Saturday, November 29, 2014

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

Peter Pan Live NBC Christopher Walken Minnie DriverWith 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.

Stewart Stern Rebel without a Cause James DeanIn 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 silent movies
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.

Screenwriter Stewart Stern Virginia Film Festival 2007
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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday Becomes 'Green Friday' Where Pot Is Legal

This headline caught my eye: "Va. ABC stores to offer Black Friday discounts." The AP story, posted on the web site of ABC News affiliate WJLA-TV, explains that customers who buy more liquor worth $50 or more will get a ten percent discount, and that customers will also be offered an opportunity today to enter a drawing for a gift card worth $80 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

What is the difference between a government-owned monopoly on liquor sales offering special discounts and free booze and privately owned marijuana stores in Colorado offering similar discounts on pot?

The first obvious difference is that Virginia's ABC is a residue of 1930s socialism and prohibitionism, while the Colorado weed stores represent American entrepreneurship at its best.

State-owned liquor stores offer all the innovative thinking that one usually associates with government bureaucracies. Marijuana retailers in Colorado (and Washington state and soon in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.) have met both their newfound freedom and remaining restrictions with creativity and genuine innovation.

Bloomberg News reporters Duane D. Stanford and Kevin Orland note under the headline "Marijuana Shops Seek Holiday Surge With ‘Green Friday’" that

The legalized pot industry in the U.S. will be worth about $2.3 billion this year and may grow to more than $10 billion by about 2018, according to the San Francisco-based ArcView Group, which invests in the industry.

This “green rush” generated $207 million in recreational pot sales in Colorado during the first nine months of the year, according to the state Revenue Department. In that period, recreational and medical marijuana combined to raise $52.5 million in revenue for the state through taxes, licenses and fees.
CBS News had its own report on "Green Friday," titled "Pot merchants cash in on Christmas cannabis."

In an accompanying story, CBS Moneywatch correspondent Kim Peterson reported:
Black Friday is almost here, and some shoppers are preparing to rush out and buy family and friends a stocking full of marijuana....

Americans freely give each other buzz-inducing gifts of wine or Scotch over the holidays, but buying someone a gift box full of bud? That idea is just sinking in across the state. "People are just starting to consider the notion of, 'Well hey, I can give this,'" Fox added....

Other dispensaries are planning similar Black Friday promotions, and many are taking out ads in local newspapers or promoting their sales online. An edible-pot maker in the state is offering a miniature pumpkin pie laced with marijuana, according to The Associated Press. Stores will also be selling spiced holiday teas, marijuana mint cookies and creams for sore muscles.
Marketing "Green Friday" specials on Black Friday is just one sign of the maturing of the marijuana industry. Matt Ferner and Ryan J. Reilly noted in The Huffington Post earlier this week that
Colorado and Washington state illustrate how cannabis is shedding its stoner image and entering mainstream culture. Marijuana products have been featured prominently in gourmet dinners and in cooking seminars in both states. The drug has become a fashionable substance to offer as a celebratory toast at weddings. Yoga enthusiasts can seek zen at marijuana-fueled classes.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra held a “Classically Cannabis” fundraiser, where well-heeled attendees sipped drinks, shook hands and smoked pot from joints, vaporizers and glass pipes, while a brass quintet played Debussy, Bach, Wagner and Puccini.

"Cannabis is being elevated into the pantheon of refined and urbane inebriants, no different than boutique rye or fine wine," said Matt Gray, the publisher of a new gourmet marijuana cookbook.
Could marijuana become legal in Virginia, a state where liqueurs are sold by a government-owned and -operated monopoly?

Bart Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch thinks it can and should.
"Instead of trying to shake more money out of Virginians’ pockets," he wrote on Tuesday,
the commonwealth should follow Washington’s lead and sell off its liquor business. But it should not adopt Washington’s deceptive practice of trying to claw back its money through hidden fees. So how can Virginia lawmakers scrape up the revenue that would be lost?

Simple: Legalize recreational marijuana, as four other states have. Washington did, and expects to collect $637 million in licenses and taxes by 2019. Colorado hopes to reap $174.5 million over the next three years. By one estimate, legalizing weed in Virginia could raise as much as $500 million for the commonwealth. But even half that would more than make up for ending the liquor monopoly

