Movie Review: The 1924 Silent Film Peter Pan

In 1924, a 23-year old Walt Disney was captivated by a silent film entitled Peter Pan. It was an adaption of a stage play written by the original author of the story, Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie. It would be another 29 years before the more famous animated version of Peter Pan would grace the same movie screens.

Silent films aren’t everyone’s bag of popcorn. Whether it’s the title cards, the dramatic and often distracting music, or the over acting, many prefer modern day cinema. But back in their day, fortunes and stars were made as millions spent their hard earned nickels and dimes at the Box Office to see these black and white masterpieces!

This particular example was lost and believed gone forever until a print was found in the 1950s. After being painstakingly restored, we get to see it again. This post displays the DVD copy that I have in my collection, and some stills from the film itself. I’ll also give my thoughts.

The tradition of having a female play the lead of (the male) Peter Pan dates back to the first stage plays featuring the character. 1904 saw the first production and it would be Maude Adams that would become most identified with the character. It seems that very petite women were consistently used because they were easier to move around on wires during the flying scenes.

I find it distracting to see a female Peter Pan as most actresses still come across as feminine in the roll, moving in a way that even a young boy would not. That said, most do a fine job and the story sweeps you away! This 1924 version has many interesting innovations. Tinker Bell is played by both a lightbulb on a string and by another petite woman. The way the filmmakers integrate her into the scenes with full-sized characters is nothing short of incredible given the technology of the time!

Another standout piece of movie magic is the nurse-dog Nana. Cleary a man in a dog suit, it still comes across as an endearing portrayal of a doting nanny as the costume had several controls that allowed the eyes and ears to be moved to display emotion.

Ernest Torrence as CAPTAIN HOOK

The other characters are pretty true to what we are familiar with today from modern retellings of the story. All of the actors and actresses give solid performances, but in keeping with the broader style of the silent era.

Other animals are portrayed by men in suits, such as a lion, and the crocodile that we do not smile at. The two screen captures above show the crocodile as Captain Hook feeds him a clock so that he may better hear it sneaking up on him in the future.

Several key scenes from the original storyline are just glossed over in this film. For example, we see only a glimpse of a mermaid lagoon with about 5 seconds of screen time. Interesting side note: They appear topless, which would not be uncommon of films of this era, but are actually wearing bralettes. A production still from the back of the booklet included with this DVD release confirms this. So… family friendly!

As one might expect, this is sometimes an insensitive product of its time. Native Americans are portrayed in the standard stereotypical fashion with Tiger Lily being played by an Asian actress. They are also called ‘Redskins’ in the title cards. On the whole though, there is much less to be culturally offended over in this version than with the later Disney animated version. So there’s that.

Special Effects

I am constantly amazed at how well the special effects and stunts of these old silent films hold up even under the jaded eye of a modern film goer! How they pulled off much of the visuals in this film with the technology available in the 20s is mind boggling! These old films are worth watching just to marvel over how they did things.

This DVD release comes with a 16-page booklet outlining some key aspects of the production, which I have used to fill out this post. It makes a nice companion to the disc and helps a fan of the process and history of cinema to round out their knowledge. Yes, if you read this booklet, you may actually win your next game of Trivial Pursuit! If it has questions on the 1924 release of Peter Pan.

I have over a dozen Silent Films in my collection and have seen dozens more. I enjoy seeing the first versions of famous films and comparing them to more modern, and likely more known, versions. If you’re a fan of cinema at all, you owe it to yourself to watch at least one of these old productions all the way through. Just turn down the music. It’s usually remastered or replacing lost soundtracks anyway, and it will be less annoying that way!

As far as Silent Films go, I wouldn’t say this one should have won any Academy Awards. And it didn’t. It does move a little slow and most of the actors/actresses definitely graduated from the Douglas Fairbanks School of Overacting! Betty Bronson (as Peter Pan) especially copied almost all of Fairbank’s most outlandish ‘masculine’ gestures and posturing, but still ended up giving us the most girly Pan possible. Now that’s acting!

I’d still give this a 3.5 out of 5 Stars. I’m glad to add it to my collection!

To see how Disney and Pixar slip references from old movies, including Silent Films, into their modern movies, check out my earlier post entitled Classic Movie References in Disney Movies. How many of these did you catch?

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