I’ve never made any secret of the fact that musicals are… well, let’s just say that we don’t get on as well as one might expect. Point of fact, given the choice between having to watch a musical and having to sit through an Adam Sandler movie… I would take the musical but it would be close!
However, even the most determined and prejudiced of us will sometimes make exceptions. I like perhaps three or four musicals and today I am going to be reviewing one of them.
Flash back to early 1989. I was a sprout of seven.
You know the setting of The Wind? A desert wasteland, you say? Thanks to my father’s job, it was home to me when I was a kid. (Is it any wonder that I have a good laugh at Lillian Gish’s dramatics and outright fibs about the desert shooting locations?)
We got exactly one channel out where we lived and it pretty much exclusively screened old television shows and movies. Is it any wonder that I ended up a fan of the classics?
In addition, a family friend living closer to civilization kindly recorded cartoons and Star Trek for us. Sometimes, if the station was showing a program that he thought we would like, he would include an extra something. Peter Pan was one of those extra somethings.
The musical was first broadcast in 1955 and was watched by 65 million. That’s 65, not 6.5. And with a much lower U.S. population. (And, granted, fewer channels.) Those are numbers that modern networks can only dream of, with the exception of sports championships, the Academy Awards and the like. (And the 2014 Oscars boasted about their 43 million viewers. Ha!) The fifties broadcasts do not survive with their color intact. Instead, the most famous version is the 1960 retaping.
1989 marked the first time it had been shown in over a decade. The movie was the victim of copyright tangles, it seems.
As you may already know, there is a live broadcast version in the works with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. Now I think the live broadcast idea is spectacularly bad but Walken may save it. Probably will. Even if he does, though, I am fairly certain that he will not have a chance at the title of Best Hook Ever. Nothing against Walken. He is a talented performer. It’s just that the title of Best Captain Hook already belongs to a man who also happens to be a silent movie veteran.
Cyril Ritchard won a Tony for his portrayal of the villainous James Hook. Back then, Tony awards meant something! (They may now as well, I haven’t bothered to look.) He is marvelous in the part…
But I am getting ahead of myself. First, the review of the film itself.
I have not seen this movie in years. This is going to be fun!
I am taking it for granted that you have at least a passing familiarity with the story of Peter Pan. If not, go read it at once. Here is a free public domain edition.
I have to admit, I had my misgivings when this picture started. Everyone seemed so stiff and artificial, much more so than I remembered. We see the Darling children frolic in the nursery with their mother, all very joyous and, well, darling. Sigh.
But then in comes Cyril Ritchard as Mr. Darling and it came rushing back to me how wonderful this movie is. (Captain Hook and Mr. Darling are traditionally played by the same actor. Psychoanalysts have a field day with this.)
Prim, preening, sarcastic and that wonderful speaking voice! His tie will not tie! It begs to be excused. It ties itself around the bedpost but around his neck? Oh no. And if it does not tie, he cannot go to dinner. If he cannot go to dinner, he can never go to the office again. And then they will all starve… (and so forth)
I should never wish to know Mr. Darling in real life but what a doll he is on the screen.
Of course, Peter Pan (Mary Martin) shows up and spirits the Darling children away to Neverland. Wendy, John and Michael are played by Maureen Bailey, Joey Trent and Kent Fletcher. Their performances are… about what you would expect in a TV movie. Martin, on the other hand, makes a very strong case for being considered one of the top Pans of all time.
So, off to Neverland, where the Darlings meet the Lost Boys, women in ostrich suits and assorted other flora and fauna of the school play variety. I actually find the way the show owns its low budget to be charming.
Ah, Captain Hook at last! Hood was starchy and neurotic in the original play and book but Cyril Ritchard hams the role up in spectacular manner. His Hook is gleefully homicidal and has a tendency to randomly perform Latin American and European ballroom dances. I can think of no better way for a villain to behave.
Less welcome is the tribe of faux Indians, who fight both pirates and boys. They are led by Tiger Lily (Sondra Lee), a platinum blonde in powder blue pedal pushers. (Say that fast three times!)
The Indians behave in a manner that is not so much tribal as it is mentally ill. Screaming, squealing, blowing raspberries, sticking their bottoms out, more squealing… Their official song is entitled Ugg-a-Wugg. I think that’s all that needs to be said. (I even hated these scenes when I was a kid.) I know it was a different time but oh my goodness!
The songs are pretty good. Excellent when viewed through a gauze of nostalgia. Any song with Hook is a delight.
