Walt's Plans for Peter Pan

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As a young boy in Marceline, Missouri, Walt and his older brother Roy saw a road show touring company of the theatrical version of Peter Pan with famed actress Maude Adams as the boy who wouldn't grow up. Colorful posters plastered on the local barns and fences excited Walt and his little sister, Ruth. Apparently, Walt and Roy broke into their piggy banks in order to get the money to buy tickets to attend.

The play had opened on Broadway in 1905 with Adams in the title role. She later toured the country performing in the production, including stops in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as a brief stop over in Marceline sometime between 1909 and 1911, when Walt was between the ages of 8 and 10. Adams traveled across country in a railroad car christened “The Tinkerbell” during the road tour.

"For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends. I took many memories away from the theater with me," Walt said, "but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air. No actor ever identified himself with the part he was playing more than I.

“And I was more realistic than Maude Adams in at least one particular: I actually flew through the air! Roy was using a block and tackle to hoist me. It gave way, and I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience," laughed Walt about the homemade school production at Marceline's Park Elementary School.

In 1937, the year of author James Barrie's death and before the release of the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a Disney memo was sent to Disney's London representative to obtain the rights to Peter Pan immediately. Walt was fearful that a competitor like the Fleischer Studio would pounce on the project once Snow White was released.

Worse, Walt feared that another studio wouldn't understand the character and ruin the story for everyone. It took until 1939 for negotiations to the property to be completed, with the Disney Company also obtaining the rights to the 1924 silent-film version that resulted in that film not being available to audiences for decades.

"Roy and I bought the rights with the idea of making it the second full-length feature for our company," wrote Walt when the film was finally released. "Actually, it was a long time before we began work on the story. In the first place, I was unwilling to start until I could do full justice to the well-loved story. Animation techniques were constantly improving, but they still fell short of what I felt was needed to tell the story of Peter Pan as I saw it."

Story development and character design for Peter Pan seriously began at the Disney Studio around 1940 with Walt planning to follow the release of Bambi with Peter Pan. British illustrator David Hall did some conceptual sketches.

In the live-action segment of The Reluctant Dragon movie, released in 1941, comedian Robert Benchley toured the Disney Studios to see how animated cartoons are made. In the model department, on a table, quite clearly, are maquettes of Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, and other Peter Pan characters.

These "Peter Pan" Maquettes were seen in "The Reluctant Dragon" in 1941.

“Peter Pan is a complicated story, really," stated animator Frank Thomas, "It seems so simple and direct. But who are all those characters—Nana in the nursery, the mermaids, the Indians, the Lost Boys, and the pirates? There were lots of wonderful things you could do with those characters, but then before you knew it, there was too much of Nana. You had to try to keep things in proportion. I always would have liked more pirates, myself. But then, what would you have to give up? The mermaids? The Indians?"

Ward Kimball told interviewer Taylor White, "I can remember that it went through at least two or possibly three false starts, early on. Walt would look through the different story versions and give it the old 'ho-hum' every time. The talk among the crew at the time was either that he wasn't satisfied with it, or maybe he just wasn't ready for it.

“I think some people thought it was a 'sissy' story, especially with the names of the parents being Darling and with Tinker Bell scattering her pixie dust," Kimball said. "I remember there was that feeling even before we considered making the picture that Peter Pan was a story for girls. Even when I was a kid, you'd never read a book like that."

In 1940, Walt wrote to the then-retired Maude Adams asking if she could meet with him and director Hamilton Luske to review the work they had done so far on the story. She rejected the offer and her reasons, according to a letter Walt wrote to Kay Kamen, were to the effect that "the Peter whom she created was to her real life and blood, while another's creation of this character would only be a ghost to her. Pretty silly and, from my point of view, I would say that Miss Adams is simply living in the past."

Adams died in 1953, the year that Disney's Peter Pan was released.

Some British reviewers accused Walt of Americanizing the story. Walt responded with the following anecdote: He was walking down a street in London past a theater that was showing the film. According to Walt, he overheard two elderly ladies going in to see the film. One of them said, "Have you seen it yet? I hear it's terribly Americanized." The other answered, "Well, yes, but while you're watching it, you really don't mind it."

I am a huge fan of Peter Pan, actually a huge fan of Captain Hook and all the other trappings of Neverland since I consider Peter himself to be a selfish juvenile delinquent who often hurts the people around him. Over the years I have seen many good productions, including one with Vincent Price as Captain Hook and, of course, another one that featured the wonderful performance of Cathy Rigby as Peter.

Recently, I obtained a musty piece of newsprint for my collection that I never knew existed and thought probably other people had never seen it either in the last six decades. The article, credited to Walt Disney, appeared in The American Weekly magazine supplement for newspapers dated June 1, 1952 from the Hearst Publishing Company titled “My Plans for Peter Pan.” The Disney animated feature was released February 5, 1953, so obviously this article was publicity to build anticipation for the film—the article features lots of color images of the characters. The magazine claimed “Mr. Disney’s imagination has made Barrie’s Never Land a more fascinating place than it ever has been before.”

