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Monday, January 28, 2013

Peter Pan - The Tale of Bobby Driscoll

I’m going to start off this week’s edition of the Monday Matinee a little bit differently this time around.  While I do have a movie picked out for discussion today, I actually want to do a little background story on one of the movie’s biggest stars.

Have you ever heard of a child actor named Bobby Driscoll?  If not, I completely understand...his time in the spotlight did happen at least six decades ago.  He was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 3, 1937 to Cletus and Isabelle Driscoll.  The family lived in Iowa for the first six years of Bobby’s life.  In 1943, Cletus Driscoll had an appointment with his doctor complaining of feeling sick, and the doctor figured that he was suffering from pulmonary ailments from handling asbestos (his job was an insulation salesman, and asbestos was one of the leading materials used in insulation at that time).  The doctor believed that by having the family move to a warmer climate, it would help alleviate the symptoms that Cletus was experiencing, so the family relocated to Los Angeles, California.

Almost immediately after settling down in Los Angeles, a barber gave Cletus and Isabelle the suggestion that they should consider getting Bobby into the film industry, and soon after that Bobby ended up at an audition for the MGM film “Lost Angel”.  He ended up getting the part after the director was charmed by the curiosity and intelligence he displayed while on a studio tour (he noticed a mock-up ship on the lot and questioned where the water was).

That role ended up being the first of many roles for young Bobby Driscoll.  Although he was only six years old at the time, many people in the industry were very impressed by his natural acting ability and the fact that he could memorize his scripts quickly, and this lead to him being cast in several other roles.  By Bobby’s ninth birthday, he had roles in “The Fighting Sullivans” (1944), “Sunday Dinner for a Soldier” (1944), “The Big Bonanza” (1944), “Song of the South” (1946), and “So Goes My Love” (1946). 

From there, Driscoll appeared in two more pictures, “So Dear to My Heart” (1948), and “The Window” (1949), both of which were critically acclaimed.  With the latter film in particular, the critics singled out Driscoll’s performance, stating that it was brilliant, and that he ended up being the real star of the picture.  According to the Academy Awards, they agreed...they honoured Driscoll with a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1950.  Driscoll was just thirteen when bestowed the honour.

With an Academy Award in his hands, the roles for Driscoll continued to pour in.  His role as Jim Hawkins in 1950’s “Treasure Island” earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (despite the fact that he lacked a work permit for filming in the United Kingdom and was forced to leave the production prematurely), and he voiced the role of a junior Goofy in a couple of Disney cartoon shorts.

And, in 1953, Driscoll landed the role in which many people claim was his most famous...and on a bittersweet note, one of his last.  But, we’ll get to that in a moment.

For now, we’re going to be talking about the 1953 Disney animated film “Peter Pan”, which starred Driscoll as the title role.

The film also starred Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy Darling (she previously voiced the character of Alice in the 1951 adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland”).  Funnily enough, two other “Alice in Wonderland” actors were cast in roles in “Peter Pan” as well...Heather Angel and Bill Thompson. 

Rounding out the cast were Paul Collins as John, Tommy Luske as Michael, and Hans Conreid as Captain Hook.  As for Tinker Bell, she was modelled after Margaret Kerry (since in the original Disney film, Tinker Bell never spoke).

It seems hard to believe that the film will be celebrating its sixtieth anniversary next week.  It’s a film that many people (including myself) regard as a timeless classic.  I remember watching the film for the first time when I was kindergarten aged, thinking that it was a brand new movie (not knowing that it was released when my own parents were children).  Although, I suppose that most films that were produced by Walt Disney seem to have that effect on people.

I’m also under the impression that this Disney film (the fourteenth animated feature produced by the company) had special meaning for Walt Disney.  It had always been one of Disney’s favourite stories growing up, and he had the idea to create a film version of the story dating back to the 1930s, around the time he was working on his animated version of Snow White.  The problem was that Disney needed to get the rights to the story in order to get the project going, and that process ended up taking four years.  By 1939, Disney got the green light to go ahead with the project, and work began in 1940.

