Peter Ibbetson (DVD Review)7 Sep, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Universal Vault Series
Stars Gary Cooper, Ann Harding, Ida Lupino.
The second 1935 release to team Gary Cooper with director Henry Hathaway didn’t get seven Oscar nominations, as did their January opener The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (and can you imagine a major Oscar player from today opening on the second week of the year?). But Peter Ibbetson did become a cult movie embraced by Luis Bunuel and other surrealists, which, just on the face of it, doesn’t strike me as the automatic fan base for more standard Hathaway fare like, say, North to Alaska (though this isn’t to say that casting John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian in the same movie isn’t surreal). Peter is nothing like the everyday bread-and-butter Hathaway material, though he did do a lot of hop-skips through varied genres in a long career.
Transparently based on a three-act play that maintains the three-act structure despite famously luminous Charles Lang photography that keeps things from getting too stagey, this is a movie for lovers of Portrait of Jennie or Somewhere in Time (the latter a gloppy weeper for which I have little use but whose own cult has to be acknowledged). In this case, two lovers are so linked together in each other’s minds that they manage to communicate directly or maybe even telepathically (through kind of a spiritual short-wave set) during long lives that rarely even find them in the same room once they’re separated amid their Parisian childhoods. Peter is a Brit living in France with his ailing mother, and blond next-door neighbor Mary is a fellow combative type notwithstanding their profound mutual affection. One of their key bickerings is over a toy wagon, so you can see that their relationship got out of the gate pretty fast.
So early, in fact, that the entire first act finds Peter and Mary played not by leads Cooper and Ann Harding but by child actors Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler. Paramount was known to indulge in this kind of extended-prologue setup — and, in fact, did it with the crack Cooper version of Beau Geste, which was included with Peter and three other seductive titles in a Cooper DVD box set from several years ago. It’s the kind of cheeky move that can backfire if the younger performers aren’t up to the task, but in this case, we arrive at the Cooper-Harding part of the story with a keen sense the children’s sense of loss when Peter has to return to England following his mother’s death.
At this point, we we’re getting close to spoiler territory because the story goes in unexpected directions through each of its thirds. Suffice it to say that Peter becomes a headstrong architect who can’t live much of an amorous life due to the hold Mary’s memory has on him — toying with, but not significantly following through on, a chance meet-up with a pert young thing played by a very young (and blonde) Ida Lupino. At this point, Peter gets a potential commission to rebuild some rundown stables for an older duke and his young wife (also blonde; he knows what he likes), and one thing leads to another including a fairly unusual third act that’s largely responsible for the movie’s following. Cooper, by the way, is here in his fairly short-lived mustache period, which never served him too well — and certainly wouldn’t have in, say, his two Oscar-winning performances in Sergeant York and High Noon.
With all those Oscar nominations going to Bengal Lancer, it would have been nice for the academy to have squeezed one out here for Charles Lang — though he did accrue 17 between 1930 and 1972 (though none in the mid-to-late 1930s after winning the award for the Cooper-Helen Hayes-Frank Borzage version of A Farewell to Arms). The Hans Dreier-Robert Usher art direction gives him a lot of help here, and this is one of those movies that virtually defines Paramount’s visual style of the period, when the average Paramount title had it way an MGM counterpart in ways save maybe star power, at least to modern eyes. Much of the reason this very deliberate drama (probably too deliberate for any younger viewer who falls into it). But before I finally showed it at the AFI Theater via UCLA’s 35mm archival print when I was programmer, requests were heavy — in part, I suppose, because it has never been a movie that easy to see. It ended up in a Cooper-Lang-Hathaway-Paramount double bill with 1937’s Souls at Sea, a good night at the movies if I say so myself.