Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peter Pan (1924) with Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis


On November 17th, Carlos and I headed to the Somerville Theatre to watch the silent film Peter Pan (1924) on the big screen with live music performed by my favorite accompanist, the talented and tireless Jeff Rapsis.

Watching this film was a treat considering how special it is. Peter Pan (1924) was the first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's famous play by the same name. The play was also adapted by Barrie into a full-length novel which I listened to as an audio book before I attended this screening. I wanted the original story to be fresh in my mind while I watched the film. (You can check out my review of the novel on my book blog.)

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan

Author J.M. Barrie was directly involved in the production of this film. All of the inter titles are taken directly from the play's text, Barrie had approval of the actress who would play Peter Pan (it went to Betty Bronson after a very lengthy audition process) and because of his involvement the story stays as true to the original as possible. All of the special effects are done with as much creativity and ingenuity as possible in a time well before computers became a part of filmmaking. The children fly with the aid of wires that are virtually invisible, close-ups of Tinker Bell were filmed with actress Virginia Brown Faire alongside larger-than-life props and Nana the dog comes to life with the help of stage actor George Eli and a custom dog suit. If you are familiar with the original story, Nana the dog has remarkable abilities. She can bathe the children, feed them, tuck them in and otherwise care for them. It would not have been possible to accurate portray Nana with a real dog. However, a trained actor in a very elaborate dog suit will do just the trick. The costume comes complete moving eyes and mouth and a wagging tail. There are other animal/animal-like costumes in the film too, most notably the crocodile. The costumes are creepy by contemporary standards and they take some getting used to. The audience at the screening nervously laughed when Nana the dog made her first appearance. But once we all came to accept the weird looking dog, the other weird looking costumes seemed to fit in just fine. Legendary Edith Head is listed as an uncredited textile designer for this film. I wonder if she worked on the animal costumes?

This film is stunning in what it could achieve with costumes, camera tricks, props and clever set design.

George Eli in costume with Philippe De Lacy

There were two versions of the film made: an Americanized one and a British one. Even though the original story is absolutely British, the filmmakers thought an edited version would be more welcomed by an American audience. The term "British Gentleman' is swapped out for "American Gentleman" and there is an American flag and a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is performed.

The cast is made up of actors who are relatively obscure today. The most recognizable name is that of Anna May Wong who plays Tiger Lily. Actresses Betty Bronson (Peter Pan) and Mary Brian (Wendy) and actor Jack Murphy (John Darling) got their start with this film.

The most bizarre and tragic trivia fact about the movie is related to the two young actors who play the Twins, real life twin brothers Winston Doty and Weston Doty. Not only were they born on the same day, they also DIED on the same day. The Doty Twins were victims of the New Year Flood of 1934 and perished at the tender age of 20. So sad!

There is another interesting bit of trivia which had the makings of a tragedy but eventually achieved a happy ending. Disney made Peter Pan into an animated feature film and released it in 1953 (J.M. Barrie died in 1937). And in one of those stories that make us all shake our fists at the mass media corporation, Disney sought to destroy all copies of Peter Pan (1924) so there would be nothing to compete with their film. And for many years everyone thought they had mostly succeeded with there only being some defective copies available. In the 1990s, one original copy, in good condition, was discovered at the George Eastman House. It was restored and all existing copies of this film are from that one original.

Now onto the screening! Jeff Rapsis gave a very informative introduction before the film. A lot of the information I shared in this post came from both this introduction and his posts about the film on his blog. Rapsis gives us much needed context which has proven to be crucial for a contemporary audience to be able to understand and appreciate a film from so long ago. Rapsis is passionate about the films he screens, always very personable and approachable, loves to interact with his audience and always very creative with his music. The music during this screening was excellent. I loved how Rapsis did variations of the Pirate Song (Yo ho ho and a bottle o' rum) during the climactic scene which features a face-off between Captain Hook and his band of pirates and Peter Pan, the Darlings and the Lost Boys. 

Carlos and I had a lot of fun at the screening. It was a great film, great music and incidentally the popcorn so delicious we devoured it all in a couple of minutes. Note to local fans of the Somerville Theatre, they are celebrating their 100th anniversary next year. The celebration will include lots of classic movies, including some silents with live music performed by Jeff Rapsis! I'll be attending as many of those screenings as I possibly can.

Peter Pan (1924) is available on DVD from Kino Lorber. It's also in the public domain and available to watch in it's entirety on YouTube. I included the movie below. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Collection

The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Movies Collection from Warner Bros.

