”Peter Ibbetson” is the seventh of the new additions to the list I am reviewing and I am now through the silents again and back to talkies. This is also (again) movie number 100 on the list. That calls for some sort of celebration I suppose. It is also likely to be my last review in 2013.
This year my wife gave me the new “1001 movies…” edition for Christmas. Now I can finally read up on the new additions up front. Not that that necessarily is a good idea. I find that it is generally a good idea to keep expectations down. That makes it so much easier for a film to surprise in a positive way. In the case of “Peter Ibbetson” I read that this film is famous for its surrealist dream sequence that harkened to the famous surrealist filmmakers like Bunuel and forestalled the dream sequence in “Spellbound”. Clearly this was the item to watch out for in this film.
There is indeed a dream sequence and it is both central to the story and a significant part of the second half of the film, but clearly it was oversold by the Book. There is very little surrealist about it and instead of being a mystic highlight it threatens to overload the film with romantic pathos. It is an okay film, but hardly the spectacle I was expecting.
Anyway, I am as usual ahead of myself and already deep into a massive spoiler. If you have not seen the film, stop reading here.
Peter (Dickie Moore as 8 year old Peter and Gary Cooper as adult Peter) and Mary (Virginia Weidler as child, Ann Harding as adult) grew up together as English expats in a Parisian suburb in the mid-19th century. They were neighbors in a wealthy, dreamlike environment where they were entirely protected from outside pressure, in a sense an Eden, where they knew each other as Gogo and Mimsey (excuse me for rolling my eyes over those names). They fight and they play and they are basically inseparable until disaster strikes and Peter’s mother dies. Not surprisingly Peter takes this rather bad, he is a very sensitive boy all agrees, and the situation does not improve when his uncle, a colonel with a rod up his arse, appears to take him back to England as his ward.
Fast forward some 20-30 years and Peter, now Ibbetson, in the shape of Gary Cooper has become a clever architect (read: white collar artist/construction worker), good at his work but empty at heart. Clearly, we learn, Mimsey is missing in his life and not even Ida Lupino as Agnes can distract him. Then, ta-da, he gets that special assignment. He has to go Yorkshire, to the Duke of Towers and design and oversee the renovation of a stable. Of course it turns out that the Duchess of Towers is no other than Mary/Mimsey and without even knowing who each other are they fall into their old pattern.
Of course there is the little complication that Mary is already married to no less than a duke (John Halliday). He realizes what is going on between Peter and his wife even before they know it themselves and force them to show their cards. That sadly results in a dead duke, an imprisoned architect and a lonely duchess.
This is where the dreaming begins because something as trivial as prison, a broken back and massive class difference can certainly not keep two people meant for each other apart. See, Peter and Mary share a very special ability. They can share their dreams. That means that they can will themselves to dream a shared dream where they can be together and do the things that lovers do and as an added bonus, they remember their dreams instead of forgetting them like the rest of us mortals. In this elegant way they can lead a double life where their actual physical world does no mean so much.
This is a massively romantic notion and takes themes such as being meant for each other, to be sharing a mind and to be inseparable to its furthest extend. In a sense it is related to movies like “Ghost” and its kin. I am not objecting to the fantastic element, that is kind of sweet, but the romantic overload makes it seem almost like a cheap short story from a women’s magazine. That the children are cute and adorable just add to the sugar coating. I am sorry, but for me it almost reaches gagging level.
Gary Cooper is one of those actors who always seems to play the same role. Whether he is Mr. Deeds, Sergeant York or Peter Ibbetson he is essentially the same character. He is the innocent, common sense man of the people. He is the one who says: “hey, stop, this does not feel right” and is deeply honest to the point of being naïve. Of course that fits a character like Peter Ibbetson, but I just see Gary Cooper, with or without an English moustache.
Ann Harding I suppose is all right, but her part is essentially just to play up against Gary Cooper and being his soul mate. He even tells Mary that she only really needs to smile, that is skill enough. Well, she is better that that, but the role hardly requires more than that.
It was curious to see the Hollywood take on the higher British nobility, especially their humble dwelling. It is so over the top that I kept thinking of the Princess Sophia cartoons on rotation on the Disney Junior Channel my son loves watching. There is a class difference and we have to know that it is massive.
Yet despite all this the movie is quite watchable. There is a nice flow to it, Gary Cooper is still after all Gary Cooper and the conclusion is not exactly the happy ending you may have guessed from the beginning though no less heavy on sugar.
And the dream sequence, well, is it the super happy ending that could have been with a lot pink hue that you hardly have to imagine. It is not surrealist, nor in my opinion particularly innovative. It is just a fantastic element that serves to add romantic intensity.