True, there are many arguments against the state letting people smoke pot. But those same arguments work just as well against the state letting people drink booze — let alone selling the stuff itself.
State Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has introduced a bill for the 2015 session of the General Assembly that takes the first step: decriminalizing personal possession of marijuana within Virginia. SB 656
Decriminalizes marijuana possession and changes the current $500 criminal fine for simple marijuana possession to a maximum $100 civil penalty payable to the Literary Fund and eliminates the 30-day jail sentence. The bill reduces the criminal penalties for distribution and possession with intent to distribute etc. of marijuana. The bill creates a rebuttable presumption that a person who grows no more than six marijuana plants grows marijuana for personal use and not for distribution and provides that the suspended sentence/substance abuse screening provisions apply only to criminal violations or to civil violations by a minor. Marijuana is removed from a statute making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to distribute or display advertisements, etc., for instruments used for marijuana and from the common nuisance statute. The distribution of paraphernalia statute will apply only to an adult who distributes to a minor at least three years his junior. The bill also limits forfeiture of property from sale or distribution of marijuana to quantities of more than one pound; currently there is no minimum amount. The penalty for possession of marijuana by a prisoner is reduced from a Class 5 felony to a Class 6 felony.
So far the bill has one co-patron, Delegate Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church). It has been referred to the Courts of Justice committee. When similar legislation was introduced by former Delegate Harvey Morgan, a Republican, it was killed in committee despite not a single person testifying against it.

While Virginia won't be celebrating Green Friday this year, we know that politicians here and elsewhere across the country are watching Colorado closely to see what happens in a regime of regularized, taxable marijuana sales.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

'How Many Shopping Days Until Christmas?'

If you landed here because you asked your search engine, "How many shopping days until Christmas?," the answer as this went to press was "27."  If you've landed here after November 27, you can check out this handy countdown clock to find out the accurate answer.

The reason for the headline is more to explore the origin of the phrase "only x shopping days until Christmas."

The conventional story of the origin of "shopping days until Christmas" is that the phrase was coined by Wisconsin-born retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge and Company in Oxford Street (London).  There is renewed interest in Selfridge's life and work due to a popular British TV series about him, starring Jeremy Piven, that has also been broadcast on public television in the United States.

It is clear from both factual and fictionalized portrayals of Selfridge that he was an innovative merchant, but research I have done suggests that he is unlikely to have been the coiner of the now-ubiquitous countdown phrase.

According to Selfridge's Wikipedia entry, which lacks a citation for the point,

While at Marshall Field, Selfridge was the first to promote Christmas sales with the phrase "Only _____ Shopping Days Until Christmas", a catchphrase that was quickly picked up by retailers in other markets. Either he or Marshall Field is also credited with popularizing the phrase "The customer is always right."
The UK-based web site "The Phrase Finder," citing the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, repeats the same information:
American retailer H. Gordon Selfridge (1856-1947) coined this expression - " __ shopping days until Christmas" while working for Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. Later he coined the slogan "the customer is always right" when he opened Selfridge's in London.
An Australian web site,, acknowledges that Selfridge may have heard the phrase somewhere else before he used it in marketing his own store's products. Writer Michelle Holland cites another book (Who Said That First?, by Max Cryer) as her source:
The idea of reminding people how much shopping time is left before Christmas is not new. On 19 December 1900 the Los Angeles Times displayed a reminder: ‘There are only (counting today) five more shopping days till Christmas.’ Four days later the Washington Post took up the cry: ‘Only one more shopping day until Christmas.’

At the time Gordon Selfridge was working with Marshall Field and Company in Chicago. He may have picked up the idea from the newspapers mentioned, but certainly he soon instructed his staff to drive the same slogan, which put a real sense of urgency into the shopping lead-up to Christmas. Before long it was used worldwide.
A careful search on turns up several uses of the phrase several years before the 1900 citations from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. The earliest usage I can find was in 1891 but it was frequently used in the 1890s in locations as various as Boston and Cedar Rapids and in various small towns in the Midwest (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Mansfield, Ohio, for instance).

The earliest example I can find from Gordon Selfridge himself comes from 1909, the first Christmas season that Selfridges was open:

London Standard, December 16, 1909
Yet I was not able to find any uses of the phrase in Chicago newspapers during the time that Selfridge worked for Marshall Field. The earliest instance appears to be from the front page of the Chicago Heights Star on December 17, 1908 -- about two years after Selfridge had moved to London to build his own department store.
Chicago Heights Star, December 17, 1908
One Illinois newspaper used the phrase in 1897 -- but that was in Jacksonville, a central Illinois city some 235 miles southwest of Chicago and unlikely to be familiar to Selfridge.

Jacksonville (Ill.) Daily Journal, December 8, 1897
Four years earlier, a Massachusetts merchant, Hollander Bradshaw Folsom, used the phrase in a large advertisement for a variety of products it had on offer:

Boston Sunday Post, December 10, 1893
That Boston Sunday Post advertisement may be the first time the phrase "only __ shopping days before Christmas" appeared in print.

