Surreal delirium in cinema! Gary Cooper and Ann Harding are a tragic romantic pair, but even when separated by space, time and the law they manage to live a full life together as virtual dream lovers. The odd art film out in Henry Hathaway’s career, this unabashed spiritualist fantasy was adopted by French surrealists as emblematic of their values. It’s beautifully filmed by cameraman Charles Lang, avoiding overdone expressionist effects… reality is a dream, folks, and this star-crossed pair makes dreams real by a simple force of will. Spiritual Nirvana or pretension? It’s crazy, but it connects with real life as we experience it — with our romantic memories and regrets.
KL Studio Classics
1935 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 85 min. / Street Date August 10, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Gary Cooper, Ann Harding, Ida Lupino, John Halliday, Dickie Moore, Virginia Weidler, Douglass Dumbrille, Donald Meek, Leonid Kinskey, Cyril McLaglen.
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Directors: Hans Drier, Robert Usher
Film Editor: Stuart Heisler
Visual Effects: Gordon Jennings
Original Music: Ernst Toch
Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence, Waldemar Young, additional scenes by John Meehan, Edwin Justus Mayer, from the novel by George Du Maurier and the play by John Nathan Raphael, adapted by Constance Collier.
Produced by Henry Herzbrun, Louis D. Lighton
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Peter Ibbetson became a touchstone title in the 1970s when film academics were delving deep into genre studies. Adapted from an 1891 novel and turned into a play, an opera and a silent film adaptation, George Du Maurier’s eerie story sits at a crossroads between the gothic novel and spiritualist fantasy. It’s a borderline film blanc, the odd category of afterlife fantasies. I remember author James Ursini telling me it was one of his favorite pictures, for the purity of its presentation. It’s said to be an improvement on the original novel, an anomaly for Hollywood adaptations of books. I don’t remember seeing this through the Paramount collection at the UCLA Film Archive, which likely held a nitrate print. But as David Del Valle’s disc commentary reminds me, it did play several times on Los Angeles’ legendary ‘Z’ Cable Channel, and later on early AMC cable.
At this point in his career star Gary Cooper acted in a much wider range than his ‘yup, nope’ reputation suggests. He’s excellent as a Victorian dreamer obsessed with a love born of regret. His cosmos-warping romance with Ann Harding is mostly played in absentia, and consists of just two kisses, one of which may take place only in a dream. The glossy Paramount production is one of the best examples of amor fou, in which lovers defy convention, even reality, in the pursuit of their desire. In this case Perfect Love is represented by the emotions of childhood play companions with a special relationship. Adults are supposed to reconcile their dream lives with reality; Du Maurier’s tale concocts a macabre triumph of Love.
Paris, the 1890s. When the very young Peter Ibbetson (child actor Dickie Moore) loses his mother, he stays for a time with the family of his neighbor/playmate Mary (Virginia Weidler of The Philadelphia Story). The idyllic relationship of ‘Gogo’ and ‘Mimsey’ is broken when Peter’s uncle forcibly returns him to England. Years later Peter is a skilled architect, successful but disenchanted with life. His kindly employer (Donald Meek) entreats him to go to France for a break. In the company of a flirtatious museum guide, Agnes (Ida Lupino) Peter revisits his childhood house and rekindles his direct fixation on Mimsey, intuiting that they’ve maintained some kind of uncanny connection despite the years of separation. Recharged, Peter returns to London and is dispatched to a job on the Yorkshire country house of the Duke of Towers (John Halliday), overseen by his wife, Mary (Ann Harding). To their astonishment Peter and Mary realize they are indeed each other’s Gogo and Mimsey — neither has forgotten the love that never faded. The violently possessive Duke wrongly suspects ordinary adultery but Peter and Mary’s connection is much more serious. They declare a bond that neither of them will deny, not even for the purpose of running away.
The absurd tragedy that follows separates the lovers permanently — but only on the plane of reality. Convinced that their ‘real’ lives are a meaningless illusion, they continue to share dreams despite the fact that Peter is locked away in a dungeon, literally with his back broken. The third act takes place almost exclusively in a dream life. Peter and Mary join each other nightly in a fantastic realm of shared bliss. It’s gloriously insubstantial, yet no more illusory than the ‘consensus reality’ of the conventional world that has cheated them time and again.
