Since the Christmasy month of December seems like a fine time to watch fairytale films, here’s a look at the first film adaptation of one of our most beloved children’s stories. (And speaking of the holiday season, did you know that J.M. Barrie’s original play was meant to be performed during Christmas time? And did you know the earliest official Peter Pan merchandise was a set of Christmas crackers authorized by Barrie in 1906?)
I’ve always had a soft spot for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan tales. Like countless others I grew up with the 1953 Disney film (and practically memorized it), but I first encountered Barrie’s writing in an excerpt from his novel The Little White Bird. This excerpt was part of a lushly-illustrated anthology of children’s literature that my grandparents kept around when I was little. They always knew that at some point–usually during the dinner parties they used to host–I would trot over to the bookshelf, pull out the book, and pore over all those pictures as the adults chatted over their pre-dinner drinks.
In time, of course, when I was old enough to read “chapter books” (do you remember when your elementary school friends began bragging that they could read “chapter books”?), I started pouring over the actual stories, too. The Little White Bird excerpt came with an introduction that has fixed itself in a corner of my imagination ever since I first read it: “Many of us know about [Peter]…through stage plays, motion pictures, and television. But there is an earlier Peter, a somewhat different Peter Pan…”
There was something mysterious and a little magical about hearing there was “an earlier Peter.” Reading his “origin story” was very strange to my Disney-accustomed brain–as it might be to you if you’ve never read it–but it had a haunting charm. It was like finding a worn box of quaint treasures that once served long-forgotten purposes.
The beautifully-written The Little White Bird, first published in 1902, was an episodic novel meant for adults, and had dashes of social commentary and plenty of whimsy. Most whimsical of all were the chapters about “Peter Pan,” envisioned by Barrie as a week-old infant who escapes his nursery and flies to Kensington Gardens to live with the birds and mischievous fairies, who move about the park freely after “Lock-Out Time” (when the park closes to visitors). There’s something bittersweet about those chapters, specifically the idea of baby Peter unable to resist staying in the Gardens, and eventually realizing he can never go home. I can’t help wondering if there was a subconscious (or conscious) connection between Barrie’s story and the high infant mortality rate at the time.
Inspired by the long stage tradition of fairy plays and pantomimes, Barrie decided to write a play around his Peter Pan, upping his age to about 12 and creating a magical island called Neverland and a host of new characters. The resulting 1904 production, Peter Pan; The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, was a huge success–perhaps even more than Barrie expected. In 1905 it was brought to Broadway (where Peter was played by Maude Adams) and it soon reached the status of a frequently-revived classic.
Playing a role in Peter Pan was considered a badge of honor by any actor or actress, and it’s likely that more than one Hollywood actor was first inspired by a childhood viewing of the famous play. Colleen Moore, for instance, vividly recalled seeing it as a tot: “Tears were running down my face as Peter Pan came down to the floodlights and spoke to the audience: ‘All the children who believe in fairies raise their hands. If you believe, you can save Tinkerbell.'” Little Colleen didn’t just raise her hand, she stood up and shrieked that she did believe in fairies, she did! Buoyed by the audience’s laughter, she decided then and there that entertaining people was for her.
In the early 1920s it was announced that Barrie–now Sir J.M. Barrie–had sold the much-coveted film rights to Peter Pan to Paramount Studios. Director Herbert Brenon was chosen to helm the new production, and for a few months all of Hollywood–and indeed, much of America–was buzzing about which actress would be chosen to play Peter. (Longstanding tradition has Peter portrayed by young women, partly because of their petite frames, and partly because child labor laws meant minors couldn’t work past 9 p.m.) Would it be Bessie Love? Virginia Lee Corbin? Gloria Swanson? Mae Marsh? Madge Bellamy? Finally it was revealed that the winsome 17-year-old Betty Bronson had won the role, apparently after being interviewed by Barrie himself. (And I must add that the choice of Ernest Torrence to play Peter’s nemesis Captain Hook was equally inspired.)
Peter Pan was finally released in 1924 amid much hype. Carefully adhering as much to the original play as possible (right down to the intertitles) and featuring beautiful cinematography by James Wong Howe, it was not only a quality production but became a huge hit. Trade magazines referred to it as a “gold mine” and “the money picture.” The Buffalo Courier was one of countless newspapers that gave it high praise: “The entire production is done with great delicacy and much attention to detail. And yet one is not aware of studied sought-after effect. It has a delightful spontaneity, which may be due in part to the youth, the freshness and charm of its actors.”
Despite its popularity, we almost didn’t get to enjoy Peter Pan today. For decades the last copy of the film was thought to have vanished in the late ’20s; fortunately, in 1971 a crisp print was discovered in Rochester, New York. The film went through a wringer of copyright issues which fortunately seem to have been resolved. A lovely restoration debuted in the ’90s, and it’s been available to new generations ever since.
While viewing Peter Pan recently, I was struck by a little of that same wonder I had experienced when reading The Little White Bird. Here was cinema’s first Peter Pan, drawing directly on a 1900s play that so many generations back then knew and loved. Elements of the play that are usually omitted today–such as Wendy’s romantic feelings towards Peter, which he doesn’t reciprocate–are faithfully included. The innocence of these scenes added more depth and poignancy than I had expected. Wendy, despite tantalizing glimpses of an eternal childhood, is still destined for adulthood and all the entanglements and responsibilities it includes, while Peter will not–or, perhaps, can not. He will forever have thrilling adventures and play on his panpipes, but he will also lack a mother and will never have a family of his own. In the words of Barrie, he will remain “gay and innocent and heartless,” a lonely figure both inspiring and tragic.
I’ve had the joy of visiting London twice in the last few years, and there was always a point during both trips that I had to make a beeline to Kensington Gardens. Strolling on the long paths and looking across the wide lawns to the shadows beneath the trees or the patches of delicate flowers, I could visualize a little of what Barrie must’ve imagined when creating his tales. And of course, at a certain point you come around the corner and this is what you see:
Barrie apparently commissioned the statue and had it erected secretly on the night of April 30, 1911–as a surprise to any children playing in the park the next day. Thus was the man’s love of wonder and fantasy.
I’m grateful that the 1924 Peter Pan exists, for its the closest we can get to experiencing some of the delight audiences felt from Barrie’s play, which was such an important cultural milestone. It had debuted at a good time, at the cusp of a new century already promising greater technological advancement and communication than ever before. It was a promising future that those Edwardian audiences were facing, but as we know now it was an uncertain one too.
Mark Twain, himself a fan of Barrie’s play, wrote in a letter: “It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and the next best play is a long way behind.” And I’m just a little tempted to say that we’re still waiting for that “next best play.”