Anime requires some sort of understanding of the medium, I don't think you can compare "The Blue Bird" to, say, "The Wizard Of Oz" or anything that Disney has done (outside of, say, "Fantasia," which takes some similar risks, albeit with more successful results). 

"The Blue Bird" has been notoriously hard to track down and I think that's a shame (it does pop up on Youtube now and then, of course).  I don't think it could ever be popular in the States but I tracked down an English language release a couple years ago and was not surprised to find the film has had a longer shelf life in other parts of the world, and the Soviet crew and performers who worked on the film were quite proud of how it came out. 

I think it is far from the worst film ever made as some claim.  I think it has some noble aspirations and some good performances, particularly from Elizabeth Taylor who, in some behind the scenes footage on the DVD, seems to be a gentle, nurturing woman having a wonderful time with the kids on the set.  I think the soundtrack, some of the visuals and the overall melancholy tone is unique and memorable and I've watched the film several times, without using the cushion of irony. 

At the very least, I suppose, the blue birds featured in the film are not CG-animated plush-toy-ready caricatures who think flatulence is funny! Well, until some big Hollywood producers decide to revive the concept some day, and the "Blue Bird" will try to fly again...

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Updated: 06/27/2013, AnomalousArtist
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AnomalousArtist on 06/27/2013

I suppose the story behind it is more intriguing than the film but I'd be curious to know what anyone else thought. Most people I know hate it but a couple of my friends really enjoyed it! Hmm... :)

katiem2 on 06/27/2013

I must confess I've never seen this film. I'm intrigued and now must add this to my list of must see movies.

KathleenDuffy on 06/27/2013

I love this sort of geeky film stuff! Yes, I really like Patsy Kensit and think she is under-rated.

AnomalousArtist on 06/27/2013

Thank you! Yes, neglected to mention the actors who played the kids--Patsy is really good in it! And the role of her brother is played, inexplicably, by the American-accented Todd Lookinland, brother of Mike, who was "Bobby" in "The Brady Bunch," hee hee...

KathleenDuffy on 06/27/2013

I enjoyed this review - thanks for putting the film up. I notice Patsy Kensit plays the little girl - she's still very well known in the UK. The colour of the film looks nice and rich, saturated.

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