When Sir James M. Barrie agreed to allow Famous PlayersLasky to make a movie version of his 1904 Christmas pantomime Peter Pan, he laid down some pretty stiff terms. Not only was he to have casting approval, but the title cards were to use as far as possible the dialogue of the stage play; the plot line was to keep to the original Three-Act structure; the characters were to be those of the playnone were to be eliminated and additional characters were not to be introduced; and above all, the characters were to fly realistically. Sir James also insisted on writing a long Preface to the movie in which he made the point that Peter Pan was a pantomime and needed to be accepted as such. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the fact that Americans do not know what a panto is, let alone what are its traditions. Luckily, this didn't really matter. The picture was a huge success anyway and catapulted eighteen-year-old Betty Bronson (whom Barrie himself had chosen for the lead) into celebrity status overnight. So to really appreciate the picture we need first to understand what a panto is and what Barrie did to change or modify its structure and traditions. By the turn of the century, the annual Christmas pantomime had become a very elaborate affair. In fact, every year theatre managements vied with each other to offer presentations even more spectacular than they had staged in the past. (A successful panto didn't just fill the theatre at Yuletide but would run right through Easter). Although largely (and very loosely) based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, pantomimes had a rigid cast system. The lead role was always the Damea middle-aged woman, enacted by a leading funnyman, the more raucous, the better. Next in line, was the Principal Boy, always played by a very sexy young lady who wore abbreviated costumes to show off her legs. The Villain was usually billed next, and then came the specialty acts. These were vaudeville turns by jugglers, singers, magicians, etc., often used to entertain the audience while stagehands readied the spectacular main set for the next Act, but just as often actually interpolated into the panto itself. Of course, pantos always had plenty of real children milling around the stage, but the leader (who had practically all the lines) was a young adult (even though he or she might be a impersonating a character supposedly ten or twelve years younger). Doubling was quite common in the panto. Often it was a matter of necessity, but just as often it was done deliberately. Barrie intended that Mr Darling and Captain Hook always be played by the same actor. Unfortunately, both Brenon and Paramount jibed at this idea and finally convinced Barrie that on a motion picture set, it was impractical. The principal change (and it was a brilliant one) that Barrie made to the traditional structure was not to turn the Dame into a dog (Dames had often played comic animals in the past) or even to restrict the Dame's frolics to Two Acts (although top-billed, the Dame's role was often not all that large. In some pantos, he/she didn't even make her entrance until the Second Act). What Barrie did was absolutely startling. He made the Dame silent. He/she doesn't utter a word. The role is all pantomime, you see. Pantomime yetin a pantomime! Brilliant! Now we can appreciate the movie for what it is: not just a filmed pantomime but one that goes beyond the restrictions of the stage to make the spectacle more spectacular, and the special effects even more wonderful and startling. Also we can now enjoy the way the movie is cast and played. It's a pity Hook and Darling are no longer played by the same man (though admittedly it is just as hard to imagine dull Chadwick, perfect as stuffy Darling, brandishing a villainous hook, as it is to see Ernest Torrence toning down the foam as Wendy's dad). However, super-sexy Betty Bronson makes an ideal Peter Pan (it's important that the character be lasciviously attractive yet act as if she is totally unaware of this factand this Miss Bronson accomplishes remarkably well, no doubt due to Brenon's meticulous direction). Eighteen-year-old Mary Brian is also superbly cast as Wendy. Even though her stage age is around twelve or thirteen, she is not only the leader of the children, but a genuine mother figure and is supposed to look just a few years younger than the actress playing her mother, in this case twenty-two year old Esther Ralston. (You're not supposed to be mathematically minded and try to work out how a twenty-two year old can have a twelve year old daughter. Pantomimes are inevitably fanciful). The father figure is usually much older. Forty-five year old Cyril Chadwick fits the bill nicely. It's a tribute to Brenon's skillful yet sensitive direction, James Wong Howe's beautiful photography, Pomeroy's fascinating special effects and the enduring charm and cleverness of Barrie's fairy tale that the movie is just as enchanting in 2007 as it seemed to appreciative worldwide audiences in 1925.
Adventure / Family / Fantasy
Adventure / Family / Fantasy
Peter Pan enters the nursery of the Darling children and, with the help of fairy dust, leads them off to Never Never Land, where they meet the nefarious Captain Hook.
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August 12, 2019