Well, the Gary Cooper Collection is turning out to be one of the greatest DVD bargains ever! (Looks like it’s even cheaper on Amazon today than when I bought it, too.) Not only does it feature the sublimely funny Design for Living and the entertaining adventure movie that got me started on my Cooper kick months ago, Beau Geste, but it also includes a beautiful, ethereal film I saw a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about since – 1935’s Peter Ibbetson.
Based on an 1891 novel by George du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather), Peter Ibbetson tells the story of two childhood friends and next door neighbors – Peter, nicknamed Gogo, and Mary, known as Mimsy. The two argue and bicker, but they’re also deeply attached and love each other with a sweet, childish intensity.
Peter’s mother dies, and the two children are cruelly separated when Peter is taken away from his home in France to live with an uncle in London. Gogo is played by Dickie Moore and Mimsy by Virginia Weidler. Both are wonderful, natural child actors. The scene of their parting ripped my heart out! Oh, it was so sad.
I got a particular kick out of seeing Weidler, who a few years later memorably played Katharine Hepburn’s mischievous little sister, Dinah, in The Philadelphia Story. (“It was all certainly pretty rooty-tooty!”) She was very cute and very blond in Peter Ibbetson.
Peter grows up into a tall, handsome architect, played by a mustache-sporting Gary Cooper. Poor Peter is never able to forget Mary, comparing every woman he meets to his beloved friend and finding them all lacking. In his heart he believes Mary was his soulmate, and that he is destined to be without love forever because he lost her so many years ago. Little does he know that an assignment from the architecture firm he works for will bring his beloved Mimsy back into his life.
The job is to build an elaborate barn on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Towers. It will require him living in the couple’s home for months while the work is underway. Peter and the Duchess (Ann Harding), a cool and beautiful blond, meet and instantly begin to spar over the barn’s construction. He wants to build it his way, according to his artistic vision. She has her own ideas about keeping the existing structure and simply adding to it.
During the film’s opening scene, Gogo and Mimsy fight over some boards she wants to use to build a dollhouse and he wants to use to build a wagon. Peter and the Duchess’s bickering over the barn has an eerily similar quality, and is our first clue that they may already be more connected than they realize.
When they can’t agree about the barn’s construction, Peter prepares to leave the job. As he packs his bags and waits to depart, he decides to send the Duchess a humorous cartoon he drew, making a joke of their silly quarrel. The Duchess is so amused by the drawing, and by his nerve in sending it to her, that she decides to give him another chance.
Peter stays on for weeks and weeks. During the construction of the barn, he and the Duchess spend time together — talking, sharing meals, going over architectural plans. The Duke (John Halliday) watches all of this unfold, not saying much until one evening when the three are dining together. He then bluntly states that his wife is in love with the architect and accuses them of having an affair.
In fact, Peter and the Duchess have never even touched, but it’s obvious that they do love each other and have formed a very deep bond. At one point earlier in the film they have the exact same dream on the same night, about a terrifying, violent thunderstorm. The next day, a storm arrives. They are fascinated and disturbed by this strange connection. The Duchess, in denial, tries to pass it off as a coincidence, but Peter believes there is more to it than that.
Confronting the Duke’s allegations, the pair deny having an affair but admit their love for each other. Peter tells of the childhood friend he lost, saying he never thought he’d be able to forget her and love someone else until he met the Duchess. As he tells his story, the puzzle pieces come together for both of them. They aren’t just Peter Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers — they are Gogo and Mimsy, who loved each other as children and have found each other again, improbably and much too late.
Hearing this, the jealous Duke kicks Peter out of his home, insisting that he never see or talk to Mary again. Peter and Mary can’t resist seeing each other one last time, however, and when the Duke finds the lovers embracing in Mary’s room he pulls a gun on them. He is about to shoot when Peter attacks and kills him in self-defense. Peter is imprisoned for life for the Duke’s murder. Mary returns home alone, a widow seen by society as an adulteress.
In prison, which is about as terrible a bread-and-water, rat-infested place as you’d imagine a mid-19th century English prison to be, a cruel guard brutally beats Peter and breaks his back. No one expects him to live through the night. Mary comes to Peter in a dream, urging him to escape the prison walls and be with her. In the dream she tells him she will send him her ring, so he’ll know their connection is real and is happening to them both. Holding on by a thread, waiting to see if the ring will arrive, Peter lives until morning.
Sure enough Mary does bring the ring, which a guard delivers to Peter. From then on Peter and Mary meet on another, spiritual plane each night. He slips through the prison’s bars, able to walk as he is no longer able to walk in real life, meeting Mary in a beautiful dream world. They visit their childhood home, amble through idyllic landscapes together, and sometimes encounter storms and terrifying separations when their belief in the truth of their shared dream grows weak.
They live like this for many years, meeting in their dreams at night and spending a lifetime together that way. Eventually their real-life selves grow old and sick. Mary dies. She comes to Peter one last time, telling him that their dream meetings must now end, but that they will be together again in the future. Hearing this and feeling reassured, Peter dies in prison. At last the two are reunited forever.
All of this sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, I imagine, but in truth it’s beautiful and shamelessly romantic. The movie’s cinematography by Charles Lang and special effects by Gordon Jennings are famous, and rightfully so given the technical limitations in 1935. There are some gorgeous scenes during the dream-life sequences, especially during the storm. Peter walking through his prison bars is beautifully done as well. The movie’s score by Ernst Toch is haunting and stayed with me for days afterward.
With Peter Ibbetson, Gary Cooper once again proved how versatile and sensitive an actor he truly was. It would’ve been easy to be overwrought and too dramatic in a role as tragic as that of Peter, but overdoing things was not part of Coop’s acting vocabulary. With his quiet manner and sad, soulful eyes, he brought Peter Ibbetson’s plight to life without resorting to histrionics.
There seem to be an endless number of stories out there about the striking subtlety of Cooper’s acting, as observed by his directors and fellow actors. Like many others, Ann Harding was initially disturbed by the fact that Cooper didn’t seem to be doing anything or giving her anything with which to connect during their scenes. Peter Ibbetson’s director, Cooper’s friend Henry Hathaway, told her not to worry about it — Cooper’s work would not be evident until she saw it onscreen. And of course what turned up on the screen was an excellent, affecting performance.
This film was the first time I’d ever seen or really even heard of Ann Harding, but since watching and being so struck by her turn as Mary I suddenly seem to run into mentions of her everywhere! First she showed up in 1947’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which I’d recorded over the holidays and finally watched the other day. (It’s a very cute Christmas movie, by the way!) Then I read this great piece about her on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. The above anecdote about her reaction to Cooper’s acting was gleaned from that article.
Harding was evidently Paramount’s attempt to cultivate their own version of Norma Shearer, the queen of MGM dramas at the time. Although she never became as famous as Shearer, I think she was really much better, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Harding is more natural and subtle than the overdramatic Shearer. (Sorry, Norma fans! She’s just not my cup of tea.)
Peter Ibbetson is so unusual for a studio picture of that time period. It doesn’t feel like an American movie, actually, having a much more European look and tone. The dream sequences are poetic and surreal, reminding me at times of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The feeling of romantic fantasy is similar in both films, although Beauty and the Beast is obviously much more surreal and otherworldly.
It’s a lovely, strange, moving story. Not the most flawless movie I’ve ever seen, but one that has lingered with me afterward in a way many other films haven’t. I think you probably have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the movie, because if you go into it with a cynical, mocking spirit it could very well seem silly. But if you give yourself over to the lush, sentimental romanticism of it, you might find yourself as taken with Peter Ibbetson as I was.