Who else likes silent movies? I do. I’m no expert, but I’ve been dipping my toe into that pool for a few years now and it feels fine. One of my favorites is Peter Pan, which came out in 1924 and stars Betty Bronson as Peter, Mary Brian as Wendy, and Esther Ralston as Mrs. Darling.
Author J.M. Barrie tried to be involved in the making of the film as much as possible, even writing a few additional scenes for the movie, but in director Herbert Brenon and screenwriter Willis Goldbeck’s minds, playing it safe was the best way forward. In fact, the only criticism most people have of Peter Pan is that it doesn’t take many chances with the original story.
They do have a tiny point. There’s endless scope for imagination and wonder in Neverland, and a little bit more magic might have kicked things up a notch. I have to wonder what someone like Georges Méliès would have done with Peter Pan.
On the other hand, I have no real beefs with Peter Pan. It’s excellent, and in my opinion it’s a fine gateway movie for someone who’s trying out silent cinema for the first time. Or even the second time. Or third. Whatever. Here are my reasons why:
When a story is as loved as Peter Pan, the lack of audible dialogue is merely a footnote. The 1924 version owes most of its structure and elements to the massively successful play but fans of later versions will find plenty they recognize. The film also maintains the interactivity of the play, namely when Peter asks the audience to clap really hard and save Tinker Bell. That particular bit has never failed to land and probably never will.
Peter Pan was cast correctly. In the grand tradition of the stage play, the title character is played by a woman, and J.M. Barrie hand-selected Betty Bronson to portray Peter. His instincts were correct–Bronson enjoys herself hugely, coming across with great gusto. It was one of her first major roles and she’s perfect in it, reflecting lots of moods in her face and swaggering around like Marion Davies might have if she’d been cast (and maybe if she was a little younger at the time). Equally fab and equally new to the screen is Mary Brian, who went on to have a long career up until the mid-1950s.
I also liked Anna May Wong in the film, who has a tiny role as a very exotic Tiger Lily, and Cyril Chadwick as an initially grumpy Mr. Darling. Another especial highlight is Ernest Torrence as Hook, who could easily give Dustin Hoffman a run for his money. No shade to Hoffman, though–he’s great, too. It’s just fun seeing Torrence go from pomp and circumstance to shaking in his buckled shoes when he thinks a certain croc is after him.
Speaking of the Crocodile, special kudos must be given to George Ali, who played both Nana and that famous reptile. It takes special talent to crawl around in an animal suit without looking vaguely human.
My favorite, though, is Esther Ralston as Mrs. Darling. She basically bookends the movie, but she’s luminous and wonderful in her role.
Awesome special effects.
Granted, a lot of the special effects were lifted from the stage play, but they play very well on the screen. Tink (Virginia Brown Faire) is probably the most immediate beneficiary of the movie’s great hocus-pocus, because here she’s more than a spot of light. It’s fun watching her flit and stomp around like a proper jealous fairy. The flying scenes look believable, too.
Peter Pan’s mondo face-off with Captain Hook.
These two are all over the place. Bronson as Peter manages to look determined, joyful, and fanatical all at the same time. Torrence’s Hook glowers and smoulders at Peter but the proprieties must be observed, and after telling Peter how much he despises him, Hook has a great moment walking the plank (It’s a very long drop).
It’s a lot of fun.
It really is. All of it. And I’m not going to ruin it.
Peter Pan is an evergreen film. Like its title character, it always wants to be young and have fun. Almost a hundred years later, it’s still ageless. Anyone who experiences it for the first time might find themselves wanting to think happy thoughts and call Tinker Bell for a little pixie dust. Spontaneous renditions of “You Can Fly” are totally optional, of course.
Can you believe July will be upon us in four days? I can’t. Here’s what’s on the blogathon horizon:
Before that, though, we’re going to kick off the month with three movies about show business, and they’ll get better as they go along. You’ll see what I mean on July 1st. Oh, and 2001 will be a thing as well, which was totally unplanned. It’s fun, though, right?
Getting back to today, if anyone wants to see more buckles swashing, please see Paul at Silver Screen Classics. Thanks for hosting this, Paul–glad you got to bring it back to the blogosphere. Thanks for reading, all, and catch ya later…
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Franklin, Joe. Classics of the Silent Screen. New York: Citadel Press, 1959.