Two years before that, the same retailer posted this reminder in the Boston Globe: "NOTICE--Please bear in mind that only 16 SHOPPING DAYS now intervene to Christmas, and that during the last ten days all of our floors are jammed."

Boston Sunday Globe, December 6, 1891
I believe that Boston Sunday Globe ad is the earliest use in print of anything close to "shopping days until Christmas," although it is expressed in more flowery language.

In 1894, the Herms Dry Goods Company advertised in the Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times, admonishing readers to "Do Your Xmas Shopping Now" because there were "Only 18 Shopping Days Before Christmas."
The Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio), December 4, 1894
On the same page in that same newspaper was the beginning of the serialization of Stephen Crane's novel, The Red Badge of Courage, up to chapter III. The Daily Times was one of 200 small town dailies that serialized Crane's story that month and helped establish his fame as a writer. Now a high-school lit-class staple, The Red Badge of Courage wasn't published in book form until the following year. (Charlottesville connection: Crane's handwritten manuscript is preserved in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.)

Advertising in the Boston Sunday Globe in 1895, Jordan, Marsh, & Co. claimed to have "the Grandest Aggregation of Holiday Goods in New England" and reminded readers there were "Only 8 More Shopping Days Before Christmas":

Boston Sunday Globe, December 15, 1895
By the turn of the century, the phrase was ubiquitous. Here are some examples:

The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisc.), December 11, 1899

Mansfield (Ohio) News, December 12, 1899

Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Republican, December 23, 1900

Washington Post, November 27, 1904
That last example, published exactly 110 years ago today, is puzzling in that it warns about "only 24 shopping days until Christmas," when it should be 27 days.  The advertiser, Galt & Bro. Jewelers, was at one time the oldest continuously operating business in Washington, D.C.  It closed in March 2001 after nearly two centuries of operation.  It was once managed by Edith Galt, who became the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and effectively president after her husband's debilitating stroke.

To summarize:  The claim that Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase "___ shopping days until Christmas" rests on flimsy ground.  Knowing that Selfridge was a notorious self-promoter, the assertion that he first used it while he was at Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago in the late 19th century may originate with him in one of his expansive chats with journalists (like this 1932 interview with The Milwaukee Journal, in which he lays claim to "the customer is always right").

The earliest near-usage I was able to find was in the Boston Globe in 1891.  (I searched as far back as 1860.)  The earliest precise phrasing I found was two years later, in the Boston Sunday Post. The phrase became common in the 1890s in New England and the Midwest but I found no evidence of Selfridge using it before 1909, even in Chicago newspapers that would have published ads for Marshall Field. That doesn't mean no evidence exists -- just that I could not find it.  If anyone can find an earlier usage attributed to Selfridge, I welcome feedback.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Upcoming: Ten-Year 'Blogoversary' / Requested: Your Comments

Nine years and 11 months ago today, I posted my first blog entry, which said, in part:

It took a while, but I've been sucked into the world of bloggers.

I have two primary purposes in publishing this blog: (1) to comment on current affairs and cultural events, including theatre, music, movies, and books and (2) to archive some of my old writings on what-were-then-current affairs and cultural events (you know the rest).
In the near-decade since then, I have accomplished all that and more.

My own blog presence has expanded to include Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, Where Are the Copy Editors?, and Sub-Saharan Monitor.

By invitation, I joined the terrific team of political reporters and commentators at Bearing Drift.

I began submitting articles to, sometimes drawing unexpected attention (from, for instance, teachers' unions and Senator Mark Warner).

To be sure, my blogging has become more spotty over the years. My first full year of blogging, 2005, included 317 individual posts, nearly one per day.

That number declined to 200 in 2006 and to 187 in 2007, before rising again to 257 in the election year of 2008. The number dropped again to 211 in 2009 and 101 in 2010, before a series of double-digit years in 2011 (53), 2012 (22 -- my first year with Bearing Drift), 2013 (59), and just 38 posts so far this year.

While we're doing the math, it's noteworthy that -- by coincidence, not design -- this is my 1,500th blog post on this site.

While thinking about my upcoming tenth anniversary as a blogger -- December 17, 2014 -- I thought I'd invite readers to point out their own favorite entries.

In the comments section, below, tell me what you've liked best among the 1,500 posts on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts (a title I've never really liked, but I got stuck with it early on). If you want, tell me what post you liked least, and why.

If you're really appreciative, feel free to leave a tip (left-hand sidebar) or buy something through my affiliate program.  Or check out my Amazon author page.

Finally, to honor my "blogoversary," I'm going to try to post something at least once each day through the month of December. The last time I did that was October 2013.

So -- what do you think? Don't hold back. Feel free to say anything.