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!


  1. Many thanks for this account -- fascinating.

    I was reminded that this wasn't Anna May Wong's only encounter with a "Tiger": she would later star in Tiger Bay (1934), a movie that's memorable for virtually nothing except Anna May Wong!

    1. @Noirencyclopedia Anna May Wong was a very striking woman. She stands out in anything! Thanks for your comment.

  2. You don't know how much I want to hug you for including the link for the film. I learned about it researching about Paramount's silent yeras, but didn't find the film. Now I can watch it! Of course, it won't be the same without a live orchestra, but I'll do my best imagining it.
    So many cool - and sad - facts. I'm a bit disappointed with Disney in this particular case.

    1. Lê - Here is a virtual hug ::hug-Lê-hug:: I'm so glad the movie is available online for people to watch. Even without the live music it's still a treat (although the live music makes it an event!). And yes boo to Disney. It doesn't surprise me that they did this. I loved Disney growing up but was soured by some of the things they did in the past.

  3. Just found this blog tonight. I started watching, and this film totally fascinates me. Slightly creepy animal costumes remind me of the very creepy animals in Babes in Toyland. Enjoy the blog, keep it up!


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