A new piece at The Chiseler on Edinburgh’s own Steamboat Bill Snr, Ernest Torrence (left). By me.
Archive for Steamboat Bill Jnr
I found another short directed by Buster Keaton at MGM (the first can be seen HERE). The little musicals he made are quite nice — in another universe one can imagine him working his way up the ranks as a jobbing director rather than as a jobbing actor, after the decline of his Hollywood stardom.
Of course, this lightweight thing doesn’t compare to the shorts he co-directed in the silent era, and it’s not quite as good as its companion film, STREAMLINED SWING, but it’s charming enough. The racial jokes aren’t too offensive (there are worse in SEVEN CHANCES and COLLEGE, and in the title of this post) and the Hollywood cameos are diverting — the best being Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards early on, the most evocative being Oliver Hardy. But “Babe” is part of a montage of stars captured in off-the-cuff, verité fashion, at the racetrack, maybe not even by Buster.
I’m also tickled to see Buster using the character name “Canfield” again. He’d used it as his character name in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR , and as the rival feuding family’s name in OUR HOSPITALITY. This third occurrence clinches SOMETHING — either the name had some personal significance for Buster, or it was just a lucky name, like Billy Wilder’s “Sheldrake”. Whatever the secret, the name’s inclusion strongly suggests that Buster not only directed but wrote or co-wrote, uncredited, this little item.
Actually, we don’t bother with this “Mothering Sunday” stuff in Scotland, we prefer plain old “Mother’s Day.” And I can well recall my mother’s irritation when European Union interference caused Mother’s Day and daylight saving time to fall on the same day, resulting in a pitiful 23 hour Mother’s Day.
This week’s subject is PETER PAN, Herbert Brenon’s faithful and elegant filming of JM Barrie’s play. All the pantomime artifice of the play is preserved, but augmented with charming movie tricks — thus, Tinkerbell is a flying light in longshot, but with dream-continuity becomes a tiny girl in a billowing gossamer dress when viewed more closely. Nana the dog is played by a human in dog drag, and the crocodile likewise. Anna Mae Wong is Tiger Lily, and looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. (She so often has an air of solemnity or melancholy about her.) Everybody seems jolly, except maybe the pirates…
Leading the cutthroat crew is Edinburgh-born Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, a hissable villain with quite a scary face. A familiar one too — he played Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. He’s splendidly outfitted, with a domino ring on the finger of his good hand, and Torrence compensates for his genuinely disturbing face by doing a lot of mugging and sneering and generally letting us know that he’s in on the joke. This kind of thing works for the kids sophisticated enough to interpret, but I can imagine toddlers being terrified of him nonetheless.
In the best panto tradition, Peter is played by a girl, the disconcertingly sexy Betty Bronson (those thighs!). Mary Brian plays Wendy, a surprise to anybody whose seen her in 1930s roles like HARD TO HANDLE with Cagney or GIRL MISSING with Glenda Farrell.
Never Never Land is a sumptuous studio creation with giant mushrooms, underground dens, fake lions, and all manner of wonderment and make-believe. It’s a movie which should be revived more — any kid old enough to read the intertitles, or with someone handy to read them aloud, would get a kick out of it. Even if they couldn’t read, familiarity with the story via the Disney version or the 2003 CG-fest. The edge this one has over those later versions is that it isn’t irretrievably vulgar. (Actually, I like the Disney, but especially for the cobalt blue skies of its Edwardian London nightscapes.)
The movie is so faithful to the play, it even reproduces the famous audience participation moment where we’re all invited to clap and save Tinkerbell’s life. Betty Bronson’s appeal to camera (I mean her dramatic urging, not her pansexual attractiveness) is played with such conviction — stylised conviction, that is — it fair brings a tear to the eye.
Staying with the Scottish connection, one has to love Kelly MacDonald for saying that her favourite aspect of her own career is the outtakes from FINDING NEVERLAND in which her flying harness malfunctions as she careens through the air in a stage production of Peter Pan — she sails majestically out of shot, there’s an abrupt thud, and the camera readjusts to frame her flattened against the stage wall like Wile E. Coyote after an unsuccessful rocket-assisted lunge at the Road Runner.
Worth buying that DVD for the extras alone, but the movie itself is very sweet ~
Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…
USA: Peter Pan