Peter Ibbetson

PETER IBBETSON —-long before Somewhere In Time captured a love-cult, there was this tissue-depleting oldie from 1935, starring Gary Cooper and Ann Harding. Devastatingly Handsome meets Refined Ethereality. “The strangest things are true and the truest things are strange.” George du Maurier’s Victorian Era story of love that outlived death has had numerous interpretations, with this feature film its most celebrated and long-enduring. *

England, the mid 1800s. Architect ‘Peter Ibbetson’ (Cooper) is hired by the ‘Duke of Towers’ to design a building for him. Ibbetson discovers that the Duchess, ‘Mary’ (Harding), is his now-grown childhood sweetheart. Their love rekindles, the Duke produces a pistol, and Peter’s instinctive self-defense gets him life in prison. When he’s near-death, Mary comes to him in dreams, proves her presence to him, and in shared dream states they are able to live out their romance.

Daft sentimentalism in a fairy tale mode is nonetheless tasteful and affecting thanks to director Henry Hathaway’s guiding fine work from Cooper, the glow from Harding and some superb art direction (Hans Drier and Robert Usher) and cinematography (Charles Lang) that go far in seeing that the otherworldly mood holds. A full-bodied score from Ernst Toch drew an Oscar nomination. The sets are swell, but there’s also some nice moments in the great outdoors (or once-great) when location use is made of the woods and heights around California’s Big Bear Valley and Lake (which Hathaway would revisit the following year for striking use of color in The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine and later for the lovely 1941 drama The Shepherd Of The Hills.

Too offbeat to make a ripple in the home market, it only made it to 100th place for the year, grossing $1,300,000 against a cost that came to to more than $750,000. It performed much better in Europe.

With John Halliday (the offended dud of a Duke), Ida Lupino (just 16, recently transplanted from England; Hathaway directed her the previous year in a bit of adventure foolishness called Come On, Marines!), Dickie Moore (9, Peter as a boy: six years later he’d play Coop’s kid brother in Sergeant York), Virginia Weidler (8, Mary as a child), Donald Meek (slaughtering an English accent), Douglas Dumbrille, Doris Lloyd, Leonid Kinskey.

Scriptwise, veterans Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young are credited but at least six other pros were involved, including Fred Zinnemann. In his autobio Oscar Levant stated that Hugo Friedhofer “touched up” Ernst Toch’s score. So?  86 minutes.

* Boosters of the post-WW1 movement Surrealism such as André Breton applauded Hathaway’s film for its expressing l’amour fou,  love so profound it transcends all known obstacles. Breton even went so far as to deem it “a triumph of surrealist thinking.” George du Maurier’s 1891 novel was turned into a play (with the Barrymore’s) in 1917, a now-lost 1921 silent film, ironically titled Forever, and an opera. Orson Welles did it for radio in 1939, Richard Greene on TV in 1951. The tale emerged yet again as Dream True, a 1999 stage musical, updating the setting to the United States of the 1940s thru 80s, and making the lead characters gay. As for author du Maurier, besides being a cartoonist for “Punch”, he created of the character ‘Svengali’, coined “bedside manner” and was grandfather of Daphne du Maurier.

The romantic dreamers among you who wish to delve might find the following link of interest:

** Ann Harding’s once-promising movie career (she was an early Oscar nominee for Best Actress, in 1930’s Holiday) faded away, but her off-screen bio holds some drama. Her father was commanding general of WW1’s famed “Rainbow Division”. Gossip queen Adela Rogers St. Johns pronounced her “…the worst dressed woman I ever saw in my life!” Well, hold the tiara: who needs wardrobe vanity when you can dazzle swains with shoulder-length blonde hair? In 1933, she barely survived a sailboat capsizing in shark-filled waters off Havana. In 1934 she joined the N.A.A.C.P. (so much for her movies playing in the South). Ann Harding passed away in 1981, at 79.

Along with Lives Of A Bengal Lancer and this movie, Cooper would work with Hathaway on the rowdy adventures Souls At Sea and The Real Glory, tame comedy You’re In The Navy Now and cool western Garden Of Evil.

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