Nana

Pam Photo Post: If I hadn’t already been a fan of silent film, the 1924 version of Peter Pan would have sold me. I remember that the first time I watched it, a beautifully restored and version toned in sepia and blues, thinking it just doesn’t get better than this – the perfect incarnation of a film of its kind. The entire movie is beautiful and magical, but for me it is all about George Ali in a giant part-puppet and dog costume playing Nana in the first part of the film. (He also returns as a scary yet somehow jolly Tick-Tock the crocodile later in the film.)

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This snatched off an online ad for the DVD of the film. A shot of Ali later in the film as Tick-Tock.

 

I cannot express how much I wish I had had George Ali-sized Nana as a nursemaid in childhood. I do believe I felt a bit that way about our huge German Shepard and childhood partner in crime, Duchess, who I have written about before. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, must have had a huge and protective dog as a kid too. I find the father’s treatment of the beloved Nana unforgivable in the beginning of the film (the oaf), but of course necessary so that the ever-vigilant Nana is not able to prevent the action which sets the story in motion.

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My post on Alfred Latell in 2015 remains one of the most popular.

 

Pictorama readers already know that I have a serious affection for animal impersonators. I have devoted past posts to Alfred Latell (those can be found here and here) and those are among the most popular posts on my site. I also count an early volume on constructing homemade version of such costumes among my prize possessions. (That post about the book How to Put on a Circus can be found here.) Ali was born in 1866 so he and Latell would have been working the same side of the street at the same time starting in the early 1900’s in vaudeville and stage acting, and then early film. Ali gets the breaks and today is the better remembered of the two, primarily because of this role in Peter Pan, although he was much in demand for his roles on the stage as well.

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Ali as Nana is shown to great advantage in this tatty still I dug out of the fascinating box I keep on my desk – largely of photographs, only lightly explored, that were sent to us by Kim’s friend Tom Conroy and which continues to turn up the occasional gem. (I wrote about another of these recently in the post Art School which can be found here. If we dig a bit deeper, back in 2015, I also wrote about a more Felix-y one here.)

Shown in this photo with Philippe De Lacy, we get a nice close up of Nana’s costume, somehow wielding a sponge, fluffy fur, the smiling mouth and most importantly we get to see the eyes and brow, all which were controlled by strings allowing George to create the expressions and move the ears and tail. His (her?) collar is nicely visible. The tile on the walls is painted on and the towels are a sort of charming mismatch of strips, checks and floral.

Ali is said to have started his career as a gymnast and scored the role of an out-sized Tige in a traveling show devoted to Buster Brown in the 1900’s. He stole that show with rave reviews throughout the United States and Britain. I share an excerpt below on the subject from fellow blogger Mary Mallory (her post devoted to Ali is here.)

The January 21, 1907 edition of “The Rock Island Argus” called him tops in the line of animal pantomime, stating many recognized him as “the foremost four-footed actor” for the past several years. Ali toured both America and England for several years playing Tige in various iterations of the show. In fact, during one production in Pennsylvania, Ali visited a local city hall and bought a dog license making “Tige” legal in town.

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The image for sale at George Glazer Gallery, NY

 

According to her Ali went on to play Dick Whittington’s Cat, a dog in Aladdin and several other roles, traveling across England, Scotland and then throughout Europe. He was 58 by the time he is back in the United States and takes the film role of Nana. Like Latell, Ali either made his costumes or, like this one, they were made to his specifications.

Sadly, the 1924 film of Peter Pan appears to be George Ali’s only film credit, although Mary Mallory sites a reference to an earlier 1921 film appearance in Little Red Riding Hood, where of course he plays the wolf, I assume it is not known to be extant and I cannot find any other reference to it. You never know with films, let’s hope this one materializes one of these days.

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From the lost 1921 film of Little Red Riding Hood. This photo is from the book, Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Movies.

 

Meanwhile, it bears mentioning that the original book of Peter Pan is definitely worth a read. The Disney version had never much appealed to me, but after seeing the 1924 film I found the original book and read it. Although the character of Peter Pan evidently appeared briefly in an early adult novel of J. M. Barrie’s (and Peter was to some degree based on a brother who died in childhood; their mother, comforted by the idea that he would remain a boy forever), Barrie developed it first for a stage play, where it was very popular. He wrote the book after. The popularity of the story in all its incarnations overshadowed and eclipsed all of Barrie’s success before and afterward.

