The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

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.

It’s the gayest film there is.

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 ~

UK: Finding Neverland [DVD] [2004]Finding Neverland [Blu-ray] [2004]

Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…

USA: Peter Pan

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20 Responses to “The Mothering Sunday Intertitle”

  1. Jacqueline Rose wrote a Lacanian analysis of this film for “Screen” back in the 70’s.

    Meanwhile. . .

    Latest FaBlog: Doris Mary Kappelhoff is 88

  2. Happy Birthday, Dottie!

    Peter Pan seems open to all kinds of analysis. The movie, while tampering with some of Barrie’s plot, leaves in lots of his strangeness and ambiguity (much of it sexual). The author’s interest in children might inspire concern if he were around today, but nothing in his work strikes me as overtly sinister: just strange, and far from our idea of the Victorian/Edwardian sentimentality about childhood. These kids gaily slaughter pirates!

  3. Here’s Sondra Lee as “Tiger Lily” in the Mary Martin-starred Peter Pan One of Jerry Robbins’ dancers, Lee famously appeared in the finale of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where she performed the same “Tiger Lily” dance.

  4. I’ve seen Betty Bronson in one sound film and I didn’t find much wrong in her voice or acting but her career ground quickly to a halt with the advent of sound. Mary Brian, OTOH, worked for much of the ’30s. Regular work appeared to peter out for her by 1937. Interesting to note that in the 1930 Paramount on Parade, Brian, Fay Wray, and Jean Arthur were in the Dream Girl segment – despite working steadily, all ended their time at Paramount by 1931.

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    Jean Arthur was also Peter, of course, opposite Karloff as Hook, on broadway. One would think they’d have been definitive, but the music by Leonard Bernstein was not as crowd pleasing or ebullient as that of Charlap & Styne & Comden/Green, and that production was elbowed aside by the one starring Mary and Cyril.

  6. Now, is the Betty Bronson in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss the same one, or is this one of the IMDb’s occasional conflations of people with the same name? Might have to watch it again to see if I recognize her.

  7. Always thought Mary Brian somewhat resembled Jean Arthur — not quite the same throaty quaver in the voice though, It’d have been interesting to see them opposite each other.

  8. Christopher Says:

    LOL..Nana the dog..look at ’em flyin’ over there!..we can’t have that!
    “He says theres PIRATES there”…oh boy! =:o)
    I watched a Betty Bronson silent recently ,Are Parents People?…easy going and pleasant in spite of missing a reel..

  9. That’s a lovely title! The three-word question title has really gone out of style since the 20s/30s, which seems a shame.

    “Are Snakes Necessary?”

  10. I’m curious as to what you mean by the later film versions being “irretrievably vulgar.” I certainly wouldn’t characterize the Disney or 2003 versions as that — in fact, I quite like both of them. The 2003 one especially managed a tenderness and elegance that’s unusual in modern films, especially children’s films.

    This silent version has interested me, and I’d like to see it sometime. My major problem with all other adaptations, though, is the casting of a woman/girl to play Pan. I know it’s theater tradition, but I have never seen it work, not once. Pan is a boy’s boy through-and-through. Betty Bronson might be a fine actress, but as you pointed out, nobody’s mistaking those legs as belonging to a 12 year-old boy!

  11. Christopher Says:

    Are These Our Children?

  12. If we’re doing four word, then how about Why Change Your Wife?

  13. Don’t Change Your Husband. Old Wives for New.

    David, I accept the female casting as I accept a man in a dog costume — theatrical artifice! A constant reminder that it’s not real doesn’t bother me.

    As for vulgarity, I’d say the cloying colour in the live-action is reason enough for that charge! Although it’s not greatly worse than Hook, where a prevailing gaudy expensiveness is undercut by creeping cheapness. Being an inconsistent sort of chap, I can accept a man dressed as a dog, and a boy dressed as a girl, but not cellophane ice on a windowsill. Not in the London scenes, anyhow, and not in a $50 mill Dodi Al Fayad production.

  14. I love the 2003 version. All the kid actors are great (and yeah, nice to see a boy playing Peter), love the troubling doubling of Hook and Mr. Darling, love the glowing Olivia Williams, the storybook colors (not cloying!), the evil mermaids, the background chatter amongst the Lost Boys, the sense that Wendy wants a grown up boy because she wants sex, even if she doesn’t know it yet. (Wait, is that the vulgar part?) Then again I first saw it with a beautiful woman in Australia, so it’s got pleasant associations for me.

    I was lukewarm on the silent version the one time I saw it, but I do want to give it another try sometime. I hadn’t seen STEAMBOAT BILL JR at that point, and it will be fun to see Torrance’s Hook with that perspective. I’m curious about some of Herbert Brenon’s other films too. LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is a very good Lon Chaney melodrama.

  15. These clips are stunning. I think visually you have a point regarding later, colour Pans (although only “Hook” actually hurts my eyes). But as a character Peter Pan is… well, what? he’s a terrible friend and a worse leader, so I think credit is due the Disney version for understanding that his attraction to children is as something purely physical. Those swoops! For me, as a child, nothing matched them. Conreid’s Hook I think is also a superlative children’s villain – the perfect curve ball from silly to terrifying and back again. (Rickman’s Die Hard baddie is an excellent Hook surrogate, and of course we’re teased with his Jaz Hook in An Awfully Big Adventure – which we know is a success, because when Hugh Grant takes over the role the kids are just screaming, a nice touch).

  16. Randy B, Wendy’s desire to make Peter into something more than a fantasy son is present and correct in the silent — sex is an unsettling undercurrent all though Barrie, which might be part of what Hitchcock was interested in.

    I was thinking about An Awfully Big Adventure because of this… there’s something missing in that movie, and I think it’s the indefinable thing that makes cinema. But it has some memorable writing (Charles Wood!) and acting.

    Herbert Brenon — I’d forgotten he did Laugh Clown Laugh, and never realized he also did the 1913 Jekyll and Hyde (“With King Baggot in a Dual Role”). Can be seen here.

    I think I have a copy of his Transgression, which sounds a nice pre-code melo, but I haven’t watched it.

  17. Funny, the last time I watched An Awfully Big Adventure (it was a while back) I remember being struck by the thought “Hang on, where are all the scenes? This film doesn’t have any scenes!” But no I don’t think I could define why.

  18. I certainly don’t recall that feeling… a British movie without scenes might have been quite welcome. We so often seem to take the least exciting aspects of theatre, those which lose so much when you don’t have actors and audience sharing a space, rather than the exciting stylized stuff which can transfer really well to the screen.

    When Kubrick said you could do most movies on the stage, and apart from having more scenes than usual it would make no difference, he wasn’t quite correct, but it does seem true of a lot of the British tradition of quality. You could do some of them on the radio and it’d be fine.

    A shame Georgina Cates didn’t become a film personality after AABA.

  19. […] state, some would say), Chinese classic DAYBREAK with Li Lili, British spectacular THE WRECKER, PETER PAN and STELLA DALLAS, plus shorts with Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Anita Garvin & Marion […]

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