The Great Disney Blogathon: Peter Pan (1953)
|May 19, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Peter Pan has a lot in common with its predecessor, Alice in Wonderland: both are based on classic children’s novels, both feature British children being spirited away to fantastical lands, both star Kathryn Beaumont (and several other cast members), and of course the house style was very similar between the two films (what up, Mary Blair?). And like Alice, Walt had been planning Peter for a while – he’d bought the rights in the 30s.
But Peter’s a lot more successful than Alice, largely thanks to the source material being easier to adapt. Though the novel Peter Pan is also somewhat episodic, it has a clearer through-line than Alice and a stronger emotional core, and its flights of fancy are less reality-bending. More importantly, though, Peter’s first starring vehicle was a play; he’s a visual creature, always intended to be seen by audiences in some concrete form, without being tied to one specific visualization the way Alice was tied to the Tenniel illustrations. Furthermore, between the play, which J. M. Barie continuously revised between its first performance in 1904 and the script’s publication in 1928, the 1911 novel, and several chapters from a different novel,1 Peter’s “canon” has always been flexible. Plus, the 1954 musical version starring Mary Martin quickly usurped the non-musical Barie play as the primary stage version (along with a pantomime version, still popular in England around Christmastime); though it obviously had no effect on the original response to the Disney movie, it’s contributed to the general flexibility of the Peter Pan canon (the Peter Panon, if you will). As long as the key elements are there – Neverland, Tinker Bell, the Darlings, Hook – audiences are a lot more open to differences in interpretation than they are for something that has only one pure, universally agreed-upon source text. That’s not to say that every critic embraced Disney’s interpretation with open arms, but the reaction was generally positive, and Disney’s Peter Pan is now considered not just one of the foremost adaptations of the tale, but one of Disney’s best films.
And as far as this critic is concerned – if I can call myself a critic when I dressed up as Ariel yet again to visit Disneyland for the first time (!!!) just last month – Peter Pan is a triumph, and one of my favorite films of the Classic Era,2 probably second only to Lady and the Tramp. Like, I didn’t realize how many times I watched this movie as a kid until this most recent viewing, where I found myself reciting half the dialogue along with the characters. There are, of course, a couple of GLARING ISSUES – to wit, my notes for this one say “SO RACIST” and “SO SEXIST.” But we’ll get there.
We might as well start with Peter himself. Though a bit older than the book implies, and with his American accent giving him a veneer of modernity (but also, arguably, timelessness, at least to a US audience) that the Darling children don’t possess, Peter is otherwise a faithful translation from book to screen. He’s got a touch of goblin to him, with his pointed ears and bushy eyebrows, and his very first closeup is oddly sinister, with Tinker Bell’s light giving his face a sallow glow and his eyes cast in shadow like a bandit’s mask, but otherwise he’s a charmingly gangly tween, all elbows and knees and tremendous appeal. He possesses a childish self-centeredness and cruelty, all very apropos: he thinks it’s funny when Tink and the mermaids insult Wendy, he whisks the Darlings off to Neverland for his own selfish purposes, and when he rescues Tiger Lily, he’s so busy crowing about his triumph over Hook that she nearly drowns until Wendy reminds him to save her. At the same time, though, he has genuinely heroic instincts. There’s a great little moment when they first arrive in Neverland and Hook shoots at them; Peter instantly picks up little Michael and tosses him to safety behind a cloud as he shouts for Wendy and John to look out. He’s not always nice and he’s not always thoughtful, but he’s a good leader and protector of small children. He’s a study in contrasts who threatens to kill Hook for calling him a coward but, when Hook pleads for his life, cheerfully settles for making Hook call himself a codfish – all completely childlike, heroic and ridiculous at once. And if your heart doesn’t break for Peter when he thinks Tink is dead or dying, well, you might not have one.
Speaking of heartbreak…I’ve been promising you the Bobby Driscoll Story for a couple of posts now, so here goes. It’s like the prototypical child star tragedy: Driscoll was a hugely successful child actor, starring in a bunch of Disney’s live action vehicles in the late 40s like Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and Treasure Island. Before the decade was out, he’d earned a juvenile Oscar and a star on the Walk of Fame. Besides voicing (and providing the live action reference footage for) Peter Pan, he also voiced Goofy’s son Junior in a series of shorts, a role close to my heart, since Goofy, Jr. was the prototype for my beloved Max Goof.3
But work dried up as he reached adolescence – Disney, where Walt had once (horribly) declared Driscoll the embodiment of his own youth4, canceled his contract weeks after Peter Pan’s release, citing 16-year-old Driscoll’s acne as the reason, like, my God, can you even imagine a clearer message of “Get out, teenager, you no longer have any value to us?” Driscoll was an outcast in public school, struggled to find acting work, and turned to drugs. You can probably guess the rest: escalating drug use, arrests for possession, an elopement at age 19, three kids and a subsequent divorce by age 24, arrests for assault, and finally jail.
