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'Peter Pan'

Silent 1924 film soars on aerial special effects, live music

Saturday, November 16, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Peter Pan," arguably the most extraordinary of this year's 40 Three Rivers Film Festival entries, features a brilliant actress you've never seen and the greatest state-of-the-art special effects in film history -- up to 1924.

 
 
"Peter Pan"

RATING: G

STARRING: Betty Bronson, Mary Brian, Esther Ralson, Ernest Torrence, Anna May Wong, Virginia Brown, Philippe De Lacy

DIRECTOR: \Herbert Brenon

WHERE & WHEN: 2 p.m. today Regent Square Tehater

CRITIC'S CALL:

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By the time of "Peter's" making, most of America's big film companies had moved production from the East to the West Coast, lured by the reliable sunshine, cheaper labor and magnificent natural locations. Back in snobbish New York, stage was to screen as grand opera was to burlesque: Films were considered grossly inferior to theater. So new was the upstart medium that its very name wasn't yet settled in popular usage. "Flicker" was still common until Photoplay conducted a readers' poll to pick a standard term. The winner was "movie" -- diminutive of "moving picture."

Famous Players-Lasky -- then in the process of changing its own clumsy name to "Paramount" -- was the most daring of the major studios, shamelessly raiding Ziegfeld's Follies and other Broadway shows for talent, determined to snap up the big names and best literature. It paid Sarah Bernhardt $30,000 for one day's work in "Camille."

The biggest literary game hunted by Paramount was Sir James Barrie, whose Peter Pan first took flight in 1904 and was kept aloft with Maude Adams in the title role for countless revivals through 1913. Movie producers, mindful of its vast popularity and of film's ability to depict its aerial action more spectacularly than stage, hounded Barrie with offers for two decades to no avail.

Finally, he yielded -- after securing full right of casting approval. Direction was entrusted to Herbert Brenon, an Irishman who could be counted on to render that curious mix of pirates, fairies and Indians without turning it into schlock. He was "a tyrant who abused everyone with his sharp Dublin accent and tongue," said Louise Brooks, a Follies star recruited for Brenon's "Street of Forgotten Men." But he was one of Paramount's hottest directors, whose string of hits would include the original silent versions of not only "Peter Pan" but also "Beau Geste" and "The Great Gatsby" (1926).

Brenon was admired for his ability to elicit controlled emotions from such temperamental performers as Alla Nazimova, Norma Talmadge, Pola Negri and Lon Chaney -- all emotional time bombs waiting to go off -- and was highly temperamental himself. He and Loretta Young got into a legendary battle on the set of her debut picture, "Laugh, Clown, Laugh." One day Brenon became so enraged by the spoiled 15-year-old that he threw a chair at her. She screamed that he was "insane" and stomped off the set.

Throwing a chair at the insufferably smug Loretta, said Brooks, "was the best thing Brenon ever did."

Except for "Peter Pan." When word of its production went out in 1924, a cast-hunting frenzy began, unmatched until Selznick's search for Scarlett O'Hara. Every Paramount ingenue was tested. Every veteran actress who saw herself as eternally young sought the starring role. Mary Pickford longed to fly as Peter. Gloria Swanson went to London to woo Barrie face-to-face. He had the final word -- but his word to all of them was "no."

In 1906, when Maude Adams was first playing Peter in the theater, a girl named Betty Bronson was born in New Jersey. As a child, she studied ballet with Michel Fokine and, while still a teenager, worked as an extra in dozens of movies. She was now one of many on the Paramount lot tested for the role of Peter.

In Bronson's test, Barrie saw the face of unsophisticated innocence in a lithe little dancer's body. At 17, she was his pick. "Unknown Girl Chosen for Greatest Role!" blared Photoplay. "Young Dancer Selected over Stars to Play Peter Pan."

Two well-known screen beauties were cast in support -- Mary Brian as Wendy and Esther Ralston as Mrs. Darling -- to excellent effect. Ernest Torrence's Captain Hook delights. Tinkerbell (a miniaturized Virginia Brown) tugs at your heart, struggling to open the drawer with Peter's shadow, languishing until the audience claps its restorative belief in her. Anna May Wong is a terrific Tiger Lily, and Philippe De Lacy (Garbo's son in the silent "Anna Karenina") a gorgeous Michael.

James Wong Howe's photography is superb. But the greatest magic is provided by special-effects wizard Roy Pomeroy, a techno-genius responsible for parting the Red Sea in Cecil B. De Mille's "Ten Commandments" (1923) the previous year. The Darling kids flutter around their bedroom in the best flight ever managed (and never improved on) in film. When they zoomed out the window and soared off over Kensington Gardens, 1924 audiences gasped.

The beautiful pirate ship was real, its oak planking revealed in textured detail by Howe's cameras -- all the more wondrous when airborne, dripping sea water from its keel as it parts the clouds.

"Peter Pan" demonstrated once and for all that film was no mere sub-branch of photography or theater -- that its art went above and beyond realism. Brenon and Bronson met the need for magic not with old stage histrionics and new gimmicky transparencies but, as James Card writes in "Seductive Cinema," "with real, solid images breaking new trails through stars and star wars to come." It was the model for all subsequent Peter Pans, including Disney's animated one and TV's popular Mary Martin version in the '50s.

"Silent" films were never silent, of course, but always accompanied by live music. Philip Carli will provide "Peter's" accompaniment here. A testimonial: Carli and I traveled the same screening-and-lecture circuit for several years, presenting pre-dialogue films to a new generation of audiences from Buffalo to Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of hearing his original scores to many Brooks and Garbo silents, and I can tell you there's no better practitioner of that fine (nearly lost) musical art in America.

Nearly lost, too, was the film itself. It was one of the most important missing American pictures, heading the "wanted" list. For 30 years, all prints of "Peter Pan" disappeared into Never-Never Land -- until a sole surviving nitrate copy was discovered and restored by the aforementioned Card, legendary film curator of Eastman House.

Prior to now, the only way you could see this vintage "Peter" was by making a 500-mile round trip to Rochester, N.Y. This afternoon's presentation at 2 in the Regent Square Theater is a unique, one-time-only live concert -- as well as first screening in 78 years! -- for smart Pittsburgh film buffs (and their lucky kids) who experience it.


Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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