Films blanc that transcend time and space are usually wistful slices of wish fulfillment. Peter Ibbetson resembles ghost romances in which dead lovers return in hallucinations, yet leave behind concrete evidence of their existence — scarves, rings — etc. A prime example is William Dieterle’s evocative Portrait of Jennie. The story contrivances seen here are by no means impossible: many of us have accidentally re-encountered a person from the past that we thought we’d never see again. Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come confect impossible loves that persist simply because lovers want them to — a man connects with a woman from a different era, and a distraught husband ventures to the afterlife to seek out the wife unjustly taken from him. Who hasn’t dreamed of reconnecting with a lost love under ‘impossible’ circumstances?
Although filmed and performed in a formal manner Peter Ibbetson is not stiff or stilted — its characterizations and situations are too unusual for that. The idyllic childhood scenes are better than perfect. Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler’s credible tots have wisdom beyond their years, as if already pained by the separation they know is coming. Reality means separation and barriers, as with the wrought-iron fence that the slender ‘Gogo’ can slip through at will. Gogo loses his mother, then his soul mate Mimsey, and then apparently spends his school and early working years in emotional frustration, unable to experience joy or pleasure. Popping that bubble is Ida Lupino’s Agnes, who energizes Peter enough to seek out his old house. There he intuits that some spiritual force is indeed in play.
When Peter and Ann meet again under formal conditions it’s as if their lives have been re-ignited. They remember a word code of recognition — Cric – Crac. It’s a bit like Orpheus and Eurydice. Nothing else matters, even though Mary’s husband intercedes with a gun.
When the overt dreams take over there are no coy games of ‘was she real?’ or ‘Do you believe?’ The already misty cinematography turns mildly expressionist. The sets are not distorted; Charles Lang creates ethereal tableaus with partial silhouettes and shafts of light. The childhood connection transmutes into spiritual telepathy. The pair meet in a dream landscape that Peter initially denies, deciding that he’s making it all up in his mind. Ann sends him proof that it’s a genuine Shared Dream, and that they can live a life together within it. That’s exactly what happens — the relationship continues on an exalted plane, with only one fear: what happens when one of them dies?
Although well reviewed Peter Ibbetson was apparently not a big success in 1935. It’s an entirely atypical film for director Henry Hathaway. He wasn’t Paramount’s first choice and the actors hired were second and third choices as well. Yet something clicked — the director of Lives of a Bengal Lancer and (much later) The Sons of Katie Elder ran with the opportunity to make something special. Perhaps Hathway’s hard-edged approach is what prevents Ibbetson from veering into ‘precious’ territory. One feels that everyone who worked on this film had a special interest in it. Among the many credited and uncredited writers is the famed actress Constance Collier, who had co-written and performed Peter Ibbetson on stage in 1917.
What really kept Peter Ibbetson alive for decades was the attention of the original gang of French surrealists — Ado Kyrou, André Breton and Company. When not promoting their art movement these men seem to have been avid film buffs, rejecting narrative normalcy and going wild over films that pursue irrational, anti-social thrills. They favored much more than the experimental films of their own Luis Buñuel: the odd mix of titles favors political and sexual delirium: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Duck Soup, King Kong, The Night of the Hunter, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Portrait of Jennie and even The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
Surrealists gravitated toward dream imagery but rejected photoplays that compartmentalized reality and dreams into separate realms. To ‘destroy complacent existence’ it was better to blur the lines between the two domains. In other words, The Wizard of Oz is Out but Repulsion is In. Author J.H. Matthews explained that surrealists often ignored a movie’s conventional content. Adou Kyrou found the film noir classic Laura charged with surreal power. Dismissing the storyline that explains in simple terms the jarring reappearance of a beautiful woman thought to be dead, Kyrou seized on a detective’s necrophiliac obsession with her portrait, and his ‘magical’ confrontation with an apparition, his ‘obscure object of desire.’ Ado Kyrou didn’t care about the rest of the movie, or anything beyond the fact that Laura has materialized out of McPherson’s dreams. The ‘dream life’ has succeeded in transforming reality. End of story.
Because all movies are arguably projections aimed at fulfilling our dream wishes, we have to admit that that Kyrou was on to something. That moment’s ‘zing’ in Laura carries a potent surreal charge — for a minute, McPherson’s secret desire has been fulfilled.
Peter Ibbetson became a pantheon picture for these poets because the dream state rules throughout. The lovers don’t begin to live until they defy their muted, hollow lives. Peter rejects the drink and women pursued by his co-workers; Mary rejects her stifling marriage. Immediately recognizing their amorous miracle, they fearlessly announce their mutual devotion, knowing full well the power the aristocracy grants to her husband the Duke.
