Videotape technology existed but wasn't put into practical use until later in 1956, when the Ampex company introduced two-inch quadruplex videotape. That meant that both Peter Pans could only be preserved as kinescopes, i.e., 35mm or 16mm recordings made by filming the image emanating from a video monitor. (Not the most sophisticated technology, that.) Unlike the original video signal, the quality of the kinescopes was generally poor.
In the case of Peter Pan, matters are made worse by the fact that both performances survive only in black-and-white. What's even odder about this release is that a third adaptation of the same musical exists with the same stars as a stand-alone special that aired on NBC on December 8, 1960. That production, again shot in color, was preserved on videotape and still survives. It was rebroadcast every few years until 1973, and then after some restoration was broadcast yet again in 1989 and 1991. It later turned up on Disney Channel, and budget label Goodtimes released a VHS version in 1990. DVD copies exist, but these appear to be bootlegs of the VHS tape.
So why didn't VAI simply release the superior-looking color version instead? Who knows, though rights issues seem the obvious answer. In any case, their Blu-ray will perhaps appeal to classic Broadway musical fans anxious to see multiple preserved performances of the 60-plus year-old show, and while it's certainly interesting historically, the inherent poor quality of the kinescoped material, especially considering its color origins, doesn't lend itself well to the format.
The 1954 musical was, of course, an adaptation of J.M. Barrie's famous 1904 play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. Jerome Kern was the first to take a stab at a musical version, in 1924, but for no clear reason the 1950s really turned out to be the Decade of Pan. Leonard Bernstein wrote a full-blown musical until it was decided that neither Jean Arthur (as Peter) nor Boris Karloff (as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling) could sing particularly well. Only five of the original songs were retained, though that show has since been restaged with the full original score.
Walt Disney's Peter Pan (1953) came next, though it had been in production since the late 1940s. It did reasonably well critically and commercially, though some (including this reviewer) don't entirely embrace it for deviating so far from Barrie's original play.
The following summer came the most durable musical adaptation, this time starring Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook/Mr. Darling. Sandy Duncan starred in a successful 1979 Broadway revival (also broadcast on television, though possibly only select scenes), while former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby has all but owned the part since her first of two Broadway revivals in 1990 (though she'd been playing Peter Pan since 1974). The best of the various Peter Pans, she continued playing the role until 2013, when at 60 she finally grew up. (Or maybe not. According to reader Sergei Hasenecz, Rigby reprised the role in August 2015 for a limited 15-day run in Vancouver.) A videotaped performance of Rigby's version is also available on home video.
Having seen the 1960 color version several times through the years I was looking forward to this release but, sorry to say, there was little joy to be had. The image is poor to the point of distraction, greatly taking away from the show's major advantages over Disney's film, particularly its bittersweet ending, which can be quite moving when done right.
Martin and Ritchard may have won Tony Awards but, as writer Mark Evanier opined on his great newsfromme.com blog, (referring to the number "Mysterious Lady") "you had this adult woman ... and Cyril Ritchard playing Captain Hook as very foppish - his feet touched the ground less than Peter's - and then along comes this song. Peter pretends to be a woman so you have someone who could have been a grandmother playing an adolescent boy playing a sultry young lady being lusted after by a gay pirate." Evanier also notes that where Rigby could almost convince her audience that she was a he, Martin never really pulled it off. Her unusual facial features (high, pronounced cheekbones, tiny eyes, large mouth) probably contributed to this. She looks more like Frank Morgan's Wizard of Oz as a boy.
Both the 1955 and 1956 productions were, like the Broadway show, staged by Jerome Robbins, Though presumably retooling many of the original stage show sets, the 90-minute TV version reportedly cost upwards of $400,000, this in an age when half-hour dramas had budgets of well under $50,000 per episode. It certainly looks lavish by the standards of the day, while the wire rigging during Martin's (and other performers') flying scenes still impress today.
Video & Audio
As noted above, the original, live and color broadcast of both the 1955 and '56 airings of Peter Pan survive only as black-and-white kinescopes, possibly 16mm prints. Blu-ray can do little to improve the blurry, washed-out image and the mono audio (English only with no subtitles) isn't all that hot, either. The disc is region-free.
In addition to both versions (the 1955 broadcast, slightly inferior to the other, is billed as an extra feature), there's an interview with Heller Halliday, Martin's daughter, who plays "Liza" in the show; and a live closed-circuit NBC "Telesales Promo" about the upcoming show.
For die-hard Peter Pan fans or those who can't get enough of preserved performances of classic Broadway shows, this release of Peter Pan should prove interesting. But as mainstream entertainment, mainly due to the kinescope image, this reviewer found it lacking. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available while his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity will be released this month.