Once he was out, job offers had dried up entirely, so he moved to New York and became part of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and here’s where it gets really awful: despite critical acclaim for his art, he eventually disappeared, and he was eventually found dead of heart failure by a couple of kids playing in an abandoned tenement, just weeks after his 31st birthday. But no one knew who he was. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, and no one knew for almost two years, until his mother contacted Disney, hoping to reunite Driscoll with his dying father. An eventual fingerprint match with the NYPD records solved the mystery, but the story didn’t get out until Song of the South was re-released in 1971.
It’s an old story – the precociousness, the massive fame, the suddenly-closed doors at the onset of puberty, the isolation, the drugs, and the untimely death – and Bobby Driscoll’s hardly the only one to live it. But to me there’s something extra heartbreaking about his last major role being the boy who wouldn’t grow up. People talk about how Disney’s major departure from tradition was casting their lead as a boy, when Peter’s always played by a woman onstage, but to me it’s that the sense of tragedy that permeates the book and play is absent in the movie. Peter’s life is presented as fun and frolicsome and in no way empty. It’s the Disney way not to leave an undertone of melancholy, but it’s perhaps fitting that it’s provided by their real-life Peter Pan, who could and did grow up, and found that you really can’t go back to Neverland.
Anyway, now that I’ve ruined your life, let’s talk about Wendy. Like Alice, she’s voiced by Kathryn Beaumont. To be honest, I didn’t particularly care about Wendy as a kid, most because she’s a prim little killjoy, and though my favorite characters were usually girls, I prefered rough-and-tumble ones. As an adult, though, I adore her. I find her killjoyness hilarious and cute, because she’s just trying so hard to be an adult and a kid all at once; I love how she bounces from primness to playfulness and back. She’s also very secure in her own awesomeness: she defends herself against the mermaids and refuses to do manual labor for the Native Americans while the boys play (we’ll get there). Her courage when forced to walk the plank is well beyond her years, as she spurns the pirates’ offers, comforts her brothers, and walks, chin held high, to certain death. She’s also kindhearted: she makes Peter change Tink’s banishment from forever to a week, is appalled when she thinks Peter’s going to kick Hook to the crocodile, and weeps when she thinks Hook is dead. She’s just a lovely, lovely person who is clearly going to grow up to be a wonderful adult, and totally my favorite.
It’s remarkable that Wendy is such a great character, because Peter Pan as a whole is deeply, deeply sexist. The roles it presents for women are limited and rigid: mother, pretend mother, semi-sociopathic coquette (Tink and the mermaids), damsel in distress (both Wendy and Tiger Lily, at times), sexually aggressive or entirely dehumanized WOCs (WE’LL GET THERE). With the exception of the two actual mothers, Mrs. Darling5 and the bit part of the older Native American woman, every female character is locked in a struggle almost literally to the death for the attention and affections of a little boy, including the visibly adult Tinker Bell and mermaids. The mermaids in particular struck me on this viewing, since their murderous resentment of Wendy was added for the movie – in the book, they simply have no use for any of the ordinary children, and Peter can get near them because he’s an immortal spirit, not because they want to get in his tights.6 The filmmakers don’t seem to be able to conceive of relationships between women being based on anything but envy and hatred.
