Until Herbert Brenon’s silent film classic, I had only ever seen Peter Pan played by a man. I knew about the tradition of casting women in the role for the theater. NBC’s live broadcast would be a recent example, outside of the stage, where you can watch Allison Williams as the lead, but growing up Peter Pan was the Disney cartoon, and later the 2003 movie and Once Upon A Time.
As gleaned from Frederick C. Szebin’s booklet essay in Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray, one of the reasons women were cast was “petite actresses were easier to lift in the old harnesses for the flying scenes.” There’s also the practice of crossdressing in pantomime and the rules for how late child actors could work, which Kat Ellinger brings up in her commentary track. That Peter Pan (1924) was (and is) a critical success is irrefutable, but this was a film that was created with dollar signs in mind. Maybe not if J.M. Barrie had been in control of everything. Szebin talks about some of the ideas the author had for the production, with the main point being to use the medium to do things that couldn’t be done on the stage but, for the studio, as Ellinger points out, Peter Pan was a way of appeasing the Hayes Code and releasing more family friendly fare.
For those who don’t know the story, Peter Pan is a boy determined not to become an adult. While attempting to retrieve his shadow, he meets the Darling children (Mary Brian, Jack Murphy, and Philippe de Lacy) and invites them to go to Never Never Land with him. A magical place where mermaids and Lost Boys live, they have the best adventures until Wendy Darling wants to go home, and then Peter has to decide what he values most, his youth or companionship.
Many actresses auditioned for the part, but Barrie chose relative unknown, Betty Bronson, to play Peter Pan and it’s the decision that makes the movie. Technically, there’s no shortage of reasons to love Brenon’s Peter Pan, whether it’s the man in the dog suit playing the Darlings’ nanny (George Ali), Ernest Torrence’s boob of a Captain Hook, or Peter’s passionate address to the audience when he needs to save Tinker Bell’s life and asks us to clap if we believe in fairies. Few scenes have called for being seen with an audience more because you can imagine, what that would be like, to sit in an audience where there’s only been music, and suddenly everyone’s clapping at once. Bronson gives an incredibly naturalistic performance. There’s nothing affected in her body language or posture and you end up believing in her, too.
Every adaptation is going to be different, and Brenon’s (which was the first film adaptation of the play) shows more of the Darling parents (Esther Ralston and Cyril Chadwick) and less of Tiger Lily (Anna May Wong) than others will. Ellinger really hits on something, though, with an article she quotes from by Brenon, in which he states how important it is for fantasy films to be childish. You don’t need realism. You need to capture the world from a child’s perspective and that’s why, however many adaptations later, Brenon’s Peter Pan still stands out –every dialogue intertitle in Willis Goldbeck’s screenplay embodies the voice of a child.
Peter Pan is available now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, with a score composed and conducted by Philip C. Carli. Additional bonus features include two audio clips of Esther Ralston. In one she tells the story of how she met Mary Brian and in the other she’s interviewed by Robert McKay. While their conversation isn’t strictly about Peter Pan, Ralston is extremely game to chat and shares some amazing stories (if not all good) about working in the industry.