I picked up an early copy inexpensively years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I would imagine it is available on Project Gutenberg or other online sites for free or also inexpensively; however I enjoyed holding that slim early incarnation in my hands. I highly recommend readers search out both the easily available film and novel. Treat  yourself to them today.

 

Alfred Latell: Animal Imitator, Continued

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: So last week’s Deitchian pre-Valentine’s Day post (From My Sweetie which can be found here) touched on Alfred Latell, and today I make good on the promise to add to an earlier Latell post of mine (here), to be featured this week. My interest in Alfred Latell, born of the card I purchased shown below, helped to inspire Kim’s animal impersonator-themed Valentine this year, egged on by the fact that I had just recently acquired this publicity photo of Latell – the best and virtually only one I have seen of him not in costume. So today I endeavor to dig a little deeper into the Alfred Latell story, hoping not repeating myself while offering a fairly fulsome tale for those of you just tuning in.

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Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

Alfred Latell was a vaudeville performer with an animal act which evidence shows took off in about 1902 and ran into the early 1940’s – arguably the 1950’s in Australia it seems. Latell went to great lengths to rig up elaborate animal costumes, with moving parts such as a tail, ears or even a ridge of fur on his back. My favorite fact is that he would sit outside at night in his cat suit, watching felines in the backyard, learning how to ape their ways. This is how I see him in my mind when I consider him, outside at night in his cat suit, watching and hearing a kitty chorus on a back fence somewhere, making mental notes about them.

Dogs were a challenge he relished; he felt they were the closest to humans and his Bonzo dog appears to be the one he was best known for later in life. Latell didn’t speak in his act, perhaps the costumes precluded it, although evidently he did bird imitations when clad in an early bird suit. He always had a partner who would do the talking, and that partner was first wife one and then, Sylvan Dell, wife number two. He and Ms. Dell are shown together below in photos I found via Google and on the site referenced below.

Pausing for a moment, I reflect on Bonzo Dog and his copyright. As I think most of you probably know, Bonzo is a British comics invention by George Studdy in 1922. Born at a similar time as the likes of Felix the Cat, Bonzo comics set off a merchandise boom, first in Britain and then, much like Felix, making its way around the world. I happily own several Bonzo toys (yep, and some of those can be found featured in posts here and here), but clearly the copyright wasn’t being guarded so carefully that Alfred Latell couldn’t cheerfully make a name for himself with this act and bearing the Bonzo Dog name.

This photo bears an interesting newspaper article, glued to the back of the photo which talks about his act. It mentions Sylvan Dell and also the other acts on the bill including Pablo South America’s most famous magician and The Three Chocolateers, one of the fastest colored dance teams ever seen in Seattle. Something referred to as human pretzels rounded out the fare. As you can see from the back of the photo, shown below, this comes to us almost exactly 85 years ago to the day, February 27, 1934.

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Fellow blogger Travelanche has a post about Latell (which can be found at Alfred Latell Animal Impresssionist) which contains more biographical information and the Travelanche author corresponded with Latell’s family. (The family also contacted me after my prior post, asking if I had information beyond what I had posted.) My favorite image on that post is of an 8×10 publicity photo of Latell as Bonzo, autographed to Duke Ellington, with the inscription, To Duke Ellington, The master of Rythm may you never lead a Dog’s life, Latell 1931. The photo above with Sylvan Dell is signed by both Dell and Latell and also inscribed to Duke Ellington, To Duke Ellington, Wishing you much happiness and continued success Sincerely Sylvan Dell with Al Latell, also dated 1931.

Sadly, ultimately Alfred Latell appears to have died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave. The above referenced post says his widow was so distraught…she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous dog suit. So much for my secret hope and dream of finding the dog suit some day.

I see that my original post is frequently read, evidence that people are searching the internet for information on him. As far as I can tell, Alfred Latell’s available credits are all for stage work; sadly I can find no evidence of him on film, although his career certainly covers a period when he could have been recorded. Hopefully a movie or other film appearance will turn up eventually so we can see him in action. (Of course, I will add that I am also very anxious to find an image of Latell in his cat suit as well.) For now, I add another, albeit thin, page to the story and lore of Alfred Latell, the great animal impersonator.