Which of course brings us to Tinker Bell. Disney has, in essence, two Tinks: the spiteful, vindictive pixie without a voice that we see in this film (and, I’m assuming, Return to Neverland, though I haven’t seen it yet), and THE TINKER BELL JUGGERNAUT, the cheerful mascot who blesses the Disney logo with fairy dust and stars in endless spinoff films about friendship. As the two Tinks inhabit two different mediums (traditional animation vs. CGI), speak different languages (or at least, Tink 2’s bell chimes are translated into English for the viewer), were created half a century apart, serve wildly different purposes, and essentially occupy two different franchises, I’m only going to address the Tinker Bell of 1953.7
This Tink is interesting, because she is, as mentioned, wildly sexist – the jealous, spiteful woman who views other girls as nothing but competition – but she’s also a very successful and entertaining character. There’s a persistent rumor, fed by Disney himself, that she was based on Marilyn Monroe, but considering the timeline that’s not really possible; she is, however, appealingly designed, pert and curvy but still rather cute and unreal. Her mannerisms are a delight to watch; the sequence with her trapped in the drawer is great fun and she’s adorable in her tete-a-tete with Hook, but for my money her best scene is when Peter calls her on the carpet for trying to kill Wendy via the unwitting Lost Boys. Her obviously put-on careless attitude, her little fits of rage and smug viciousness, are just so charming, and get across precisely what she means without a single spoken word. Marc Davis, who gave Cinderella her sharper edges, deserves a world of credit for imbuing Tink with so much personality. Plus, her meanness is genuinely fun. Disney often gives us sweet characters on the side of the devils, as they did in this movie with Smee; it’s far more rare to see a nasty one on the side of the angels, and it’s refreshing.
And then there’s Tiger Lily. The issues with Tiger Lily are part and parcel with the overall racism of Peter Pan, and look, I know the original play and novel are racist, and I know this movie is from 1953, and neither of those things is an excuse.8 The mere presence of the Native Americans in Neverland, though it does prevent the lily-white cast we get in most Disney movies, suggests that Native Americans are either fantastical beings or long-ago perils, now a relic of the past like Hook’s Edwardian pirates, instead of, you know, actual people living in the actual world. They’re grotesque caricatures, slathered in cadmium and speaking in Hollywood pidgin; the chief is barely human. Slurs are tossed around easily, even by the children, and different cultures and nations are mixed haphazardly. The movie even does that lovely thing (also to be seen in Susannah of the Mounties – apparently this is my month for watching films that are racist against Native Americans/First Nations people) where it holds up the supposed sexism of another culture (“Squaw gettum firewood!”) as a way to claim that white women are treated so much better, when the film is clearly already dripping with misogyny. And of course, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” is the pinnacle of all this hatefulness.
Tiger Lily gets off the easiest in all this, and in fact there’s a lot to like about her. She’s the only Native American who’s not a grotesquerie – in fact, she’s very cute – and her skin is brown rather than cartoonishly red. And she shows a tremendous amount of courage when she refuses to betray Peter to Hook, even in the face of death. But she also only speaks one word (a garbled cry of “Help” as water fills her mouth) and needs to be rescued by a white savior. She’s also comparatively sexually aggressive compared to Wendy, dancing for Peter on a drum and giving him a so-called Eskimo kiss that causes him to blush violently – the only indication in the entire movie that he’s at all romantically or sexually aware. When the best you can say about a character is that at least she’s a human walking stereotype as opposed to a monstrous one…well, that’s not great.9
The last major character to mention is Hook. Now, earlier I said that the biggest difference between Disney’s Peter Pan and the original is the absence of melancholy, and I stand by that, but Hook’s the second biggest. In the play/book, he’s a sinister, elegant figure, dripping with class and malice. Here, he’s a broadly humorous clown who spends half of his time onscreen being accidentally walloped around by Smee or Tom-and-Jerryed by the crocodile (Whose official Disney name is Tick Tock. You’re learning so much today!).10 I think it was a good choice; considering that all of our heroes are children and Hook is trying to straight-up kill them, a serious Hook might’ve been too scary. At the very least, it would have brought a darkness that doesn’t match the rest of the movie. Don’t worry, we’ll get Scary For Real in a few years with Maleficent.
The other thing to note with Hook is the bravura performance by Hans Conreid, who, as per the stage tradition, also plays George Darling. The relatively light tone mostly erases any dark Freudian implications of this double casting, and frankly it doesn’t particularly need to be Freudian for the metaphor to work: the person who wants Wendy to grow up and the person who wants to kill Peter Pan both represent the death of childhood. (Also, the Disney version comes the closest of all the adaptations to implying it was all just a dream Wendy had, since they spend less than 24 hours in Neverland as opposed to the book’s indeterminate but lengthy time period, they return before the Darlings get home from their original party which means that even less time has passed in England, and Wendy’s asleep when her parents walk into the room. Plugging her father in as the villain of her dream when she’s angry at him makes a lot of sense. Not that I necessarily subscribe to the dream theory – I’m Team It Really Happened all the way – but the interpretation is there if you want it.) Metaphors aside, though, Conreid is wonderful in both roles. His George is pompous and ineffective but with occasional glimmerings of sympathy (“Dash it all, Nana, don’t look at me like that.”) and wonder (“You know, I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen that ship before. A long time ago, when I was very young.” AHHHH MAGIC.), and his Hook is hilarious, sliding from unctuous friendliness to crazed fury to craven pleading to hysteria and back in a matter of minutes without ever losing the recognizable core of his character.11 His performance in the scene where he convinces Tinker Bell to reveal Peter’s hideout is sheer brilliance.
