I always forget how much I love Peter Pan until I actually get around to watching it again. It’s 77 minutes of non-stop fun with swordfights, mermaids, pirates and that pesky crocodile. Arguably Disney’s first animated adventure film, the source material is derived from J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who never grew up. As we’ve noted before, Peter Pan was one of two books seen in the background of a scene in Pinocchio. Walt had been working on bringing Barrie’s beloved story to the big screen since 1939 (and spent the four years prior acquiring the rights), and the studio spent $4-million and 14 years to finally pull it off.
Peter Pan had long been a popular production for live theatre groups, and in that environment a few traditions arose to add to the symbolism and mythology of the story. Walt decided to observe what’s probably the biggest, but let another two big ones slide.
In previous productions of Barrie’s play (and most since), the same actor plays George Darling (Wendy, John and Michael’s father) and Captain Hook to symbolize the story’s major conflict between growing up and growing older. Walt’s version honours this tradition. Tinkerbell was traditionally portrayed as dancing light, but in this film she is given a form. Also, for the first time ever the role of Peter was played by a male with Bobby Driscoll lending his voice to the role, while the theatre traditionally had a woman play the roll.
Tinkerbell’s form was even the subject of some controversy as Peter Pan’s sidekick was derided for being a petulant, and curvaceous, little sprite instead of a helpful ally. Contrary to rumour at the time, Tinkerbell was not modeled on Marilyn Monroe, but on model Margaret Kerry.
“My measurements were a 35 bust line, my waist was 25 inches and my hips were 36, maybe 37 inches. That’s how the rumour started that Tinkerbell was modeled after Marilyn Monroe,” Kerry said in an interview for a book on Disney history. “I was gorgeous.”
Kerry also lent her voice to the redheaded mermaid in the sequence at Mermaid Lagoon.
The New York Times criticized Disney’s vision of the classic story for omitting the heart-tugging sequence in which Tinkerbell is close to death and the audience must profess their belief in fairies in order for her to live.
What the newspaper failed to mention, though, and what has been heavily criticized in subsequent years, is the racist representation of Neverland’s aboriginals. “What Makes the Red Man Red?” and lines like “The indian is cunning, but not intelligent” spoken by older brother John, are what that newspaper, in 1953, called “gleeful vitality.” An interesting insight into mainstream thought of the time.
But the film also marks a turning point in business at Walt Disney Studios. This is the last film to ever have been distributed by RKO Pictures. The company was now big enough that it launched it own distribution arm, Buena Vista Distribution. The Buena Vista name (which literally translates to “Good View”) stuck until the early 21st century, when most of the Buena Vista brand was renamed to reflect the Walt Disney name (Buena Vista International became Walt Disney Distribution, for example) in 2007. Walt Disney World, however, still has roads and lakes that carry the Buena Vista name.
Peter Pan, though, also began one of the biggest, and longest, copyright stories in history. In 1929, Barrie gave all the rights to Peter Pan, its characters and story to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, a hospital which focused on children’s care. It originally took Walt four years to convince the hospital to let him make the film, and the hospital’s name subsequently fills the screen very early in Peter Pan’s opening credits.
But under U.K. law, copyright extends 70 years after the author’s death. Barrie died in 1937, the copyright on the original text expired in 2007. In the vast majority of cases, the family and descendants of the author are the only ones who lose when copyright expires. In this case, though, a major hospital, for 70 years, had been very happy to enjoy the windfall of 10 feature films and countless theatrical productions (keep in mind Disney’s classic, plus the Johnny Depp film Finding Neverland and the Robin Williams hit Hook added to this windfall). At the end of 2007, that stopped overnight.
“If European publishers want to make donations, that would be great — it would be the cherry on the cake — but I don’t expect them to,” Christine De Poortere, Peter Pan director at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, told the Guardian at the time.
Peter Pan is a story that, like A Christmas Carol and Alice Through the Looking Glass, has become a timeless childhood treasure and it is the Disney version of the story that is the most familiar to millions of children the world over.