Friday, November 09, 2007

Stewart Stern on 'Peter Pan'

During last weekend's Virginia Film Festival, I had the pleasure of attending three separate events featuring screenwriter Stewart Stern. One was a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, for which Stern contributed the screenplay; another was a shot-by-shot workshop on that same movie. The third was a screening of the 1924 Adolph Zukor production of Sir James M. Barrie's Peter Pan, the first rendering of that story on film.

Stern is the nephew of Zukor, and he had numerous familial connections to the early film industry. It was only natural that, after returning from military service in World War II, that he would join the industry.

At the first screening of "Rebel," Stern told us that he conceived of the three-way relationship of Jim Stark (played by James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo) as parallel to that of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the Lost Boys.

Lisa Provence of The Hook sat next to me at that Friday "Rebel" screening, and she took better notes than I did that afternoon. She notes in this week's issue:

Where Rebel without a Cause was born: In a "ludicrous" office painted an "awful" shade of green at Warner Brothers, where screenwriter Stewart Stern had to check in with a cop upon arrival, although he could then sneak out the back way, the 85-year-old tells the audience at the November 2 screening.

The inspiration for Jim Backus' costume in Rebel: Stern dredged up a memory of an apron his own father used to wear for the scene in which James Dean's father, wearing a frilly number, cleans up his mother's dropped breakfast tray.

He shot puppies? Clearly Sal Mineo's character, Plato, was destined for a bad end from the first scene in juvenile detention, where he displays a characteristic commonly attributed to serial killers.

We don't remember it being this campy: "That has to be the gayest movie I'll see at the film festival," says fest regular Richard Sincere.
Stern said much more at the shot-by-shot workshop, and I hope to write about that at length, and soon.

My purpose in this blogpost is to highlight Stern's entertaining and informative remarks that preceded a screening of the 1924 (silent) Peter Pan at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, which had been designated "family day" by the Virginia Film Festival. The auditorium was filled with children and their parents (more children than parents), including a couple of dozen second graders from Broadus Wood Elementary School in Albemarle County, who formed a children's choir to sing new compositions to accompany the film. (Festival regulars Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton provided the bulk of the musical accompaniment, joined by Terri Allard and Paul Reisler.)

Stern has many amusing memories of playing Peter Pan as a child. In the video you are about to watch, he tells of receiving an autographed copy of the first edition of Peter and Wendy, directly from Sir J. M. Barrie himself. He offers anecdotes from his uncles about meeting Barrie in London, and about the nationwide search for the perfect actress to portray Peter, a role that went to 17-year-old Betty Bronson.

But enough text. Watch the video and you'll learn much and smile more.

Part I

Part II:

If it's not clear by now, let me emphasize that Stewart Stern is a delightful speaker whose knowledge and analysis would be valuable not just to film scholars, but to any film fans. I hope someone is writing his biography; it would be fascinating to read.

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