Mysterious Lady is my favorite. It’s a duet between Ritchard’s Hook and Martin’s Pan, who is posing as a forest spirit and then as a lady. I just love talented people acting in scenes that are completely nuts. It’s a thing of mine. (Perhaps some very heavy duty pharmaceuticals were used in writing this scene. Hey, it was the sixties.)
Mary Martin is having a good deal of fun in her part. She leaps and bellows and prances and shows off her impressive shadow puppet ability.
For the curious, having women play boys on the stage was a common theatrical convention that often carried over into early motion pictures. After all, it would never do to have the Boy Who Never Grew Up suddenly have his voice change mid-tour. But then again, Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie absolutely insisted on a woman taking the role for the movie version so… Psychoanalysts, start your engines! (For other silent film examples, Marie Doro played the title role in Oliver Twist in 1916 and Shirley Mason played Jim Hawkins in the lost 1920 version of Treasure Island.)
I wonder now if Martin’s super-short cut inspired my lifelong love of the pixie. (Other than a long-haired stretch in my twenties, I tend to go back and forth between a pixie and a bob. I am presently pixie.)
Maureen Bailey’s overacting, on the other hand, is just not to my taste. It’s funny but as kid, it never occurred to me that Mary Martin was in her mid-forties but I did not for a minute buy Bailey as a child.
The whole thing is stagey in the extreme but the film-makers make no bones about it. This is a filmed play. Period. I find the low-tech effects and costumes to be quite charming. Again, fog of nostalgia. However, the enthusiasm of Martin and Ritchard are really what sell the film and I have never seen another version of Peter Pan that even comes close to recapturing its magic.
There have been many versions of Peter Pan on the screen and there are sure to be many more. This one is my favorite.
A relative latecomer to the motion picture game, Cyril Ritchard only made two silent features. However, when someone’s two silent films are Piccadilly and Blackmail, it’s enough to make you notice. (Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, like many films made during the sound transition, was released in both silent and sound versions.)
Ritchard was born in Sydney, Australia in 1897. In many ways, his story is a familiar one. While going to school for a respectable career (medicine in his case), Ritchard was bitten by the acting bug and made his stage debut in 1917. His specialty was dance but he did learn to sing a bit as the two skills often went hand in hand. (Ritchard had no pretentions about his singing ability. He was fond of announcing that he only had four notes to his name.)
In 1918, he partnered with dancer Madge Elliott (then the far more famous of the two) and they became a popular team in the musical theater of Australia and London. After a brief separation, during which Ritchard performed on Broadway and Elliott in London, the duo reunited. After nearly two decades as a performing team, they married in 1935.
(There is some debate as to the exact dates of Ritchard’s birth and stage debut.)
By the late twenties, talkies were on their way to taking over the movies but silent films still had some artistic triumphs left. During this tumultuous period, our intrepid performer finally tried his hand at the movies.
In Piccadilly, Ritchard got to show off his dancing skills as a nightclub performer. He was a proper cad in Blackmail and his character’s behavior earned Ritchard the unique distinction of being the first person to be murdered in an Alfred Hitchcock talkie. Or the last person to be murdered in a Hitchcock silent, depending on your point of view.
(Piccadilly has received high-quality release thanks to Milestone. The silent version of Blackmail had a quality release from Arthaus of Germany but that version has yet to come to the States. The sound version is still the most common way to see the film. Region free players are essential for silent/foreign movie fans. Sigh.)
Ritchard’s two silent feature performances (plus a 1927 dance short, On With the Dance, that he made with Madge Elliott) did not mark a permanent entrance into the world of motion pictures. He continued his career on the stage, adding light comedy to his repertoire and notably made an appearance with John Gielgud in the revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. During the Second World War, Ritchard and Elliott entertained troops in Egypt and Europe with their version of The Merry Widow.
In 1954, Ritchard was cast opposite Mary Martin in the musical version of Peter Pan. He was the first and only choice to play James Hook. The original 1904 play had a proven track record and, after some reworking of the songs, the musical showed itself to be equally popular. Richard and Martin both won Tony awards and ticket sales were strong. NBC purchased the broadcast rights to the play, which meant that it closed after just five months. Talk about quitting while you are ahead.
Madge Elliott succumbed to cancer in 1955. Ritchard remained active as both actor and director in theater, movies and television for the rest of his life. His final credited work was as the voice of Elrond in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. He passed away the same year at the age of eighty.
While his most famous performance was as a villain, Ritchard was remembered as kind and down to earth. He remains a beloved figure on the stages of Australia, England and the United States.