I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this movie (which is good, because this is already considerably longer than the previous longest post in this series, Cinderella), so I’ll leave you with the last few items from my notes:
- Michael appears to have an American accent, for some reason. That’s weird.
- Smee is voiced by Bill Thompson, a Disney perennial who was heard in many shorts, as the White Rabbit and the Dodo in Alice, no less than five characters in Lady and the Tramp, and various other Disney flicks all the way through The Aristocats in 1970. He was also the original Droopy Dog. Also: the Platinum Edition of the Peter Pan DVD has a “Smee Sudoku Challenge” for some reason.
- There was a song cut from the movie called “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” the instrumentals of which can still be heard whenever Tick Tock appears. Despite not actually being in the movie, the song went on to become a minor classic children’s song. Disney pervades everything, y’all.
So that’s Disney’s Peter Pan. I said in an earlier post that Cinderella is one of the most, if not the most, iconic and representative Disney films in existence, but the more I think about it the more Peter Pan could also fit the bill, or at least serve as a microcosm of Disney itself: a truly beautiful mix of innovation and comforting familiarity, marred by hidebound 1950s gender mores and virulent racism. The really sad thing is that Disney hasn’t moved that far away from that description 60 years later, particularly on that last front; they just hide it a little better. Peter Pan doesn’t have to grow up, but as we’ll see in later posts, it’s high time Disney does.
- Peter’s first appearance was in Barie’s 1902 novel for adults, The Little White Bird; after the success of the play, the Peter-related chapters were republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. ↩
- No one cares about this as much as I do, but I’ve spent a lot of time working out the various Disney Eras, and hey, that’s what footnotes are for, right? So, the various Disney eras, as determined by me and BFF Mackenzie: The Golden Age (1937-1949), which can be further subdivided into the Early Years (Snow White (1937) – Bambi (1942)) and the Anthology Era (Saludos Amigos (1942) – Mr. Toad (1949)); the Classic Era (Cinderella (1950) – The Jungle Book (1967)); the Post-Walt Era (The Aristocats (1970) – Winnie-the-Pooh (1977)), the Dark Ages (The Rescuers (1977) – Oliver and Company (1988)); the Renaissance (The Little Mermaid (1989) – Tarzan (1999)); the Post-Renaissance (Fantasia 2000 (1999) – Bolt (2008)); and the Modern Era (The Princess and the Frog (2009) and beyond). There, now you’re educated. ↩
- Someday I will Blogathon A Goofy Movie here and just. OH BOY. GET READY. ↩
- Is now a good time to mention that Walt once played Peter in a school production? ↩
- Oddly enough, since she’s very fond of and clingy with Peter in the book – but her role is hugely diminished overall in the movie in favor of Mr. Darling, which is its own issue. ↩
- They are, however, lovely, designed beautifully by Fred Moore. ↩
- Similarly, I won’t be covering the Tinker Bell movies in the regular Blogathon – they’re not really sequels (actually, they’re allegedly prequels, but still) and are created by DisneyToon Studios, not Walt Disney Animation. Don’t worry, we’ll all go to Pixie Hollow together someday. ↩
- And, of course, there’s absolutely no excuse for the whitewashing casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Warner Brothers’ upcoming Pan. ↩
- Yes, the Native Americans are reasonably friendly. I’m talking about the way they’re drawn. Every adult in the film is goofy looking except Mrs. Darling, but it’s pushed to extremes here. ↩
- Side note: when Tick Tock chews up Hook’s clothes we can see that ol’ Jim’s actually pretty ripped, which has always weirded me out. ↩
- For my money, he’s worlds better than Dustin Hoffman chowing down on every piece of scenery in sight in Hook. ↩