The Silent Movie Peter Pan (1924)

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In late 1939, Walt Disney purchased the rights to the one hour forty-two minute silent black-and-white live action movie Peter Pan (1924) not only to remove it from circulation where it might compete with his proposed version of the Barrie story but also to harvest ideas from it.

Depicting Tinker Bell as an attractive young woman rather than a simple ball of light and having her pull Wendy's hair came from the film as well as the flying Jolly Roger at the end of the story, among other things.

Walt had tried to obtain rights to Barrie's play and novel as early as 1935. He did not succeed until 1939 and by that time Barrie had passed away in 1937. Walt sought to have the film ready for release after Bambi (1942).

It is well known that Walt Disney's animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was partially inspired by Walt seeing the live action silent film version released in 1916 when he was fifteen years old.

It is clear that some ideas and visual images like Snow White's hand dropping to the floor and the apple rolling out of it first appeared in this silent black-and-white film. Of course, other things from the film were not used.

When Walt watched the 1940 RKO version of Swiss Family Robinson, it inspired him to make his own live action version. Walt actually bought the rights to the 1940 film to also remove it from circulation so it couldn't be compared with his 1960 live action film version. So it was not unusual for Walt to purchase the silent movie version of Peter Pan.

At the 1953 premiere of the Disney animated feature, Herbert Brenon – who had directed the silent movie version – commented that he felt there was more Disney than Barrie in the film and he regretted the omission of appealing to the audience to save Tinker Bell.

Brenon said, "In the film, Tinker Bell is absolutely magnificent. That was something we had to do for the most part with just a light on the end of a wire. Cartoon is the ideal medium for portraying the role. Barrie's message in Peter Pan was so clear. Don't let yourself grow old. You're never old until you think you are."

The only film version of Peter Pan that author James Barrie ever saw was the silent movie adaptation released by Paramount in 1924. Barrie was disappointed because he felt the film company had merely transferred his stage play to celluloid without fully taking advantage of all the magic that could be accomplished with a camera.

"It is only repeating what is done on the stage and the only reason for a film should be that it does the things the stage can't do," said Barrie after seeing the film.

In 1918, a film company had offered him twenty thousand pounds for the rights to the story but he turned them down. It did inspire him to write a completed scenario based on his play and novel but expressly written for the possibilities of the screen. He mentioned to friends that he hoped that comedian Charlie Chaplin would consider playing the role of Peter.

He finished his scenario in 1920 and wrote to a friend, "I am entertaining myself by going over the Peter Pan scenario again and putting in new things." It ended up being fifteen thousand words of very carefully written scenario with all the intertitle cards (only 96 evocative ones as opposed to the 283 used in the Paramount film that were primarily for dialog from the play).

At the beginning of the scenario he wrote a cautionary note that among other things stated, "The aim has been to have as few words as possible for the title cards. There are very few words in the last half hour or more of this film and there are also about fifteen minutes of the lagoon scene without any words.

Betty Bronson portrayed the title character in the 1924 version of "Peter Pan."

"Many of the chief scenes, especially those calling for novel cinema treatment are of course not in the acted play but they should be acted in the same way and to that extent the play should be a guide to the film."

Barrie's scenario is highly cinematic and visual and gives additional insight into his characters. Tinker Bell and the fairies would be real women with real bodies but only five inches high. Close-ups would never be used to spoil the illusion of real little people going about their business.

Barrie indicated time lapse photography for the building of Wendy's little house. He uses flashbacks and "visualizations" of what the characters are thinking and saying as well as new scenes such as Peter attending a fairy wedding and the final scene of the crocodile waddling up onto the beach and spitting out Captain Hook's hook.

James Fenimore Cooper is referred to twice as an indication of how the Indians were to be portrayed. Unlike other silent films of the era, Barrie's title cards do not repeat what is being shown on the screen but give additional information. He has Peter beg the audience to wave their handkerchiefs in the air to save Tinker Bell's life instead of clapping their hands.

When Barrie sold the film rights to Paramount, he sent them his poetic and visual scenario. However, Paramount wanted to do the popular stage version and the final film is filmed with a static camera very much framing scenes as if they were being performed on a stage.

