Girls will be boys
Unfortunately, as with most of children’s literature at this point, many people today believe Peter Pan to be a creation of the Walt Disney Company. This video release of the original 1924 film, from an original nitrate negative preserved by George Eastman House, reveals just how much of past productions Disney took for their animated feature.
A boy — played by a girl — who refuses to grow up. The boy sneaks into a girl’s room at night — a girl who’s obsessed with kissing him. The boy wants the girl to be his mother. The boy emasculates a pirate by cutting off his hand. Parents so neglectful that they have a dog nursemaid their children. Etcetera. Far be it from me to try to analyze this psychological stew, drenched in symbolism. Fortunately, author J.M. Barrie sets the tone in an opening title card: the tale is meant to be seen through the innocent eyes of a child, without the complications of adult thinking.
Our story opens in the big city home of the Darling family — specifically, in the children’s nursery. Mr. Darling (Cyril Chadwick) is so “fidgety” that the family is unable to keep domestic help, and so it’s left to their St. Bernard, Nana (George Ali), to care for the three children, even giving baths and doling out medication. As a charming holdover from the stage production, all of the animal characters are played by people in costumes — the kind of bizarre touch perfectly at home in this film.
Though Mrs. Darling (Esther Ralston) appreciates the help, Father is intolerant of the dog and banishes it to the yard. This leaves the nursery unguarded against a habitual nighttime visitor — Peter Pan (Betty Bronson). Mrs. Darling, having caught the intruder’s shadow on a previous visit, fears that he’ll return for it. However, eldest child Wendy Moira Angela Darling (Mary Brian), apparently approaching puberty, is delighted when the boy — and his fairy sidekick Tinker Bell (Virginia Browne Faire) — shows up in their room that night, and even helps him recover his shadow.
Her brothers John (Jack Murphy) and Michael (Philippe De Lacy) are equally pleased to meet the visitor, who ran away from home the day he was born and gained magical powers from some friendly fairies. Sharing a bit of magic, Peter gives the kids the power of flight, and invites them to visit his home in far off Never Never Land. On this timeless island, no one ever grows up. There, they meet the animal-skinned Lost Boys — children who have “fallen out of the perambulator when the nurse wasn’t looking” — as well as a fierce but friendly tribe of “redskins,” led by the beautiful Tiger Lily (Anna May Wong).
Never Never Land is also the headquarters of pirates, led by Captain Hook (Ernest Torrence). Ironically, Hook wears his namesake in place of his right hand, which Peter Pan cut off and fed to a crocodile during a previous encounter. Hook now lives in fear of the reptile, which would like another taste of him.
There’s quite a bit about the attraction Peter Pan (named for the woodland god of myth) has for the opposite sex. Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Indian maiden Tiger Lily all have the hots for him. Peter, ever the spirit of youth, is perplexed by this since all he ever wants from the girls is friendship and mothering.
Wendy reminds the Lost Boys of their real mothers, making them homesick, and it’s decided they’ll all leave for home — except for Peter. Before they can get away, the Boys are captured by the pirates. Hook also attempts to murder Peter with poisoned medicine, which is drunk by Tinker Bell, leading to the famous fairy-saving audience participation scene.
On board the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook studies an etiquette book while his crew prepares the children for execution. Peter enlists help from the mermaids — and the crocodile. Peter attacks, ninja style, slaying several pirates and setting the rest on edge. He frees and arms the other children and a furious battle ensues. The pirates defeated, Peter hoists the Stars and Stripes (this being a patriotic American production of the British story). Naturally, the pirate ship is used to fly the children home to their waiting parents.
Though lacking the boisterous songs provided by future productions, the film has an undeniable charm all its own, with a surprising sense of humor and wit that carries it along, much like the Lost Boys on fairy dust. Part of the fun is in its willingness to touch upon unpleasant — and even grisly — details of life, an approach that would never even be considered in today’s overprotective times. The excellent special effects mark the film as a contemporary of The Thief of Bagdad, and earned Roy Pomeroy a co-director credit. Ace cinematographer James Wong Howe shows the promise of great work to come.
The video transfer, including tints, is in fine shape. Philip C. Carli provides an excellent orchestral accompaniment. There are also a few choice extras — in home video quality footage, Esther Ralston explains how she went from being a Western star to playing Mrs. Darling. There’s also some extra audio of Ms. Ralston telling more stories about her involvement in the film.
An essay, written for AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER in 1995 by Frederick C. Szebin, is included on the disc. The piece — which gives further details, such as the fact that Barrie wrote a screenplay (scaled back because of cost) which greatly expanded the story, and how 17-year old Betty Bronson won the lead role — looks forward to just such a presentation of the film as this DVD provides.