But when World War II intensified in 1941, Disney was forced to put their movie projects on hold after the United States military seized control of the studios to make war propaganda films.  When the war ended in 1945, the studios became free to use again, but by then the studios were so far in debt that they were forced to produce package films to get back above water.  The entire process took two years, and it wasn’t until 1947 that the company found itself back on financial stability.

So, let’s do the math.  The idea was coined way back in 1935.  The film was released February 3, 1953.  It took EIGHTEEN years for the film to be produced from start to finish.  Although I’m sure most of you who have watched Peter Pan and loved it agree that it was worth the wait.

Now, I don’t think that you need me to go over the storyline of Peter Pan.  You all know about Peter Pan taking Wendy, Michael, and John to Never Land.  You all know that Peter Pan was responsible for Captain Hook’s nickname, as a hook replaced the hand that Peter Pan lopped off during a fight.  You know all about the crocodile that swallowed Captain Hook’s hand and has stalked him searching for more tasty morsels.  You know about Tinker Bell getting jealous and attempting to get Wendy out of the picture.  You know about Tiger Lily and The Lost Boys. 

And, if you don’t know about them...well, watch the movie.  It comes highly recommended by this blogger.

This film was a huge success at the box office.  On a budget of four million dollars, the film made $87,404,651.  The film was entered in the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, and was first released on home video in 1990.  It was reportedly the late Michael Jackson’s favourite film of all time, and was the inspiration behind the name of his “Neverland” ranch.  A sequel was released nearly fifty years later, “Return to Never Land”, and several films starring Tinker Bell as a main character have been released sporadically since 2008.

The film was definitely one of the biggest movies that Bobby Driscoll starred in.  As the lead character, Peter Pan’s design was even made to look like Driscoll!  But as I said before, the movie was also bittersweet for him, as after that film was made, his life began to fall apart.

By the time Peter Pan was released, Driscoll was a month shy of turning sixteen, an age in which life begins to open up new possibilities.  But for someone like Driscoll, who spent nearly his entire childhood making movies, it ended up being a bad thing.  Disney no longer saw Driscoll as being a likeable young protagonist...instead, they felt that they could only cast him in roles that called for him being a bratty, young bully.  His contract extension with Disney was dropped, and within a couple of years, his affiliation with Disney soon ended.

Once he left Disney, his parents pulled him out of the Hollywood Professional School (which had several child actors as students), and placed him in the public Westwood University High School, where he was targeted by bullies for his previous film career.  It was also during this time that he began experimenting with drugs in an effort to fit in with the other students.  After a few months of struggling at the school, he begged his parents to re-enroll him in Hollywood Professional, and he ended up graduating from there in 1955.

Though his drug use intensified.  In 1956, he was arrested for marijuana possession, but the charges were dropped.  That same year, he and his girlfriend, Marilyn Jean Rush, traveled down to Mexico to elope after their parents opposed the marriage.  The couple had three children together and stuck it out for nearly four years before divorcing in 1960.

Driscoll’s problem intensified by the early 1960s.  He was arrested for disturbing the peace and assault with a deadly weapon after he hit someone with a pistol after they insulted him.  In 1961, he was sentenced and placed in the Narcotic Rehabilitation Center at the Chino Institution for Men, and upon leaving Chino in 1962, was unable to get any acting jobs.

In 1965, Driscoll attempted a career in the arts, actively immersing himself in Andy Warhol’s art community known as “The Factory”.  He was encouraged by Wallace Berman to create art, and some of his pieces were considered extraordinary enough to be exhibited at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.  But, by 1967, he had left the Factory and reportedly spent the next few months staying in Manhattan’s underground, without a penny to his name.

On March 30, 1968, three weeks after turning thirty-one, his body was found by two young boys.  The cause of death was heart disease which was linked to his excessive drug use.  His body was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave on Hart Island in New York.  His mother did not know he had died until late 1969, and the public did not even find out he had died until “Song of the South” was re-released in 1971.

Not exactly the way that a once-loved child star expects to die.

In that sense, the fact that Driscoll played Peter Pan is tragically ironic.  In the movie, Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up.  In real life, once Bobby Driscoll grew up, he had a lot of problems that he could not overcome.

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