While some special effects are in the final film version, they are much less than what Barrie desired. However, a few suggestions by Barrie did make it into the film including having a real actress portray Tinker Bell (even if she had long, flowing brunette hair) and the crocodile spitting up Hook's hook at the end as well as Barrie's suggestion of having Peter tip out a pillowcase of fairies onto the floor and sweep them up with a broom.

Barrie retained casting approval and the British public took a keen interest in the project, suspecting that the Americans were going to mistreat this national treasure. Their fears were only increased when it was rumored that actress Gloria Swanson was auditioning for the role and that producer Jesse Lasky had come to England to show Barrie her screen test.

In July of 1924, Swanson arrived in London and claimed that it was "only a vacation trip between pictures". When pressed by reporters about the rumor that she had come to see Barrie personally to get the part of Peter Pan, she responded that "any one would like to play the part and whoever gets it should be very happy".

Actress Mary Pickford, America's sweetheart, was talked about for the role as was May McAvoy, who had performed in Barrie's Sentimental Tommy (1921). The Morning Telegraph newspaper of June 19, 1921 announced that "May McAvoy now heads the list of contestants for the coveted title role and there is little doubt that it will be handed to her."

Director Herbet Brenon went to London with screen tests of Bessie Love and a half dozen other candidates for the title role. Barrie finally happily picked the same choice as the studio, the then-unknown Betty Bronson "because she has buck teeth. Peter has buck teeth. And her legs don't look too feminine."

The choice of "Little Betty Bronson" an unknown from New Jersey with only two brief screen appearances as an "extra" was "a real fairy story in real life" according to one newspaper. Just seventeen, Bronson was described by the New York Times as "the queerest, prettiest and most engaging elfin-like little person imaginable; she is five feet tall and has a terrible time trying to weigh even ninety pounds."

Captain Hook was portrayed by Ernest Torrence.

On being told that she beat out actresses like Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish, she stammered, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world!" In the course of an interview during which she "hopped about like a bird", she told a writer that "I know why they chose me. They picked me because I AM Peter Pan and I do Peter Pan things. I believe in fairies and all that sort of thing."

The Morning Telegraph newspaper for October 5, 1924 proudly announced that "there are at least two girls in the world who believe in fairies and they are both in Hollywood now…Betty Bronson and Mary Brian feel that only a fairy could have induced Sir James Barrie to put his personal approval on their selection by the powers-that-be in the Famous Players-Lasky Company for the respective roles of Peter Pan and Wendy."

Mary Brian was born in Texas and attended school in Oklahoma City and Dallas where she learned to ride herd with cowboys. She came to Hollywood where she won a beauty contest and the "Charming Personality" contest in Ocean Park, California. The managing director of Grauman theaters saw her and offered her a part in a theater prologue. From there she went to Paramount where her arrival coincided with the selection of players for Peter Pan.

Virginia Brown Faire was selected as Tinker Bell after a three year career in films. Brian remembered that Faire's Italian immigrant mother would show up on the set while they were filming and embarrass her daughter.

Anna May Wong, "the little Chinese actress playing Tiger Lily, the Indian princess, can doubtlessly tell you a story of her career which would rival even Barrie's fairy stories" claimed The Morning Telegraph.

Breaking with the established theatrical tradition, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook were to be played by two different actors: Cyril Chadwick as the head of the Darling household and Ernest Torrence as the dreaded pirate.

Filling out the rest of the cast were Esther Ralston (Mrs. Darling; Ralston was only three and a half years older than Mary Brian as Wendy), George Ali (as Nana, a role he had performed on stage, as well as the crocodile), Phillipe de Lacy (Michael Darling) and Jack Murphy (John Darling).

Maurice Murphy (Tootles), Mickey McBan (Slightly), George Crane Jr. (Curly), Winston Doty (first twin), Weston Doty (second twin), Terence McMillan (Nibs), Edward Kipling (Smee), Lewis Morrison (Gentleman Starkey), Ralph Yearsley (Italian Cecco), Ed Jones (Mullins), Percy Barbat (Noodler), Richard Frazier (Giant Blackman), Maurice Cannon (Cookson), Robert Milasch (Kelt), and Charles A. Stevenson (Jukes) were also in the cast.

The film was presented by Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky. It was directed by Herbet Brenon with special effects by Roy Pomeroy who was actually credited as "assistant to the director". His first real special effects credit does not appear until Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory? (1926). Fencing supervision was by Henri Uytennhave.

