Sunday, March 3, 2013

Peter Pan (1924)

WHO: Anna May Wong has a very small but very memorable role as Tiger Lily in this.

WHAT: The silent version of J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up is for my money still the best screen adaptation of this famous tale. Yes, we all know the Disney version but the Paramount version directed by Herbert Brenon is far more faithful to Barrie's stage original. (Barrie scholars have written that the playwright in fact was dissatisfied with the film for being too faithful to his stagings; he was hoping Hollywood technologies would be used to further expand the scope of his play, but his suggestions went unused.)

One convention of Peter Pan performances was the casting of a young woman in the title role, for "purely practical" reasons as Heidi de Vries puts it: "girls were lighter in the harnesses that were required to lift them up into the air for the flying effects." Brenon's fidelity to staged versions extended to this convention, and 17-year-old Betty Bronson was given the Peter Pan role in his film. An in-the-know audience can't help but recognize the lesbian implications of this casting choice, given that both Wendy (played by Mary Brian) and Tiger Lily are more explicitly (if unrequitedly) romantically interested in Peter in this version than in Disney's. Although Anna May Wong has few scenes as Tiger Lily, in one of them she memorably rubs noses with Bronson affectionately, an action which is clearly meant to be a stand-in for a kiss. So while this isn't the first on-screen interracial, same-sex kiss, it may be the closest a 1920s film came to such a portrayal. At any rate it's probably the only silent film example of face-to-face contact between a white woman in male drag, and a Chinese-American woman in costume as an Indian from a fictitious tribe.

(Speaking of which, although the portrayals of the tribe is based on the stereotypes held by a playwright who knew of America only through what he read, such as the works of James Fenimore Cooper, there's nothing nearly as cringe-inducing as what the 1953 cartoon did with these characters. Still, if you bring children to the screening, it would be a good opportunity to talk to them about racial stereotypes and the use of actors of one ethnicity to portray another.)

WHERE/WHEN: Two screenings today only at the Balboa Theatre, the first a 4:00 PM "Family Matinee" and the second as part of the Balboa's annual Birthday Bash, celebrating 87 years of this stalwart movie house festivities starting at 7PM but Peter Pan starting well after that, if previous years are an indication.

WHY: The Balboa's Birthday Bash is one of the most underrated silent film events of the calendar year, especially when it comes to value for money. For a regular ticket price every attendee gets to see a feature film and shorts with live musical accompaniment, as well as other live entertainment as well as a chance to win terrific prizes for knowing silent film trivia. Not to mention the complimentary cake and door prizes, which when I attended two years ago were worth more than the ticket price to begin with!

If you liked seeing Anna May Wong shine in a small role in The Thief of Bagdad at the most recent San Francisco silent film event, the Silent Winter held two weeks ago, you'll definitely want to see a glimpse of her again here. Of course she's also in Shanghai Express at the Roxie today, but it's quite possible for a dedicated cinephile with a free Sunday to make it to screenings of both that and Peter Pan. The next chance to see Wong on screen I'm aware of will be April 13th at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's theatre, where she appears in an Earthquake-themed drama called Old San Francisco from 1927. The Niles calendar for March is also up.

Other silent film events on the horizon include this Friday's showing of Safety Last and Cops in the currently-running Cinequest festival in San Jose, and, just announced, the San Francisco Film Society's first announcement for its upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival: a May 7th Castro Theatre screening of the German expressionist showcase Waxworks with live music by Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi and William Winant. I'll admittedly be attending this less as a silent film fan but as a longtime fan of other musical projects these men have been involved in, including Faith No More, Mr. Bungle and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

HOW: 35mm print, with music performed by accomplished silent film piano accompanist Frederick Hodges.

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