BOOTLEG FILES 231: “Peter Pan” (1955 TV musical classic starring Mary Martin).
LAST SEEN: In its one and only live broadcast in 1955.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Not this version, but a later 1960 remake was available.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This version has been unavailable in favor of the 1960 adaptation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
On March 8, 1955, 67 million Americans sat down in front of their televisions to watch a live broadcast of the musical “Peter Pan” starring Mary Martin. The show had just recently concluded a successful Broadway run, and history was being made in transferring a production directly from the stage to television.
Today, most people recall “Peter Pan” from a 1960 television production that was shot on color video. That was rerun on several occasions and later saw a release on home video. But the original 1955 production was only seen once – at that time, video was not being used, so it was not possible for live broadcasts to be rerun at later dates. However, a kinescope (a 16mm film shot off a television monitor) did preserve that show. Today, that kinescope can be obtained via bootleg DVDs, which gives most people the opportunity to see what the magic was all about.
In retrospect, “Peter Pan” should never have taken place. This was the third version of the James M. Barrie classic created in a four year period, following a non-musical Broadway version with Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook, followed by Walt Disney’s animated feature film. The Disney film had its own original musical score, but unlike most previous Disney features there were no hit songs associated with it.
This “Peter Pan” was designed strictly as a star vehicle for Mary Martin, the reigning icon of the Broadway stage; her husband, Richard Halliday, co-produced the show. Contemporary audiences only know Martin by reputation, as she didn’t reproduce her legendary stage performances (“South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” on Broadway, “Annie Get Your Gun” on national tour, “Hello, Dolly!” in the West End) for the film adaptations. This didn’t bother Martin, as she never enjoyed working in movies; she had a brief and desultory career at Paramount Pictures in the early 1940s and repeatedly turned down film roles once she established herself as a Broadway force.
According to the wonderful new biography “Mary Martin, Broadway Legend” by Ronald L. Davis, “Peter Pan” had a troubled genesis. Its score was created by Carolyn Leigh and Mark Charlap, but their work harvested complaints from critics during the show’s original presentation in San Francisco in July 1954. Martin and Halliday responded by cutting several of the show’s tunes and tapping composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write additional songs. The show then played in Los Angeles in August before opening on Broadway in October.
According to Davis’ book, “Peter Pan” opened to some surprisingly harsh and abrasive reviews. The critic for The New Republic called the Leigh-Charlap-Styne-Comden-Green score “the worst…even out of Los Angeles” (ouch!) Harold Clurman, writing in The Nation, bemoaned that he “felt no genuine warmth or real affection for the whole event.” Martin and her director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, earned the critics’ praise, and the show’s special effects (with Peter Pan and the Darling children flying across the stage via wires) also received kudos.
However, the public got a half-century start on Dick Cheney: they told the critics to go f**k themselves. “Peter Pan” was a huge commercial hit, particularly with family audiences. It ran four months, and its box office success was rewarded with Martin’s winning a Tony Award.
Yet taking this production on the road for a national touring company did not seem like a possible solution. “Peter Pan” was an expensive show to stage, and its high-flying special effects could not easily be reproduced in the regional theaters of the day. As luck would have it, Martin and Halliday were approached by “Producer’s Showcase,” a top-rated anthology series on NBC that presented A-list stars in prestigious dramatic and musical specials. Some of these specials were based on classic Broadway shows, others were created just for this series (most notably the musical version of “Our Town” starring Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint). “Peter Pan” marked the first time a Broadway show went directly to a television presentation – normally, shows were (and still are) turned into movies, then maybe received a TV remake later on.
“Peter Pan” was transferred virtually intact to television. Watching it today, it is difficult to understand why the critics were so hostile. Admittedly, the score is erratic – it’s not difficult to determine which song writing team composed the individual tunes – and the show was lacking a hit number that resonated with the public. And, yes, you can clearly see the wires that hoist the cast skyward.
But the show was one of the most magical, enchanting and thoroughly wonderful bursts of pure innocent fun. Even a half-century later, “Peter Pan” hasn’t lost any of its glory. If anything, it seems to have gotten better with time.
First and foremost is Martin’s performance. Thank goodness we have this recording to see why she was considered the queen of the musical stage – from her first entrance flying into the Darling children’s bedroom, she captures Peter Pan’s essence of eternal youth and its rambunctious energy (no mean feat for a 40-year-old woman!). Jerome Robbins’ dance numbers bring Martin and the ensemble into inventive and (surprisingly) jazzy body twists. And when Martin is in performance with the children of the cast, she integrates herself brilliantly into their world – she’s literally one of the kids.
And then there is the sublime Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. The Australian stage actor is barely recalled today (he made very few films), and this role is what he’s recalled for. But what a role! He plays the pirate leader as a coy, almost fey tease who delights in his mischievous villainy. When requiring to think out a scheme, he instructs his crew to play different melodies (a tango, a tarantella, etc.), which propels him into a song-and-dance explanation of what he plans to do next. Ritchard is clearly Martin’s equal for star power, and his off-beat interpretation of the dastardly pirate was peerless.
“Peter Pan” was the highest rated TV show up to that time. The response was so phenomenal that “Producers’ Showcase” brought the cast and crew back to its studio for a second live broadcast in 1956. The show was also broadcast in color, which at the time was reserved solely for major offerings. However, the surviving kinescope is in black-and-white, which may not be the worst thing (the 1960 color video, which many people consider to be inferior to this production, is fairly garish in its hues).
If you hunt about on eBay, you can locate “Peter Pan” on a bootleg DVD. The copy I have is not the best in regard to visual quality, but it’s easy enough to see and enjoy this incredible program. If you have kids, or if there’s still a little kid inside your adult body, please seek out “Peter Pan” – like its enchanting hero, you’ll be flying with glee. Honestly!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!