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'The Blue Bird’: Shirley Temple's forgotten gem

The Shirley Temple tributes are pouring in, and justifiably so. Her positive impact on the culture at large did much to keep the nation’s spirits up during a dark and difficult time. Her legacy is secure.

It’s also worth noting that she had a distinguished second career in public life, serving as a representative to the U.N. General Assembly, as chief of protocol of the United States and as a United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia. None of these prestigious assignments brought her as much renown as her film career, but, if nothing else, they demonstrated that child stardom does not inevitably lead to a dysfunctional adulthood.

She was a tremendous talent and a remarkable human being. She will be greatly missed.

I can’t pretend to be a Shirley Temple aficionado, but she made one film that left an indelible impression on me that continues to this day. It was a movie that was considered both a critical and financial disappointment, 1940’s “The Blue Bird.”

“The Blue Bird” was a big-budget fantasy movie considered to be 20th Century Fox’s answer to the MGM smash hit “The Wizard of Oz,” for which Temple herself was briefly considered for the starring role. It was based on a play about two unhappy children, Mytyl and Tyltyl, who are visited by a magical fairy named Berylune and charged to search the world for the Blue Bird of Happiness.

Critics found the film to be somewhat aimless and scattered, and audiences were reportedly uninterested in seeing Shirley Temple playing something of a brat at the beginning of the story, although she sweetens rather quickly as the movie progresses. I remember stumbling upon the film on television and watching the sequence where Temple and her little brother climb a set of stairs to visit the place where children await the opportunity to be born.

The idea of a life before mortality struck me as a rather heady philosophical topic for a children’s film, and “The Blue Bird” tackles some rather grown-up issues in the process. Temple encounters a boy who doesn’t want to be born because he will enter a world where there will be greed and injustice and suffering. She encourages him to go and fight the evils of the world rather than stay behind and avoid them.

Temple’s character also runs into a girl who tells her that she will soon be coming to earth as her little sister, but that she won’t be on the earth for very long. I found that to be an unusually dark theme for a Shirley Temple movie, but it gave the film a depth that I think many critics overlooked.

As the children set sail to earth, they hear a chorus of voices in the distance.

“Who’s that singing now?” Temple asks Berylune, who is standing nearby.

“Those are the voices of their mothers, coming out to meet them,” Berylune answers.

Even as a child, I found it fascinating to see how the filmmakers envisioned what a life before this one would be like, and I have yet to see any other movie approach this premise with any degree of seriousness. This scene seemed like the words of Wordsworth brought to life, when the poet wrote that “The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting” and that “trailing clouds of glory do we come, From God, who is our home.”

I will always be grateful to Shirley Temple for this piece of inspiration she left behind for me, and I’m confident she will continue to inspire others for generations to come. It has been more than 60 years since her last feature film, yet her star shows no signs of dimming.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,