Peter Pan: The Silent Movie

“(Peter Pan) is at the same time a child himself and a child’s dream figure, the archetypal hero both of magical fairy tale and adventure story. Indeed, he is so archetypal that one almost begins to believe Barrie’s assertion about the play that ‘I have no recollection of having written it.’ He seems not just the invention of one writer, but a character from mythology.” Humphrey Carpenter

“(Peter Pan) gets to fly. He gets to fight pirates. It’s what every kid wants.” Jeremy Sumpter

Considering what an iconic story Peter Pan is, it’s kind of shocking to realize that there have only been three Hollywood movie adaptations.[1]I speak of straight adaptations. This series will not be discussing twists on the material, like Hook, Pan or Wendy. Only two of those movies are live action and one of them is so old it doesn’t have sound. As the first Peter Pan movie, and one that was made while J. M. Barrie was still alive[2]He was apparently involved with the production but wasn’t completely happy with the final result., this one gives us an interesting look at what the older productions would have been like. [3]Granted, twenty years had passed between this movie’s release and the first staging of the play.

Peter Pan (1924) - IMDb

Which isn’t to say director Herbert Brenon just filmed a production of the stage play. The first image, apart from the opening credits, is a closeup of a clock. This is both a natural thing to open on when your first scene takes place in a children’s nursery at bedtime, and a symbol for the passage of time, a major theme in the story.

Throughout the film, there’s a mix of traditional stage effects and cinematic effects. In keeping with theatrical tradition, Peter is played by a young woman (Betty Bronson), which works for me better in a silent movie than it usually does onstage, but Capt. Hook and Mr. Darling are no longer played by the same actor.

In long shots, Tinker Bell is portrayed by the traditional ball of light, but in closeups, she is portrayed by an actress (Virginia Brown Faire.)

Nana and the crocodile are played by a costumed actor (George Ali) as they would be onstage. And so are the other beasts we see in Neverland.

The flying effects are much the same as onstage too. But this film also contains bits of movie magic that couldn’t be done in the theatre, most notably having the pirate ship, powered by fairy dust, fly up into the air to take the children home.

Or was there a production of the play that originated that? It isn’t in the book or the version of the play’s script that I’ve read. If this movie came up with the idea, it deserves credit because both of the other cinematic Peter Pan adaptations do the same thing to great effect.

This Peter Pan‘s sets also have much more room to breathe than those of a typical stage production, even the most lavish.

Of course, none of these visuals, whether cinematic or from the stage tradition, look all that convincing now. But weirdly, the movie’s ancient vintage helps this rather than adding to it. The lack of color and spoken dialogue make it easier for me to accept the transparency of the effects in a way that I can’t accept them in a colorful “talkie.”

The screenplay by Willis Goldbeck is in some ways the most faithful adaptation of Peter Pan I’ve seen. It includes the hilarious incident involving Mr. Darling (Cyril Chadwick)’s medicine, which weirdly always gets cut, even by my beloved 2000 version.

The creepy details of how Peter infiltrates Hook’s ship and kills off members of his crew are closest to the original in this movie.

And most gratifyingly, Peter’s final attempt to keep Wendy with him is here. It’s a highly dramatic scene, which oddly only one of the versions I’ll be covering on this blog retains, and that one doesn’t adapt it as accurately as this one does.

By rights, this seems like it should be one of the best Peter Pan adaptations. But there’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed with adaptations. Sometimes the ones that have the fewest changes have the most aggravating changes. This is the only Pan I’ve seen that doesn’t include the Mermaids’ Lagoon/Marooners’ Rock scene. It’s possible that it wasn’t generally included in stage productions at the time this movie was made, and since a big part of it involves Peter mimicking Hook’s voice, it might not have worked as well in a silent film.[4]Perhaps for similar reasons, Peter joins forces with the crocodile during the climax, rather than mimicking its ticking himself. But its absence is really felt. Without it, we’re told that the Darlings have been in Neverland a long time, but we’re not given much of an idea about what their adventures there have been like. And Hook (Ernest Torrence) now has only one scene before his attack on the Home Under Ground. We don’t build up any animosity between him and Peter, so it’s hard to get excited about the climactic battle between them. This is definitely the least well developed and least memorable Hook I’ve seen.

While not as big of a problem, I’m annoyed that this Peter Pan replaces all the references to Britain and England with references to America, apparently under the impression that US audiences wouldn’t relate to the characters otherwise. I’m particularly irritated that instead of saying he doesn’t want to grow up and work in an office, Peter says he doesn’t want to be president. (Americans works in offices too, guys!)

But there’s one thing this Peter Pan adaptation does better than any other. It neither tries to sanitize the material, nor make it edgier or more dramatic. In this way, it best captures the original book and play’s strange balance of being both a lark with no real suspense and a serious work of art with depressing and even disturbing themes.[5]Of the other two Hollywood Pans I’ll be analyzing, one arguably leans too far in the first direction and the other leans too far in the second. Since it’s a silent movie, probably none of my readers will seek this one out. I can’t entirely blame them for that. It can be a pain waiting for the characters’ lips to stop moving so we can read what they’re saying. And these kinds of films are limited, to my way of thinking, by having to include music in every single moment when complete silence is sometimes the most effective. But I also think it’s kind of a shame. Because there was an art to making these old silent movies and plenty of talent went into this one. Peter Pan movies got off to a really strong start with this one.

Bibliography

Carpenter, Humphrey, 2012. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: Faber and Faber.

“The Legacy of Pan.” Peter Pan, produced by Universal Studios, 2004. DVD.

References

References
1 I speak of straight adaptations. This series will not be discussing twists on the material, like Hook, Pan or Wendy.
2 He was apparently involved with the production but wasn’t completely happy with the final result.
3 Granted, twenty years had passed between this movie’s release and the first staging of the play.
4 Perhaps for similar reasons, Peter joins forces with the crocodile during the climax, rather than mimicking its ticking himself.
5 Of the other two Hollywood Pans I’ll be analyzing, one arguably leans too far in the first direction and the other leans too far in the second.
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