There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.
Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:
Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.
Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.
The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:
We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.
Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:
(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography
After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.
The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.
What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.
The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.
It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:
He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.
The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.
A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.
Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’
Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.
Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.
Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.
Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.
Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.
J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from http://www.knebworthhouse.com
The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.
The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.
Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:
- US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
- US 1913 The Little Minister
d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
- US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
- US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
- US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
- GB 1915 The Little Minister
d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
- GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play's stage production (scene six)]
- GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
- GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
- US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- US 1920 Half an Hour
d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
- US 1921 The Little Minister
d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- GB 1921 The Will
d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
- US 1922 The Little Minister
d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
- US 1924 Peter Pan
d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
- US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
- US 1927 Quality Street
d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions