Many famous actresses have been associated with the plum role of Peter Pan over the past century: Maude Adams, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and most recently Allison Williams. The star of the best of all screen versions was Betty Bronson (1906-1971) and her casting in the role is something of its own fairy tale.
A native of New Jersey, Bronson moved to Hollywood as a teenager to break into the movie business. She’d had bit parts and extra roles in a half dozen features when she answered the Peter Pan cattle call, where she was to be evaluated by none other than J.M. Barrie himself. In winning the part Bronson beat out the biggest stars of the day, people like Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. For Barrie it wasn’t about marquee value, it was about the magic he sought to generate with his creation. A certain type was required. The stage role of Peter Pan is in the Principal Boy tradition from pantomime — it calls for a sprightly, athletic female. A grown woman can play the part with more emotional depth and range than a boy can. And drag — any sort of drag — serves to idealize a role, to elevate it to an unreal place in our imagination. For the right actress such a part can be a dazzling showcase of multiple skills. (This is one reason why the concept of Robin Williams in Hook is so palpably offensive to me. The last thing anyone ought to want to see ever is a male, middle-aged Peter Pan. It defeats the purpose and the spirit and the tradition of the character, aside from being yet another example of male encroachment on EVERYTHING — even one of the few realms where women have historically made inroads into power, playacting. Is the diatribe a detour? No. It’s clearly absolutely necessary or drivel like that movie wouldn’t occur. Would I want to see a middle-aged, depressed FEMALE Peter Pan? Actually, yes, that sounds kind of interesting. At least MORE interesting. I would definitely like to see an alcoholic, middle aged Peter Pan, played by Susan Hayward, for example).
So Bronson was cast in the original 1924 film of Peter Pan, and silent though it may be, it remains to my mind the definitive, best version of the tale by leagues. Directed by Herbert Brenon, the cast also includes Mary Brian, Esther Ralston, Ernest Torrence, and Anna May Wong. The movie was a hit, and unlike many who luck into such roles, Bronson proved to have the stuff to remain a star for almost a decade through nearly two dozen additional films. Among them were A Kiss for Cinderella (1925, another former Maude Adams role), Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, she played Mary), Paradise for Two (1927, with Richard Dix), The Singing Fool (1928, with Al Jolson), Sonny Boy (1929), The Medicine Man (1930, with Jack Benny), and Lover Come Back (1931, with Jack Mulhall). After Midnight Patrol (1932), she retired to marry well-heeled Ludwig Lauerhass, although she did return in 1937 to costar in the Gene Autry western The Yodelin’ Kid from Pine Ridge.
When her son was grown Bronson returned as a bit player in films and television. She was in episodes of Dr. Kildare and My Three Sons, and films like Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Who’s Got the Action? (1962), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) and Evel Knievel (1971). And thus did Betty Bronon’s career begin with a flying boy and end with a man who was perpetually plummeting on a motorcycle.
PETER PAN: I can fly!
EVEL KNIEVEL: I can fly, too! (flies for a second, then:) Whoa, whoa! Look out below!
For more on the silent film era please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.