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Daily Mail (07/Apr/2012) - Where Peter Pan meets Hitchcock


  • article: Where Peter Pan meets Hitchcock
  • author(s): Jim McBeth
  • newspaper: Daily Mail (07/Apr/2012)
  • keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Mary Rose


Where Peter Pan meets Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was uncharacteristically silent. Famously loquacious even as a 21-year-old, the lugubrious young film studio 'gofer' was mesmerised by the supernatural tale unfolding on a London West End stage. It was, he would admit many years later, the beginning of an obsession.

There would be many others in the career of the 'master of suspense' — a voyeuristic desire for ice-cool, unattainable blonde actresses, struggling with his repressed sexuality and creating a series of chilling screen classics that exploited the innermost fears of his audiences.

But no obsession would be greater than that which he experienced when he saw the play Mary Rose for the first time. 'Can you believe this was written by J.M. Barrie, the chap who did Peter Pan?' Hitchcock's companion asked.

'I must film this,' Hitchcock whispered.

It was a bold statement to make in 1920.

'Hitch' was still five years away from directing his first movie — and far from the Hollywood years when the English auteur was recognised as one of the world's greatest directors for films such as Psycho, Rebecca, Notorious, The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and Frenzy.

But Mary Rose, which had indeed been written by the Scots author and playwright, would be the enduring misery at the heart of the director's illustrious career. It was the Hitchcock classic that never was — the film he wanted to make more than any other.

It would have led to an unlikely collaboration between two men from wildly disparate backgrounds who were both deeply damaged emotionally.

Hitch's ambition lasted for 60 years, from the moment he saw the play until his death at the age of 80 — when he still held the film rights.

But studio bosses stymied him at every turn, even writing into his contracts that he could have more than £1m to make any film he wanted except Mary Rose — a ghost story about a girl who disappears on a Scottish island, only to reappear years later but not a day older.

Hitchcock was captivated by the central character, yet another 'cool blonde' — but the play, now regarded as the 'dark side' of Peter Pan, revealing Barrie's obsession with remainconsummated, ing young, became a lost classic which has until now languished in the Neverland of theatrical obscurity.

But a new production is being staged this month by DogOrange/ Midnight Productions at the Riverside Studios in London — the first public airing in decades for what the producers describe as a stage 'masterwork'.

American film biographer Joseph McBride says Mary Rose is 'the most intriguing unfilmed project of Alfred Hitchcock's career'.

Film historian Ethan Trex said: 'Even legendary directors such as Hitchcock didn't always get their way. When he was asked about his professional regrets, Hitchcock frequently mentioned the unproduced film of Mary Rose. He described the project as "a little like a science fiction story" and detailed the plot. Hitchcock put a lot of thought into this project but the supernatural elements of the film were a nonstarter for studio executives.

'Hitchcock revealed, "Do you know, it's written specifically into my present contract that I cannot do Mary Rose?". Hitch could make any film he wanted as long as he kept the budget under $3million.' The director's affinity with the play, and its theme of eternal youth, says much about Barrie and Hitchcock — two men who were psychologically and emotionally ruined by their childhoods.

In Hitchcock's case, he developed an obsession with 'virginal' blondes, actresses such as Tippi Hedren, who starred for him in The Birds and Marnie, and Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, who featured in several of his classics.

Hitchcock had, in fact, 'pencilled in' Miss Hedren to appear in a 1964 adaptation of Mary Rose. When she refused, claiming she could not stand his 'obsession' with her for a third picture, he threatened to ruin her career.

'Which he did,' said the star who gave up her acting career to run an animal sanctuary in Africa.

In Barrie's case, Mary Rose was deeply meaningful to the diminutive weaver's son from Kirriemuir, Angus, who, it is said, suffered from psychogenic dwarfism — his physical, emotional and psychological growth stunted to the point where he could relate only to children.

Like Hitchcock, Barrie's life was ruled by a strange sexual dynamic.

Hitchcock, the greengrocer's son from London, spent his life struggling against poor self-image, citing a lonely, sheltered childhood 'compounded by obesity'.

The fact that beautiful women, such as Miss Hedren and Miss Kelly, would not give him a second glance only made them all the more desirable.

But while Hitchcock longed for the unattainable, Barrie, whose marriage to the actress Mary Ansell was never once famously declared: 'Nothing that happens after we are 12 really matters.' After his death in 1937, at the age of 77, his memory would be burdened by an enduring but unsubstantiated suggestion that he had been a paedophile.

