#40) Peter Pan (1924)
OR “Filming Neverland”
Directed by Herbert Brenon
Written by Willis Goldbeck. Based on the play and novel by J.M. Barrie.
Class of 2000
View the whole film below!
The Plot: Three innocent children (Mary Brian, Jack Murphy & Phillipe De Lacy) are persuaded to run away from home by an 18-year-old woman pretending to be a boy (Betty Bronson). They venture to a place where grown adults are tormented by children and where the natives are routinely disrespected. There’s attempted murder and Freudian quagmires galore in this beloved children’s classic.
Why It Matters: The NFR mentions J.M. Barrie’s initial reluctance and eventual support of adapting his play into a film, then goes on to praise the film’s special effects and Bronson’s “exquisitely stylized performance”.
But Does It Really?: This one gets a pass more for its historical merits than anything else. It’s the earliest film version of “Peter Pan”, and though eclipsed by later versions, was quite the success in its day. The film was also presumed lost for many decades, so it gets “Belloq film” status. While it never quite achieves what subsequent adaptations have done, this “Peter Pan” is as enjoyable as a silent version can be. Besides, if I say, “I didn’t like ‘Peter Pan’” out loud, another copy of a silent film somewhere drops dead.
Everybody Gets One: Betty Bronson was handpicked by J.M. Barrie to play Peter Pan. While her career never really took off, she did manage to transition from silent picture to talkies. Plus she’s in “Blackbeard’s Ghost”! While most of Herbert Brenon’s directing career was already behind him by 1924, he did manage to be among the very first Best Director nominees at the 1929 Oscars for “Sorrel and Son”. And at this point in his life, 64-year-old J.M. Barrie was still writing (though nothing as popular as “Peter Pan”) and was collecting lifetime achievement awards, including an Order of Merit in 1922.
Wow, That’s Dated: Oh how I wish this could just be about quaint phrases like “drowsing” or “perambulators”, but no, I have to give the REDFACE WARNING. As is often the case with “Peter Pan”, we get Tiger Lily and the other native Indians. While most of them are uncredited, it’s a safe bet that none of them are being played by actual Native Americans*. Oh, and I couldn’t find any additional information on Hook’s only black pirate; but please let him actually be black, oh please oh please oh please…
- This may be the only version of “Peter Pan” where Nana gets top billing.
- Speaking of that dog, why are her pupils so large? Did she just come from the optometrist?
- Esther Ralston (Mrs. Darling) was 22 when she filmed this. Her on-screen husband Cyril Chadwick was 45. [Shudder]
- Wow, John and Michael can sleep through anything.
- When Peter gives the example of saying, “I don’t believe in fairies”, does that actually kill a fairy? Is he endangering the species just by mentioning this?
- This is one of the rare versions of “Peter Pan” where Captain Hook and Mr. Darling are played by two different actors. I guess it doesn’t actually matter, I’m just so used to the double casting.
- That’s legendary Chinese American actress Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily. It’s still not an actual Native American playing the part, but it could have been worse, it could have been Rooney Mara.
- Call it “exquisitely stylized” if you must, but Betty Bronson’s playing to a back of the house that ain’t there. Even by silent film standards it’s a bit much.
- Wait, they’re American in this version? What a bizarre choice, especially when John wants the Lost Boys to behave like “American gentlemen”. That’s not a thing.
- Lay off all the tongue acting, Hook! Yeesh.
- Whenever the audience has to clap to bring Tinker Bell back to life I always think of this.
- Oof, mermaids are not that impressive going back into the water.
- The Lost Boys come to the Darling house dressed in the pirate clothes, which means that somewhere in Never Never Land is a pile of dead naked pirates.
- Is the flying pirate ship just hanging out in front of the Darling house in full view of the whole neighborhood?
- Peter Pan is very concerned about growing up and becoming President (again, because they’re American). I’ll let you, the reader, come up with your own political joke here.
- According to some very exhaustive research, it appears that “Peter Pan” has been adapted for film a few times throughout the years. Perhaps most notable is the 1953 Disney version, which animates the fantasy aspects wonderfully, but keeps all the political incorrectness and adds its own!
- The team behind this film got back together in 1925 to adapt another J.M. Barrie play; “A Kiss for Cinderella”. The film was an artistic success but a commercial failure.
- This is the first version of “Peter Pan” to depict Tinker Bell as a woman, rather than just a flashing light.
- “Peter Pan” was adapted as a Broadway musical in 1954 starring Mary Martin. We get a revival (or a god-awful TV remake) every so often, but you really can’t touch the original version.
- I’m citing this film (as well as the original stage concept of a woman playing Peter) as the cause of Mr. B Natural.
- Captain Hook was eventually brought to trial for his crimes by a very theatrical maritime lawyer. Cute story.
- And finally, a British “in-the-round” stage production toured America in the early 2010s and gave this writer a much-needed paycheck and introduced me to my girlfriend. Thanks J.M. Barrie!
*UPDATE: From the AFI Film Catalog: “The Aug 1924—Jan 1925 issue of Motion Picture Magazine reported that [director Herbert] Brenon recruited members of the Nakota, an indigenous people in Western Canada, to portray the Native inhabitants of “Neverland.” You win this round, “Peter Pan”.