— André Breton
Although surrealists claimed not to care about filmmaking craft or technique, Ado Kyrou praised Peter Ibbetson’s glorious dream visuals. Peter again passes through iron bars, but this time like the 4D Man, bringing Mary with him. That sort of ‘breaking boundaries’ imagery, sometimes with the barrier crumbling, is usually seen in religious stories, as when God’s angels deliver Lot from Sodom by making a prison door disappear.
With the help of smoke, shafts of sunlight and diffusion filters, Ibbetson locates the shared Dream World in a verdant forest park. Even though Mary is a shut-away and Peter a paraplegic shackled to his bed, the lovers’ dream selves walk in formal dress, idealized forever. In the distance is a fairy-tale castle, their shared idea of perfection. When they question the permanence of their miracle, their dream world changes — a storm destroys the castle with lightning and the landscape dissolves in overlapping landslides. Today it reminds us of one of the illusion-worlds of Philip K. Dick. In U.B.I.K. and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, false realities tend to melt or dissolve when the brain-power or drugs generating them are expended.
Peter Ibbetson remains pure surrealism because its story is told through the surreal adventurers, not an audience surrogate character. Nobody is left behind to find evidence of a miracle, no portrait masterpiece tells us that a great love existed. It’s all a purely private journey: neither Agnes nor Peter’s boss pontificate on the meaning of it all, or even have a clue as to what drives Peter’s obsession. The light that beckons to Peter and Maria as they dream is not ‘heavenly’ in origin. It doesn’t represent Life or Death… it’s simply the ‘truth’ of the power of their love, that crosses all barriers of existence.
We’re also struck by the way the film avoids Production Code insistence on a Judeo-Christian universe — this is not like Portrait of Jennie, in which the fantasy is carefully subordinated to the Church, with a nun delivering a sermon. But Mary does beckon Peter from beyond death, suggesting an afterlife in which Love reigns alone. That does evoke a reassuring Kingdom of Heaven.
European critics dote on Peter Ibbetson. Here’s a brief article in which Francesco Gala even goes into the significance of a painting (by Turner?) seen briefly in the film: Blog Entry 2.28.21 Riguardando ‘Peter Ibbetson.’
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Peter Ibbetson is a fine transfer of this unique fantasy-romance, that transforms from an endearing weepie (the children try to run away to keep from being separated) to a bizarre spiritual art picture. The scan brings out the hazy texture of the dream scenes, the sometimes gauzy look of the Paramount House style as taken to an extreme in cameraman Karl Struss’s Island of Lost Souls. The year 1935 is just prior to the introduction of improved, finer-grain B&W film stock. We get a hint of the shining silver screen look of original nitrate prints.
Kino’s commentary gives David Del Valle and Miles Hunter a spin, although Hunter can’t get more than a few words in edgewise. The rambling track dispenses information from the IMDB and Wikipedia, sometimes with additional good insights. Del Valle is harsh on actress Ann Harding without fully explaining why; her performance in this role is quite good. His talk about the film’s surrealist roots is useful, and he taps a key legend: the surrealists reportedly ‘discovered’ Peter Ibbetson in 1937 when poet Paul Éluard followed (stalked) a desirable woman into a movie theater, and accidentally landed in the middle of one of Gary Cooper’s speeches about l’amour sans limites.
Born publicists, the surrealists encouraged the making of myth. Another possibly apocryphal story about weird moviegoing habits tells us that a group of film-fan poets, seeking to ‘destroy’ bourgeois film narrative, indulged in ‘theater hopping.’ They’d drop in for short sections of a number of movies on a main street, landing at random points en medias res. The moment a show began to reveal the contours of a plot or characters they’d exit and move on to the next theater, thus creating their own ‘surreal cinema.’
Of course, when TV arrived, any viewer with a channel-changer could create that effect.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
[ NOTE: After waiting perhaps 25 years to see Peter Ibbetson I seriously misremebered an important detail: I have a (false?) memory of rear-projection visual effects in which mountain backgrounds literally melt behind the lovers as they watch their dream world crumble. I believe it was accomplished by printing still photos onto waxy sheets of glass; during filming the glass was heated to make the photographic emulsion sag & droop, and melt away. I’ll save this space if anyone can help me out by recalling the B&W film I’ve apparently confused with Peter Ibbetson. ]
Supplements: Audio commentary with David Del Valle with Miles Hunter; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson