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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.