A leading psychologist said of Hitchcock and Barrie: 'Peter Pan and Mary Rose speak eloquently of the trauma that shaped Barrie's attitude to life and relationships. When Barrie was six years old, his 14-year-old brother died in an ice-skating accident.

'The dead boy was their mother's favourite and Barrie struggled to replace him in her affections, even wearing the older boy's clothes and pretending to be him. In a sense, he stopped the clock on his own psychological and sexual life.

'In the case of Hitchcock, the filmmaker had a compulsive taste for unattainable young women — and Mary Rose is a blonde with an unconscious Peter Pan complex. It's not difficult to understand the appeal of the play to both men, who on the face of it are so different.' Two years after his brother's untimely and tragic death, Barrie was sent off to Glasgow Academy. When he was ten, he returned home and attended Forfar Academy, but at 13 he was on the move again, this time to Dumfries Academy.

A voracious reader of 'penny dreadfuls', he loved RM Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper.

At Dumfries, he and his friends formed a drama club, putting on 'productions' in the garden of Moat Brae House, where they played pirates 'in an odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan'.

Barrie longed to be an author but his family wanted him to enter the ministry because that was what his lost brother, David, would have done. But he read literature at Edinburgh University.

Extremely introverted, he never grew much above 5ft tall and remained painfully shy for the rest of his life.

He graduated in 1882 and worked for a year as a reporter in Nottingham before returning to Kirriemuir, where he began turning his mother's fireside stories into articles for the St James's Gazette.

The magazine's editor 'liked that Scotch thing' and Barrie compiled the stories, which he called 'thrums', into his first novels — Auld Licht Idylls in 1888, A Window in Thrums in 1890 and The Little Minister in 1891. He then began writing his famous Tommy stories, the beginning of his exploration of children who refuse to grown up — a theme that would reach it apex in Peter Pan and Mary Rose.

Now established as a novelist, Barrie turned his attention to the theatre.

He was putting on his third play when he met Miss Ansell. The couple married in Kirriemuir in 1894. But the marriage was sexless, which, allied to Barrie's affinity with children, fuelled a belief that his sexual preferences were of a sinister nature. His wife would eventually have an affair, leading to their divorce.

In spite of his personal difficulties, Barrie went from strength to strength, enjoying back-to-back successes in 1900 and 1901 with his plays Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton.

But his finest hour came in 1904, when he created Peter Pan, which is as popular today as it was more than a century ago. Years later, in 1929, Barrie gifted the copyright of the play to Great Ormond Street, the London children's hospital which continues to benefit from his munificence to this day.

In the years following the publication of Peter Pan, Barrie was wealthy and moving in high literary circles. After the First World War he founded an amateur cricket team which included such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Jerome K Jerome, G.K. Chesterton, A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse.

He was also a friend of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and was godfather to his son Peter.

Barrie was one of only seven people to whom Scott wrote letters in his final hours following his doomed expedition to the South Pole, asking him to take care of Peter and his wife Kathleen.

Even if there was talk of him being a deviant, it did not dissuade his friends from handing over to him the care of their children.

The best known was the Llewellyn Davies family, whose children were the inspiration for Peter Pan. The parents, Arthur and Sylvia, had five sons, George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nicholas or Nico.

Barrie became acquainted with the family in 1897 after he met George, Jack and baby Peter with their nanny, Mary Hodgson, in London's Kensington Gardens. Barrie lived nearby and often walked his dog in the park.

He would entertain the older boys with stories, telling them baby Peter could fly. Babies were birds before they were born, Barrie told them, but parents put bars on nursery windows to keep the little ones from flying away. The writer soon became firm friends with the parents and when they died within a few years of each other, 'Uncle Jim' took over the care of the boys.

But before his death, Nico, the youngest of the brothers, denied that Barrie had ever behaved inappropriately. 'I don't believe Uncle Jim experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone — man, woman, or child,' he said. 'He was an innocent, which is why he could write Peter Pan.' More than two decades after Barrie's death — and more than 40 years after Hitchcock first saw Mary Rose — the film director reignited his desire to film the play.

His biographer, Donald Spoto, said: 'Hitch's failure to make this film was perhaps the single greatest disappointment of his creative life.' Film writer Mark Nicholl said: 'Hitchcock's most frustrating failure was his inability to adapt Mary Rose. He had bought the rights to the play but it wasn't until the 1960s that he commissioned a script.

'The studio was unimpressed and the production never went anywhere, though his estate retained the rights until after his death.

'It was, however, a theme he would return to in films such as The Lady Vanishes. But as for Mary Rose... it was not to be.'

Mary Rose is at the Riverside Studios, London W6 (020 8237 1111) until April 28.