The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries  was a B-movie detective serial from RKO. It consists of six films each of which follow busybody schoolmarm Hildegarde Withers as she assists the disgruntled Inspector Oscar Piper in various murder investigations. They are based on the popular Hildegarde Withers novels by author Stuart Palmer (who also wrote some of the scripts for another B movie detective serial: The Falcon).

Edna May Oliver plays Miss Withers in the first three films, Helen Broderick plays her in the fourth and the series finishes with Zasu Pitts in the fifth and sixth films. Each of the three actresses bring their own unique spin to the Hildegarde Withers character. The only consistency you'll find is with James Gleason who plays Oscar Piper in all six films.

Source: Warner Archive Tumblr
 Withers to Piper: "Stop acting like a movie detective!"

Penguin Pool Murder (1932) - A school field trip, lost hat pin, a love triangle, a sad
aquarium and a curious penguin.  The story starts off with a fairly straightforward scenario: an unhappily married woman and her lover encounter her husband at an aquarium and the husband is killed. But the situation proves to be a lot more complicated than we originally thought. Visiting school teacher Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) assists Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) in the investigation, much to his initial dismay. This film features the saddest aquarium you will ever see. It's difficult to watch the aquarium scenes and not weep for those poor creatures who are trapped in dirty tanks and cramped pools.

Murder on the Blackboard (1934) - A murdered teacher, a secret stash of liquor, an Irish lottery, and musical notes. Withers calls upon Piper when a music teacher is murdered at her school. This film is probably the most frightening of all three and squeamish viewers should be glad that this is the 1930s and you won't find the gore that a modern day forensics drama would gleefully dish out. By the second film Withers and Piper are a crime-fighting team and Piper, while still critical of Withers, relies on her more as a detective and continues to do so in the following films.

Personal note: This story hit a little too close to home because of a recent real-life incident in which a local school teacher was murdered at her school.

Source: Warner Archive Tumblr

Murder on a Honeymoon (1935) -A seaplane, poison cigarettes, a movie producer, mistaken identity and a curious dog. Miss Withers goes on vacation to the Catalina Islands but she can't seem to escape murders. The seem to follow her everywhere! A man is poisoned on the plane and everyone on board is a suspect. Because the person killed is tied into a trial in Inspector Piper's jurisdiction, he travels to Catalina and Withers and Piper join forces to solve the mystery. This one is probably my favorite of the bunch and the last one for Oliver as Withers. Look for Matt McHugh, Frank McHugh's brother, who plays one of the pilots of the seaplane.

Murder on the Bridle Path (1936)- Horses, a recently released convict, a sickly man, a betrayal and revenge. Helen Broderick plays a sophisticated and well-dressed version of Withers. She was my favorite of the three actresses who played Withers although Edna May Oliver really establishes the character and both Broderick and Pitts take the character in different directions. It's a rather weak film but interesting nonetheless.

The Plot Thickens (1936) - A museum, an astrology obsessed cop, upstairs/downstairs conflict and a stolen antique cup. This complicated and convoluted plot that starts off with a man murdered because he was mistaken for someone else and an antique cup from an art museum is stolen. Both Withers and Pipers try to solve both mysteries simultaneously. Zasu Pitts plays a clumsier and more aloof Hildegarde Withers.

Forty Naughty Girls (1937) - A plagiarist, a musical, a director with a roving eye and a bait-and-switch. Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper are on a date! All fancied up, in clothes that really don't suit them, Withers and Piper head to the theater to see the Forty Naughty Girls musical on stage. They are not in their seats long before they are both called to investigate a murder backstage. Interesting premise but ended up being the weakest and most boring of all of the films. Not a great way to wrap up the series. While I adore Zasu Pitts, I feel like she was miscast as Withers.

There is noticeable romantic tension between Withers and Piper. Piper proposes at the end of the first two films and they are on a date in the last film. They never consummate their relationship so while they act like a married couple, the tension between this spinster and confirmed bachelor elevates the comedy.

I enjoyed the first three films, felt the fourth one was so-so and the last two films left me very disappointed. The change in actresses for the Withers character hurt the series overall. James Gleason's portrayal of Oscar Piper is wonderful and the only real substantial thing that holds the series together and gives it some consistency. I recommend this film for hardcore 1930s or B-movie detective serial enthusiasts only. If you want to try out a mystery serial, I recommend the Charlie Chan or The Falcon series instead.

The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Collection is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive. It's a two disc set with all six films.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received the Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Collection from Warner Archive for review.


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Kitty Corner Interview

The lovely Carley of The Kitty Packard Pictorial has a series called The Kitty Corner in which she interviews classic film bloggers. She asked me to participate and I was absolutely thrilled to do so. It was such a fun interview and Carley was a gracious interviewer.

Check out the interview here.

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