Screenplay was by Willis Goldbeck closely following the famous play. Cinematography was by James Wong Howe with set design by Edward Smith. It is listed as a Famous Players-Lasky production running ten reels or roughly 9,593 feet.

The film was made for $40,030 and brought in over $630,229 (or roughly nine million dollars if adjusted to today's rate) just in the United States in its first year of release. Bronson and director Brenon were immediately re-teamed the following year for another James M. Barrie story, A Kiss for Cinderella. Bronson never went on to the fame that was predicted for her but did appear in a small role as an old lady in Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost (1968).

In 1980, Margaret Eaton remembered: "In 1924 we catered to the movie company making Peter Pan. Herbert Brenon, the director, was a man of many moods, hard to understand, and completely wrapped up in himself.

"The leading lady was Betty Bronson, who was a very young girl, but for being temperamental she beat anyone who had hit the island. When she arrived at the island, she expected to be met by a brass band. Only a few months back, she had been working as an extra in the company; now all the extras knew they had better stay out of her way.

"All told, there were 100 people, half of them were diving girls to portray mermaids. Valdez and Painted Cave were used as locations. Santa Cruz Island was selected as the location for the picture after a long search because of its unusual settings and unsurpassed scenery. The company made its headquarters at Eaton's Camp, Pelican Bay, during the filming of the picture."

Dozens of mermaids relax on the shores of the Mermaid Lagoon with the Jolly Roger in the background.

The final film breaks down into four main sequences: The Darling Nursery, Never Never Land, the Jolly Roger pirate ship and finally the Darling Nursery again. Movement in and out of the four main sequences was marked by fade, establishment title and shot and it all closely followed the stage play with very few exceptions.

The first showing of the film was a special Sunday performance on December 27, 1924 in Chicago at the McVickers Theater. It was the Chicago Tribune's first Christmas party for orphaned, crippled and destitute children. More than 11,000 youngsters who otherwise would never have gotten to see the picture were transported to the event by a fleet of chartered cars and each child was given a box of candy.

Betty Bronson made a personal appearance on her way to the official premiere in New York where the film opened simultaneously at the Rivoli and Rialto theaters on December 28. At a farewell party earlier in the week in Hollywood attended by press and magazine representatives, Jesse Lasky predicted, "in Betty Bronson the screen has a second Mary Pickford and Peter Pan will mark a milestone in the history of the motion picture."

Motion Picture News on December 27 stated that the film "was backed by one of the most widespread exploitation and advertising campaigns ever put behind a motion picture. This circulation of 250 prints so soon after the completion of the master negative marks a record achievement." Shooting of scenes on the nursery set still were taking place in October.

While researching many, many years ago in the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, I ran across a two page, double spaced typewritten essay supposedly by Betty Bronson and obviously meant for publicity. It was filled with crossouts, including a line about the fact that "there was not a casualty among us although many were ill from sea-sickness".

There is no indication it was ever published so I am sharing it here:

"The Biggest Thrill I Ever Got In the Movies by Betty Bronson. My biggest thrill came during the filming of Peter Pan in which I played my first large role in motion pictures.

"We had already filmed the nursery scenes of the picture in the studio and were off the island of Santa Cruz in Pelican Bay which is forty miles from the mainland of Santa Barbara. We embarked on the Jolly Roger, a sixteenth century craft constructed for scenes in the picture, early in the morning. The sun shone brightly and scarcely a ripple responded to the light breeze.

"About the middle of the afternoon, however, the wind freshened, increasingly rapidly until a considerable sea was running. The men attempted to make their former anchorage but in the effort, lost both hooks overboard.

"Unable to anchor, we were driven to sea. With nightfall, the wind started blowing a half gale. We were all very frightened and once or twice I wanted to cry. But each time I would blink my eyes hard and say, 'Nothing can happen to us. The fairies will protect us'.

"All through the night, the top heavy sixteenth century craft, with her high poop, rolled desperately in heavy seas. I can still hear the wind whistle through the riggings and the water 'swash-swashing' against the sides like some angry demon bent on reaching us. There was no food on board and the lower decks were not fitted for passengers so we were forced to spend the hours exposed to the drenching seas which came aboard.