While it is doubtful that Walt actually wrote this puff piece himself, it is clear that he had to approve it before it was released so that it reflected his thoughts. Here is an excerpt.:

“The greatest challenge I have ever faced is the task—the very pleasurable task—of bringing Peter Pan to life in a dream world which only he and his friends can see—and only the animated cartoon can reveal to us in all its magic.

“The nub of the challenge is contained in the question that Peter himself has been asking all the children on the globe for almost 50 years: ‘Do you believe in fairies? If you do believe, clap your hands and save Tinker Bell.’

“There was a cold sweat on the brow of Sir James Barrie when Nina Boucicault, the first of a long succession of famous actresses who played Peter Pan, asked that question on the opening night of the play in the Duke of York Theater in London in 1904.

“Not a child was in the house, and the sensitive playwright had a premonition that the tough gallery gods would derisively howl down the query if, indeed, they let his delicate fantasy proceed even that far. Instead, to Barrie’s amazement and relief, there was such loud and enthusiastic clapping that Tinker Bell was revived in an instant.

“I believe that if Barrie were alive today, he would be only too happy to write the adventures of Peter and Wendy directly for the screen, realizing that here at last was a chance to perform his miracles exactly as he wanted them, that here was a medium which could do full justice to the quality of his spirit and showmanship.

“Despite his canny stagecraft, Sir James often admitted he was never quite satisfied with what the theater could do for Peter Pan’ He kept on groping for and devising new effects behind the footlights as long as he was associated with the staging.

“In setting out to film Peter Pan as an animation feature, we were fully aware of the grand theater tradition and prestige we had to live up to. Since it was impossible to have Barrie’s help in giving a new birth to his brain child, we felt we had to get at his motivation, for no distinguished storyteller has ever more closely identified himself with his works than this Scottish born, British-knighted novelist, poet and playwright.

“We felt we had found the keynote in Barrie’s conviction that ‘nothing of importance ever happens to us after we reach the age of 12’.

“Sir James, of course, never quite grew up himself, and his life had much of the haunting sadness that underlies the hectic gaiety of his youthful characters. After his only marriage ended in divorce, he adopted the five orphan nephews of a close friend, Sir Gerald DuMaurier, who had a leading role in the first production of Peter Pan. However when Barrie died 15 years ago at the age of 77, his public had long thought of him as a childless bachelor.

“It was those five boys, the Davies brothers, who gave Sir James the inspiration for his whimsical masterpiece. Barrie’s play notations and stage directions, penciled in during rehearsals for both the London and New York performances have been very helpful to us. His concepts of the characters and their reactions gave us more insight into what he had in mind than the actual dialogue and scene description.

“Because there have been so many people playing Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook and all the rest, the characters have become spiritual identities rather than physical types. We had, therefore, to create our own concept of how they looked and talked and gestured as we translated them into animated cartoon personalities.

“Maude Adams, who introduced Peter to Broadway in 1905 made the part her greatest role and revived the play many times. Marilyn Miller and Eva LeGallienne were great Peters, and Jean Arthur was a tremendous success as a short-haired, husky-voiced, irrepressibly prankish Peter a couple of seasons ago.

“But these were all women, and since only the voice is heard in our film version, we felt that a boyish burr was needed. Bobby Driscoll will speak for Peter, and as the voice of Wendy we have Kathryn Beaumont, who also was the vocal personality behind the cartoon heroine in Alice in Wonderland.

“Never Land—which Barrie first called Never-Never-Never Land—we could establish and define very much as we pleased: the camp of the Indians, the pool of mermaids, the trails of the Lost Boys, the lagoon of the Pirates’ ship, the cave and Skull Island and all the mysterious landmarks of Barrie’s fanciful geography.

“The cartoon animation technique can create any miracle the mind can conceive. We needed to no stage wires to lift Peter and Wendy and their eager co-adventurers into flight across the rooftops. We can detach Peter from the elusive shadow with the stroke of an animator’s pencil.

“On stage, Tinker Bell has always been represented by the flash of a spotlight, but we can make her glow like a firefly as she darts through space on her mischievous plots, and have her speak with the sound of bells.

“We have been more than two years in actual animation, with a budget of $3 million and with nearly one million separate drawings done for the Technicolor cameras by several-hundred artists. Preparations extended back into other years, for I have been considering Peter Pan as a special project almost from the beginning of our feature-length cartoon production.

“It finally reached the point where, unless I were to ignore the most persuasive and delightful of all latter-day fantasies, it simply had to be made in the medium best suited to its wondrous nature.”

Of course, Walt avoided asking audiences to clap for Tinker Bell to be saved and the actual budget of the film was closer to $4 million, but in its initial release it earned back $14 million, so it was a pretty good investment. Like most stories adapted by the Disney Studios, it is the Disney version of the tale that is remembered by audiences.



  1. By DIX project

    I found a readable version of this article available online via Google News and scans in color via ebay: http://www.dix-project.net/item/1693...-for-peter-pan

  2. By carolinakid

    I like Peter Pan , but it was never one of my favorites. Actually I find the London scenes more interesting than anything that happens in Neverland.

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