Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Look Back at the Making of the First 'Peter Pan' Movie (1924)

With the much-hyped television broadcast of Peter Pan Live!, starring Allison Williams, Minnie Driver, and Christopher Walken, coming up on Thursday, December 4, on NBC, it seems worthwhile to look back on other versions of the classic J.M. Barrie work.  (On Twitter, the show is being promoted as #PeterPanLive.)  This production is a follow-up to last December's virally successful The Sound of Music Live! The cast also includes Broadway veterans Christian Borle and Kelli O'Hara and (relative) newcomers Taylor Louderman, Jake Lucas, and John Allyn as the Darling family.

I have seen Sandy Duncan on stage as Peter Pan and Mary Martin on TV, as well as the 1953 Disney animated production with Bobby Driscoll voicing Peter.  I missed Mia Farrow and Cathy Rigby in the role but, for my money, Jeremy Sumpter was the most heatedly erotic Peter in the movies, but most audiences are not looking for that particular quality in what is usually intended as a children's story.

The first movie presentation of Peter Pan was released in 1924 by Paramount.  It was produced by Adolph Zukor and directed by Herbert Brenon.  Sir James M. Barrie was involved in the project and approved of the casting although -- as the anecdotes recounted below note -- his original screenplay was set aside for one credited to Willis Goldbeck.  The film was shot by renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe.

In 2007,  screenwriter Stewart Stern (Oscar-nominated for Rebel Without a Cause and an Emmy winner for Sybil) appeared at the Virginia Film Festival, where in addition to a shot-by-shot workshop of Rebel Without a Cause he offered opening remarks at a screening of the 1924 Peter Pan.

Stern, then 85 years old, recalls the casting process that resulted in the choice of Betty Bronson as the first screen Peter but he also describes his own experiences in seeing Eva Le Gallienne and Elsa Lanchester on stage as Peter, and the personal touches he received not just from those actresses but also from J.M. Barrie himself.

Here is video of screenwriter Stewart Stern, speaking at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville on November 3, 2007.  Part I offers some anecdotes about Barrie and the first stage production of Peter Pan and the casting of Bronson in the title role.  (Partial transcript follows the video clip.)

Stewart Stern on Peter Pan - Part I

It always begins with a writer. Sir James Matthew Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, was a very small Scotsman, barely taller than a child, with a very large head, deep melancholy eyes, a mustache to cover his shyness, and a pipe that made everyone cough.

He rarely smiled but he could wiggle his ears and he mainly trusted children and certain Newfoundland dogs of his acquaintance, whom he would one day roll up into Nana. There were those five little boys in Kensington Gardens whom he fell in love with, and the Davies boys, whom he wisely treated as his superiors, and grew so close to, that in a way he stole them, even as Peter Pan stole the Darling children, and they made up Peter's story together.

It was born as a game they played at Barrie's country house, and it just kept making itself up as he and his boys played it – sometimes this way, sometimes that way – and that's how Barrie put it on the stage and that's why it always keeps changing. That's the character of Peter, too: he won't stand still, never remembers what he did last, and he's always finding new adventures to hide his loneliness inside.

During rehearsals, Barrie would sit huddled in the dark of the Duke of York's Theatre in London, his great coat and bowler hat, watching the children with envy as they practiced flying around the stage, until one days someone asked him what the matter was. He said, “I would very much like to fly, too!”

So, they hoisted him up in the magical arrangement that helps you do it, and flew him around the stage in absolute ecstasy, bowler hat, pipe, greatcoat and all, twinkling like a firefly, until they finally sat him down.

Barrie's favorite critic on opening night was a little boy whom he'd taken to the theatre. And he asked him, what part of it did you like best, when the final curtain came down. And the little boy said, “Oh, the part I liked best was tearing up my program into little bits and throwing them down on the people!” And of all the reviews his play received, Barrie liked that one the most.

In about 1920, my uncle, Adolph Zukor, who started Paramount Pictures, decided to make the first movie of Peter Pan. He had to find the perfect Peter to please Mr. Barrie, so a nationwide search began all across America.

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan
Countless screen tests were made and the best ones were taken to London on an ocean liner by the movie's director, Mr. Herbert Brenon, and by another uncle of mine, Mr. Albert Kaufman, who was Uncle Adolph's studio manager. These men would show the tests to Barrie for him to choose his favorite, and among the candidates was a tiny, 17-year-old girl from New Jersey who had come to Hollywood to break into movies and who called herself Betty Bronson. She banged on every door at Paramount Studios until Mr. Brenon agreed to see her, and she told him that she was born to play Peter, she had to pay Peter, she would play Peter, and so Mr. Brenon had no choice but to make a test.

In the London screening room, the two Americans unreeled those tests for Barrie, day after day, and to break up a long afternoon, Barrie invited them to his flat, overlooking the River Thames, for tea.

