Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Peter Pan (Paramount, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film featured at last night’s Balboa Park Organ Pavilion “Movie Night” showing — their annual event of a silent movie projected with live organ accompaniment — was the first film version of Peter Pan, made in 1924 by Paramount Pictures and delayed for nine months, according to an interview star Betty Bronson gave years ago to Films in Review, because the author of Peter Pan, Sir James M. Barrie, had it in his contract that he would have approval over the actress who played Peter (and yes, it was going to be an actress, not an actor; Barrie had stipulated that the lead be played by a woman and Nana, the Darling family dog, be played by an actor in a singularly obvious dog-suit) — and it took the studio nine months to come up with a star Barrie signed off on.

The woman they signed was the young Betty Bronson, who would become a major star on the basis of this film (she’d make the transition to sound successfully — indeed, she would play the “good girl” in Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, the first talkie blockbuster and the biggest hit film of all time until Gone With the Wind — but in that Films in Review interview she said the only films she’d made of which she was truly proud were Peter Pan and another Barrie-based fairy tale story, A Kiss for Cinderella) and who is truly remarkable, showing a wide range of emotions and seemingly able to turn on a dime between the assertive Lost Boy who never wants to grow up and the figure of pathos who once returned to his mother’s home to find the door locked and the windows barred.

Anyone who sees this film coming from the Disney version, the musical with Mary Martin or any of the more recent adaptations is going to be in for a real surprise; never having read or seen performed the actual Barrie play, I can’t be absolutely certain that this film is closer than we’re used to to what Barrie actually wrote (though given that he was alive and very much involved in the production, and according to imdb.com virtually all the intertitles in the film were direct quotes from Barrie’s dialogue, I’m pretty sure it is), but the 1924 Peter Pan, adapted by Willis Goldbeck and stunningly directed by Herbert Brenon with utterly amazing special effects (especially for 1924!) by Roy Pomeroy, is an amazing movie. Seeing it now takes away the sentimental sugar Disney stuck all over this story (and just about everything else his studio touched) and takes it back to its roots: a childhood (and childish) fantasy but also one with a great deal of underlying depth “hooking” both childrens’ and parents’ fears of loss and abandonment. Though the film opens with a written foreword (almost certainly Barrie’s) explaining that what we are about to see is a “fairy play” in which all the characters — even the (nominal) adults — are childlike and would be revealed as children under their makeups, much of Peter Pan is genuinely sad and parts are even terrifying.

Brenon and the “suits” at Paramount assembled a magnificent cast, including Bronson as Peter Pan (she’s able just by twitching her face slightly to let us know when she’s playing the wise-guy kid and when she’s playing the scared little boy who’s never got over being abandoned by his mother), Mary Brian as Wendy (who’s less a little girl here and more an adolescent, on the cusp of both emotional and sexual maturity — there’s an understated but unmistakable subplot of Peter and Wendy falling in love and having to deal with adult emotions as well as drives, and when Peter rejects the Darlings at the end and returns to Never Never Land it’s as much or more because he’s scared of his own burgeoning sexuality as it is because he doesn’t want the responsibility of having to go to school and eventually holding a job), the marvelous Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily (which makes it all the more disappointing that scenarist Goldbeck makes so little use of her and the Indians), George Ali’s rendition of the dog (who really dominates the opening scenes until Peter makes his Big Entrance), and villain-specialist Ernest Torrence as a genuinely chilling and un-campy Captain Hook (though Cyril Ritchard’s screaming-queen rendition in the surviving TV version of the musical with Mary Martin is quite good in its own way; indeed, when the tape was rediscovered and re-shown in the early 1990’s I was astonished that all the Gay angles in Ritchard’s performance I had missed when I watched it as a kid were now almost too obvious!).

This movie is an extraordinary work, and we have the George Eastman organ school to thank for its continued existence: the Eastman program actually offered a degree in silent-film accompaniment and had a print of Peter Pan which they used for the students’ final exams. In 1995 the George Eastman House, the film-preservation center attached to the university, got word that students were actually organizing showings of this film — whereas all other prints had disappeared and the film had long been thought lost. Eventually it made it onto DVD courtesy of Kino on Video (which probably took some dodgy negotiations with the Walt Disney company, since Disney had bought the rights to the 1924 film when he did his animated remake in 1953; even though no copies were then known to exist, Disney didn’t want to risk one turning up and someone showing it in place of his version) and Charles and I watched it then — though on the big screen, with full justice being done to James Wong Howe’s magnificent cinematography (even then he was one of the masters of the art, and he would go on making great-looking movies for another five decades; his last credit is Funny Lady from 1975, shot a year before he died, and something of his range can be shown by the four films featured on his imdb.com page: The Thin Man, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sweet Smell of Success and Hud), it looked even better despite the rather odd decision to set many of the Never Never Land scenes in what looks like an underground grotto (it’s a relief when the Lost Boys are kidnapped by the pirates and taken to their ship — and we get out of that damned grotto and into the open air off Catalina Island, Hollywood’s go-to location then for anything set in the South Pacific).

There’s one other annoyance in this movie, and that’s Goldbeck’s decision to locate the framing scenes in the United States instead of Great Britain; Peter Pan is just too British a fantasy to work as a story about Americans, and aspects like the use of the word “perambulator,” the stiff-upper-lip attitude of the Darlings when their children have disappeared, and the lame-brained aspirations of Captain Hook to follow an etiquette book that purports to teach him how to be an “American Gentleman” (the U.S. didn’t — and still doesn’t — have quite the same cult of the “gentleman” as the U.K. does) — but that’s a minor (and usually ignorable) blemish on an utterly marvelous movie, probably the best film adaptation of Peter Pan ever made — even though there were times I wished it were a talkie, if only because Betty Bronson’s performance is so sensitive to Peter’s changing moods I’m sure she could have found enough different vocal inflections to add power and credibility to the already very good performance she gave as a silent actress. The 1924 Peter Pan is a marvelous movie and deserves to be seen not only by anyone who loves this story but by people who don’t think they do — and also by people who think all silent films were hopelessly primitive from a technical standpoint.

This one is not only sumptuously produced but features vivid and utterly convincing special effects by Roy Pomeroy, who the year before had devised the colored-filter effect by which Moses’ sister Miriam had developed leprosy scars on her arm in real time in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. For this movie he had to create a convincing fairy Tinker Bell (usually represented as a beam of light, the way she was on stage, but also sometimes played on screen as a recognizable humanoid: child actress Virginia Browne Faire), fly the characters convincingly, render Peter’s severed shadow believably and, in one dazzling scene, show Peter sweeping a whole bunch of animate fairies with a broom. If you can take Barrie’s whimsical fantasy at all — and by being deeper and richer than the more recent adaptations, full of complex emotions and overlaid with a hint (though no more than a hint!) of burgeoning sexual attraction between Peter and Wendy, this film makes it a good deal easier to take than a lot of more recent takes on the story — this Peter Pan will not only entertain, but move.