"With the dawn, the seas moderated and Jolly Roger, her pirate flag of skull and cross-bones torn to ribbons, found shelter under the lee of Santa Cruz island."

A film magazine did a two page photo spread on how Tinker Bell and the other fairies were done for the movie. Many of Tinker Bell's appearances were pictured as a ball of light, not just to honor the tradition of the play but to save expenses.

The 1924 review in Exceptional Photoplays magazine for December-January asked, "What could be more delightful than the picturing of Tinker Bell as a brilliant ball of light, flitting swiftly through the air and which when alighting, is disclosed to the wondering audience as a tiny creature in wind-blown draperies – all flame and unreality and beauty?" It suggested that it was all done with "in-the-camera matte photography".

Tinker Bell's appearance as "as a tiny creature in wind-blown draperies – all flame and unreality and beauty" delighted audiences.

There were major ads in the December 27 issue of Saturday Evening Post magazine and in the January 1, 1925 issue of Ladies Home Journal.

The manufacturers of Peter Pan Kids Clothes sent a letter to their five thousand dealers which outlined how the store could co-operate with the local theater in advertising the film. In every town where a contest was held by a store and a theater, the manufacturer gave away one suit free as a prize in addition to whatever else the local store or theater offered.

Peter Pan whistles with announcement tags attached were furnished in quantities free to all dealers. The Peter Pan Fountain Pen Company agreed to urge the cooperation of its thirty thousand dealers including department stores, jewelers, drug sores and gift shops.

For the title cards for the film, Barrie's text was condensed but not distorted except for the implication that the children were Americans. Photoplay magazine was incensed by the change comparing it to the British filming Tom Sawyer but transferring it to the Thames River.

The children hoisted the American flag on the Jolly Roger and sang God Bless America. For the British release these were changed to the Union Jack and God Save the Queen. No copies of the British version seem to exist today.

The London Times complained, "Instead of making a film of Peter Pan, Brenon has merely taken the play and photographed it. It seems nearly two-thirds of the film is set in the Darling nursery. However, there is a nice scene of a wonderful, very fine looking pirate ship floating on a real sea with sea gulls circling round the mast and an entrancing beach on which disport a lovely bevy of mermaids."

Variety was kinder and praised the film as "Peter Pan is a picture that will go down the years as a delightful fantasy and crop up again and again as time rolls along with each return welcomed with a new joy by a new band of children. Betty Bronson is the find of years as far as pictures are concerned with a gentle hint of Mary Pickford.

"As Wendy, Mary Brian proves to be another youthful find for the screen. Sweet, demure and with a self-effacing manner she wins the hearts of those in front. Ernest Torrence as the famous Captain Hook is another delight. Nobody ever stood much of a chance against this wily old scene stealer and newcomer Bronson was shrewd enough not to compete with him in their scenes together with his grimaces, eyeball rolling and other attention getting gestures."

Paramount did not keep the negatives or prints of the film especially after selling their rights to Disney and supposedly Famous Players-Lasky destroyed all copies when their copyright on the material expired. For decades, the film was thought to be lost with only some stills existing.

In the 1950s, film restorer James Card discovered a well-preserved copy in a vault at the Eastman School of Music. It had been rescued by a private collector who had a collection of silent movie prints and had been using them to train theater organists as well as for private screenings of his friends. Many film companies had donated prints to him for use in his training.

Film historian David Pierce discovered that in the Disney film vaults was a 16mm copy in great condition. Using these elements, Eastman House prepared a restored print and Fred Steiner using extensive research, reassembled the film score utilizing Paramount music cue sheets as a guide.

It was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1978 and at Filmex in 1980. It never was generally released or toured because the rights were tangled. In 1994, Philip Carli composed new film music for it and that version premiered at the 1996 Pordenone Silent Film Festival. The film has now fallen into public domain and can be purchased on DVD from Amazon.

The 1924 version of "Peter Pan" is now in the public domain and available on DVD from Amazon.

Roger Green, author of Fifty Years of Peter Pan and an acknowledged historian on Barrie's work, wrote, "[Barrie] would infinitely have preferred the Walt Disney cartoon to the Paramount picture of 1924 because Disney attempted to do more in the way of special effects and take advantage of the pictorial aspects."