Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Peter Pan (1924)

The Brattle had a quick three-night "Peter and Alice" series, apparently tied into a Harvard Bookstore event that they hosted before this screening. I wish I'd managed to get to the other nights, as Tuesday was Hook and the P.J. Hogan version of Peter Pan (neither of which I've managed to see) and Thursday was the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland and a 1983 film about Alice Liddel and Lewis Carroll that featured creatures out of Jim Henson's workshop. For a short series, it certainly seemed to have a lot to recommend it.

To be completely honest, I don't know if I'd ever seen any production of Peter Pan in its entirety. I think I've seen the Disney version at some point, although that may just have been clips combined with hearing the songs a lot in elementary school music class. It's a good story, although like many from its period, some bits are wincingly dated (I imagine modern productions don't use the term "Red Man" and clean up their dialogue a bit). I found myself very interested in seeing what other versions make of Peter at the end; in this one, there's a slight sense of Peter as a tragic figure, so afraid of what he'll become if he grows up that he'll dismiss the possibility of romance and watch all his friends leave him rather than chance it.

Another thing that strikes me: Certain elements of design of this tale have stayed remarkably consistent over time. Ernest Torrence's Captain Hook has the same basic design as the one in the Disney version, and is pretty close to Dustin Hoffman in Hook. Same mustache, hair, hat, really everything, and given that all the pirates have their own look within the movie, it's a bit curious that there's been so little variation in the look of the pirate captain between the different versions.

One amusing variation, though, is that apparently there were two versions of this movie made back in 1924 - one for the US audience, and one for the UK. In the US version screened, the Lost Boys raise the Stars & Stripes when they capture Hook's ship, while the UK version has them raising a Union Jack, with some differences in the dialogue as well. Some of it sounds a bit awkward - "like an American Gentleman" just doesn't sound as proper as "like an English Gentleman", for instance.

Also of note: This includes the "clap your hands to bring Tinker Bell back to life" bit - do other film versions do that? In 1924, the filmmakers likely weren't considering that this could be seen anywhere but in a theater, but Walt Disney would have had his eye on television when making his, and later filmmakers certainly would. That bit seems like it would be a bit weird for someone sitting in their living room - do you clap when there's no-one else around, or do you smirk like a snotty jerk when Tink gets back up without your help, thinking you've outsmarted someone?

One last thing - Jeff Rapsis was on hand to give the film a pretty nice musical score; Brattle Creative Director Ned Hinkle mentioned before the screening that he saw Peter Pan on the schedule without mention of accompaniment and called them up. I half-wonder if he'd knock on my door if I mentioned that I was planning to throw my Blu-ray of The General in the player later this week. I kid, but it was cool to see him doing his thing, as it looks like Somerville's not doing the silent horror program that had been talked about a month or two ago, though the Brattle is having "Silent Screams" the weekend before Halloween. There's actually a pretty nice run of silents in Boston right now - this, the Chaplin movies at the Paramount, "Silent Screams", the Moroder Metroplis at the Brattle and then the Alloy Orchestra at Somerville with the restored version a week later.

Peter Pan (1924)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Peter & Alice)

Peter Pan is one of an eclectic set of characters that arrived at about the same time as the movies (see also Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and the Wizard of Oz), and during the hundred years that have passed since then the frequent adapters have wrestled with the question of whether they should be done in period style or made contemporary. Back in 1924, though, there was no question - you just filmed the play, and filmed it fairly well.

Indeed, screenwriter Willis Goldbeck and director Herbert Brenon don't vary from it much at all - Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) arrives at the Darling household, looking for his shadow (he had snagged it on the window the night before) and in doing so wakes eldest child Wendy (Mary Brian). She in turn wakes her brothers John (Jack Murphy) and Michael (Philippe De Lacy), and with some fairy dust courtesy of a reluctant Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire) they fly off to Never Land. There they meet the Lost Boys, who adopt Wendy as their mother, but there is danger, as pirate Captain James Hook (Ernest Torrence) aims to get his revenge on Peter for the loss of his hand (though, hey, at least his name is fitting now!).

When first contacted about turning his play into a film, J.M. Barrie had dozens of ideas of what a movie version of the story could do that the stage play could not. Few (if any) wound up making the transition, although Brenon and company do wind up with some nifty effects shots that a live performance would lack: There are close-ups of Tinker Bell and other fairies, shots showing Hook's pirate ship in the water, and a few flying bits. Even the theatrical bits that maybe wouldn't make it into a movie today are well-done, with George Ali giving real character to his pantomime performances as Nana and the crocodile who ate Hook's hand. The costumes for those are nice as well - not perfectly realistic, but good enough for the already somewhat abstracted world of a silent film.

Full review at EFC.

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