They were awed to be at the home of such a famous man, a man great enough to be knighted by the king. Barrie left his guests in the big inglenook by the fire, where he wrote, to go and see about the tea. But while they waited in their straight-back chairs, saying very little, for the whistle at the kettle to come from the kitchen, there was such a long, alarming silence, that they went exploring through the flat, and they finally found Barrie frozen at the kitchen door with his shoes in his hands and his face a mask of terrible guilt. “It's housekeeper's day off,” Barrie said, “and I'm not allowed in the kitchen. Mrs. Porter absolutely forbids me to set foot in it.”

Uncle Al said, “Well, I'll go in. I'll make the tea.”

But Barrie said, “No, no, no, no. She'll be able to tell. She puts things around I have to move out of the way and that gives her hints.”

So that was it for tea.

The very next day, a telegram reached Uncle Adolph's desk in New York. It was from London. “Betty Bronson chosen to play the role of Peter Pan. Signed, Barrie.”

In part two of the video from the Virginia Film Festival, Stern describes the magic of Eva Le Gallienne as Peter Pan (in a production she also directed), and the fright that Elsa Lanchester brought to the role. He describes his own two degrees of separation from Sir James Barrie and his particular attachment to thimbles. (Partial transcript follows the video.)

Stewart Stern on Peter Pan - Part II

The film was a huge success and many of the effects in it – the great broom sweeping the fairies away, Captain Hook's Jolly Roger rising up off the mermaids' lagoon and flying the children home – were all Barrie's own ideas for the movie version, special effects way before their time. And it's a wonderful script to read. It's a complete screenplay and filled with fancy but they decided, no, they wouldn't use it – just this and that of it. And so the movie has a more theatrical look than what might have happened if Barrie had had his screenplay used.

Like all very old children who never grew up – this isn't a hook, by the way, it's to do Charlie Chaplin imitations and it's also a reminder that I'm 85, so I'm only half young – anyway, I have loved Peter Pan my whole life. My first Peter Pan when I was little was the great Eva Le Gallienne. She gave special children matinees at the old Civic Repertory Theatre in New York at 11 o'clock Saturday mornings, and then she went on in the rest of the day to play grown-up roles in the afternoon and evening, in plays like Camille, Romeo & Juliet, and Ibsen's Ghosts, and the next morning she was back being Peter Pan.

But they weren't half as exciting as Peter Pan, those other plays, those grown-up plays. So Saturday after Saturday, my mother moved us up to the cheaper and cheaper seats, up to the tip-tip-top of the theatre, where the poorest children sat on benches that only cost 50 cents.
Sitting on those hard seats, miles above the people, we had the best thrill of anyone in the theatre because at the end, Peter Pan flew, not just over the audience way down there but above the balconies that were below us – there were two that were below us, and then the audience down there – but all the way up here, she touched our hands as we leaned out over the railing and shouted good-bye as she flew past us and then zoomed down to the stage. It was the most thrilling thing I've ever seen in my life and it still stays with me.

Stewart Stern in Charlottesville, Nov. 3, 2007
All children who saw Peter Pan wanted to fly. Until I was ten, I dreamed of flying out my window so many times that one morning I found my bare footprints in the snow on my window sill facing out over New York City, eight floors up. The next my dad had metal guards attached to the window. I could never fly again.
I pleaded with my mom to make me a Peter Pan costume and I wore it everywhere except to school. I'd come home, climb onto my book case in my Peter Pan suit, doing my homework with Peter's rubber dagger stuck in my teeth in case Hook came into the room.

And one day, on Uncle Adolph's golf course, I was up in my usual tree, dressed as Peter and tootling on my pipes, when my father came along with a man I didn't know who had an English accent and wore knickerbockers. When he heard my tootling, as he was about to hit the ball, he said, “Good lord! That's the 'Pirate Song' from Peter Pan. What's it doing in that tree?”

My dad said, “It's just Peter, otherwise known as my son.”

The man peered through the leaves until he found me, and we stared at each other for one long meaningful moment, and I won.

He said, “By George, it is Peter Pan, the real one! Bicarbonate of soda, it is!”

That man with the accent turned out to be Sir William Wiseman, a friend of Barrie's, and a few weeks later a package came in the mail from London, a first edition of Peter Pan and Wendy autographed “To Stewart Stern, kind regards, from J.M. Barrie.”

I wished he had sent me a thimble in it, that silver thing you wear on your finger when you sew a button on, that Peter called a kiss.

My letters from Eva Le Gallienne all had thimbles in them. She'd write, “Bless you, my dear, I send you a very nice thimble.” And my letter from Betty Bronson had thimbles in it, too.

But not Elsa Lanchester's, who came down her flying wire like a black widow spider after its prey and acted the whole part – and she told me this – pretending to be Hitler at the age of 6. Children shook when she came on and they rushed to Captain Hook to comfort them – and Captain Hook was Charles Laughton, her husband.

Stewart Stern is still alive at the age of 92. No doubt, if he watches Peter Pan Live! next Thursday, his TV viewing experience will be warmed by his childhood memories of Peter Pan and the actresses who played him.

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