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Peter Pan (1924)
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by Jay Seaver

"Close to the original, both in time and treatment."
4 stars

Peter Pan is one of an eclectic set of characters that arrived at about the same time as the movies (see also Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and the Wizard of Oz), and during the hundred years that have passed since then the frequent adapters have wrestled with the question of whether they should be done in period style or made contemporary. Back in 1924, though, there was no question - you just filmed the play, and filmed it fairly well.

Indeed, screenwriter Willis Goldbeck and director Herbert Brenon don't vary from it much at all - Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) arrives at the Darling household, looking for his shadow (he had snagged it on the window the night before) and in doing so wakes eldest child Wendy (Mary Brian). She in turn wakes her brothers John (Jack Murphy) and Michael (Philippe De Lacy), and with some fairy dust courtesy of a reluctant Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire) they fly off to Never Land. There they meet the Lost Boys, who adopt Wendy as their mother, but there is danger, as pirate Captain James Hook (Ernest Torrence) aims to get his revenge on Peter for the loss of his hand (though, hey, at least his name is fitting now!).

When first contacted about turning his play into a film, J.M. Barrie had dozens of ideas of what a movie version of the story could do that the stage play could not. Few (if any) wound up making the transition, although Brenon and company do wind up with some nifty effects shots that a live performance would lack: There are close-ups of Tinker Bell and other fairies, shots showing Hook's pirate ship in the water, and a few flying bits. Even the theatrical bits that maybe wouldn't make it into a movie today are well-done, with George Ali giving real character to his pantomime performances as Nana and the crocodile who ate Hook's hand. The costumes for those are nice as well - not perfectly realistic, but good enough for the already somewhat abstracted world of a silent film.

The performers whose faces are seen do a fine job, as well. Amusingly, the cast member who is best known in the present day has a tiny role (Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily); Peter, meanwhile, is played by the otherwise unknown Betty Bronson. She's good as the boy who will never grow up, wild and enthusiastic and with an innocent cluelessness on her face that both captivates and frustrates Wendy and Tiger Lily. It's the sort of great silent performance where the viewer can describe the character's tone of voice even when the actor isn't gesticulating and the intertitles aren't capitalized for emphasis. Ernest Torrence is similarly good as Hook, playing him as mean enough to deserve his eventual comeuppance but with a definite layer of make-believe so that the kids in the audience won't get too frightened. The kids are all right, though even the somewhat-older Mary Brian is less polished than the adult actors.

Brenon does a nice job of putting the movie together; it's paced well and looks very nice indeed. It's one of the earliest movies shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe; he makes the detailed and creative settings by Edward Smith look nice and the filmmakers mostly manages some tricky things like disguising whether or not Peter has a shadow in his first scenes. They even manage a nicely bittersweet note at the end, giving the audience a chance to mull over whether Peter is fearful or clearheaded in his determination not to grow up. The ending is a bit awkward in other places, but some of that is inherent in the source material that the film adapts so faithfully.

Indeed, screenwriter Willis Goldbeck and director Herbert Brenon don't vary from it much at all - Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) arrives at the Darling household, looking for his shadow (he had snagged it on the window the night before) and in doing so wakes eldest child Wendy (Mary Brian). She in turn wakes her brothers John (Jack Murphy) and Michael (Philippe De Lacy), and with some fairy dust courtesy of a reluctant Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire) they fly off to Never Land. There they meet the Lost Boys, who adopt Wendy as their mother, but there is danger, as pirate Captain James Hook (Ernest Torrence) aims to get his revenge on Peter for the loss of his hand (though, hey, at least his name is fitting now!). When first contacted about turning his play into a film, J.M. Barrie had dozens of ideas of what a movie version of the story could do that the stage play could not. Few (if any) wound up making the transition, although Brenon and company do wind up with some nifty effects shots that a live performance would lack: There are close-ups of Tinker Bell and other fairies, shots showing Hook's pirate ship in the water, and a few flying bits. Even the theatrical bits that maybe wouldn't make it into a movie today are well-done, with George Ali giving real character to his pantomime performances as Nana and the crocodile who ate Hook's hand. The costumes for those are nice as well - not perfectly realistic, but good enough for the already somewhat abstracted world of a silent film. The performers whose faces are seen do a fine job, as well. Amusingly, the cast member who is best known in the present day has a tiny role (Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily); Peter, meanwhile, is played by the otherwise unknown Betty Bronson. She's good as the boy who will never grow up, wild and enthusiastic and with an innocent cluelessness on her face that both captivates and frustrates Wendy and Tiger Lily. It's the sort of great silent performance where the viewer can describe the character's tone of voice even when the actor isn't gesticulating and the intertitles aren't capitalized for emphasis. Ernest Torrence is similarly good as Hook, playing him as mean enough to deserve his eventual come-uppance but with a definite layer of make-believe so that the kids in the audience won't get too frightened. The kids are all right, though even the somewhat-older Mary Brian is less polished than the adult actors. Brenon does a nice job of putting the movie together; it's paced well and looks very nice indeed. It's one of the earliest movies shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe; he makes the detailed and creative settings by Edward Smith look nice and the filmmakers mostly manages some tricky things like disguising whether or not Peter has a shadow in his first scenes. They even manage a nicely bittersweet note at the end, giving the audience a chance to mull over whether Peter is fearful or clearheaded in his determination not to grow up. The ending is a bit awkward in other places, but some of that is inherent in the source material that the film adapts so faithfully.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23100&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/18/11 15:06:19
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User Comments

7/01/13 PAUL SHORTT POLISHED, MAGICAL SILENT ADAPTATION AND LOYAL TO ITS SOURCE 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  29-Dec-1924
  DVD: 23-Nov-1999

UK
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