Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Visit from Peter Pan

Betty Bronson as in the 1924 silent film

Okay, there was a bright, musical version of the old J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan on television last week. I didn't watch much of it--missed Christopher Walken's turn as Captain Hook almost altogether. But what I did see had little of the magic I remembered from past productions, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the silent film version at a matinee Sunday at the Rosendale.

Peter Pan is part of my story, as it is of practically every child born in the English-speaking world since it was first staged in 1904. A childhood memory is of looking at a peanut-butter jar with the name Peter Pan on it and a picture of a grown woman in an elf costume and asking my mother, "How can that be Peter Pan? Wasn't Peter Pan a boy?"

She didn't know the real answer to that, but she did the best she could. She explained that yes, Peter Pan was a boy, but he was usually played on the stage by a woman. Why, she didn't really know. I have the answer to that one now, thanks to a few hours research on the Internet of all thing Barrie and all things Peter Pan. I'll get to it later.

My inordinate recent interest in Peter Pan was stimulated by the awe-inspiring beauty of the early film, in which Barrie himself had a hand. I'd forgotten what an excellent writer Barrie was, once one wades through the treacle and whimsy. His work is so original and mesmerizing, it borders on the profound. With the new technology of cinema, he was able to create magic in ways the stage could not. His children flying must have been unfathomable to audiences young and old in the 1920s--and the spectacle is no less fresh today. I heard many say that they
Maude Adams as Peter Pan.
only stayed with the NBC version last week in hopes something untoward would happen like a rope breaking. In the silent film there was no possibility of that happening. By the time the children flew, we were all flying with them.

Maude Adams made the role of Peter famous in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Producer Charles Frohman, in love with the production he had seen in London, bought it for her and she played it on Broadway and toured the country in the role for over a decade. Her interpretation was apparently unassailable. Mark Twain sent her a fan letter, saying, "It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and that the next best play on the boards is a long way behind it as long as you play Peter."

Mary Brian, Betty Bronson
The first film of the play stuck closely to the original script. In it, Peter is a stubborn little boy committed to the prospect of being a child forever. He is direct, bossy, an eternal bad-boy of the type who has enormous appeal to the opposite sex. Wendy is enchanted at once, and wants to give him a kiss. This charming scene foreshadows the theme of the play, as Peter doesn't know what a kiss is but is happy to receive a thimble, for which he gives her an acorn in return (which magically saves her life in a later scene). The play has survived criticism, analysis and deconstruction, but the validity of this character transcends time and crosses societal boundaries. He is more than the sum of his parts.
The recurring theme of Peter asking Wendy to be his mother and that of the Lost Boys--and her retorting with a request that the relationship be something more--got downplayed in later productions to be almost non-existent. Peter is all boy, complex and confounding, subject to change only at the whim of succeeding generations.

Of all the incarnations I have seen of Peter Pan, the 1924 silent version affected me most. Barrie himself cast the graceful young Betty Bronson, a bit player at Paramount, and she captures the essence of Peter Pan as well as any female could, in my estimation. She is a wonder to behold in the role.

As to my question as a child to my own mother, Peter Pan is usually played by a woman because in 1904 in London, when the play was first produced, it was illegal for youngsters under the age of 14 to be on the stage. This might not have prevented a 14-year-old lad to play Peter, but the Lost Boys would all have to be younger than he. A young woman, Nina Boucicault, created the role and the boys cast all looked convincingly younger. In the movie the Lost Boys are perfect--they are children.

I hope you get a chance to see this film. I intend to do all I can to ensure it runs again at the Rosendale. It is a work of art. And it's wicked fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment