Thursday, May 20, 2010

Betty Bronson "Peter Pan" (1924)

"Peter Pan" (1924) is a silent fantasy starring Betty Bronson, Ernest Torrence, and Mary Brian. Directed by Herbert Brenon and adapted from the play by J.M. Barrie, this film is about a magical boy who refuses to grow up. The story begins with Mr. and Mrs. Darling, played by Cyril Chadwick and Esther Ralston, going to a party and leaving their children, Wendy, played by Mary Brian, Michael, played by Philippe de Lacey, and John, played by Jack Murphy, in the care of their dog, Nana. However, Peter Pan, played by Betty Bronson, shows up with the fairy, Tinkerbell, played by Virginia Brown Faire, and they take Wendy, Michael, and John from London to Neverland where they have a series of adventures with the Lost Boys and Captain Hook, played by Ernest Torrence, and his band of pirates. After a while, Wendy, Michael, and John feel homesick and want to go home. Wendy invites Peter and the Lost Boys to come with them so they can be adopted. Finally, Wendy, Michael, and John return to Mr. and Mrs. Darling, who are overjoyed to have them back. The Darlings offer to adopt the Lost Boys and Peter. Refusing to grow up, Peter flies away. Will Peter ever come back?

Of the major producers in the 1920's, it was the heads of Paramount, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille, who were the most concerned with capturing big names in art and literature. The biggest literary game hunted by Paramount was Sir James Barrie, whose "Peter Pan" had dominated the theater of fantasy since 1904. When the word went out in 1924 that Paramount was ready to announce plans to tackle "Peter Pan," there began a frenzy of testing and hunting that was not matched until Selznick started his search for a Scarlett O'Hara. Every ingenue under contract to Paramount was tested and retested for the role of Peter Pan. Even Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Gloria Swanson thought they were perfect for the role. However, Barrie chose seventeen-year-old Betty Bronson for the coveted role for the first film version of "Peter Pan" because he saw the face of a little, unsophisticated girl in a dancer's body. The film's direction was entrusted to Herbert Brenon, one of the most intelligent of pioneer directors. Brenon had played a major part in persuading James Barrie to risk his work in films. As an Irishman, Brenon could be counted on to deal with the curious mix of pirates, fairies and Indians without revealing in the last reel that it had all been a dream. Everything about the film was brilliant. The choice of young and beautiful Esther Ralston to play an idealized, lovely Mrs. Darling was a fine one. Casting veteran actor, Ernest Torrence, as Captain Hook was brilliant. Tinker Bell was a miniaturized Virginia Brown Faire by photographic multiple-exposure technique. Cinematographer James Wong Howe had determined how he could shoot close-ups of Tinker Bell, but Barrie had insisted it would spoil the illusion. Seventeen-year-old Anna May Wong, a cousin of James Wong Howe, was excellent playing the wild little Indian, Tiger Lily. Eighteen-year-old Mary Brian, in her first screen role, was superbly cast as Wendy. Best of all about "Peter Pan" was Betty Bronson whose Fokine ballet training helped her to really seem to fly. Bronson put so much energy in the role and had a believably boyish appearance. Celebrated at the time for its innovative use of special effects, few silent films have caught the genuine fairy tale magic as beautiful as "Peter Pan" (1924).

One of the most popular films of the silent era, this first adaptation of "Peter Pan" was presumed lost until the mid-fifties. Paramount, like every other studio, looked on its films as disposable product. No studio, museum, or archive could find it nor any of the private collectors. It was one of the most important of missing American films. James Card, curator at George Eastman House and one of the great heroes of film preservation, longed to see his childhood favorite. While he was working for Kodak in Rochester, New York, Card discovered a fume-filled vault of decomposing nitrate films. Card convinced Kodak to call Iris Barry, the film preservationist at the Museum of Modern Art to help save this title. The beautifully tinted print was restored from that one of a kind surviving nitrate print.

*It is interesting to note that director Preston Sturges, upon being introduced to Virginia Brown Faire, had commented that she had "a face like an old Italian coin."


  1. Silent, from the beautiful pictures you added to your "Peter Pan" post, this looks like a very magical film. Thank you for posting our silent film fix. :)

  2. Dawn, this film is very magical. I loved the scene in which the children fly with Peter Pan to Neverland. I was totally fascinated by Tinkerbell; she was so tiny. The special effects in this film are quite impressive for its time. I forgot to mention in my review that the film's print is in a beautiful sepia color. Thanks for posting Betty Bronson's website.


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