Prelude to Peter Pan

But how did all of this come about?

Dance notwithstanding, Betty never forgot that she wanted to be a movie star, so soon after her move to New York she went to Paramount Studios on Long Island to interview with Ned Hay, the Casting Director for Famous Players-Lasky. 

Betty in Java Head, seated at left She was forthright in telling him that she had no experience and no pictures; nonetheless, Hay thought she had the right kind of features and would photograph well.  He offered her a small part as a ten year old girl.  Betty later said she found this disappointing, as she'd pinned up her long hair before the interview to appear older!  The film was Java Head, (1923, at left) starring Leatrice Joy. [In fact the Internet Movie Database puts her first movie as Anna Ascends in 1922.  This may be true, as Betty's pencilled autobiographical notes are hard to read on this point.  Perhaps Java Head was made before Anna Ascends, but released after?]

Java Head was shot during winter in Salem, Massachusetts.  Betty remembered the bitter cold; cast members would huddle in coats until they were called for a scene.  One day, while preparing to shoot a scene in a carriage with Miss Joy, she realized that she had no place off camera to place her coat.  A tall, good-looking man who was new to the set took it for her and held it until the scene was completed.  She later discovered that the man was John Gilbert.

After completing Java Head, she continued trying to get parts and worked as an extra in Anna Ascends, His Children's Children, Twenty-One, The Great White Way, and The Eternal City (with Barbara La Marr and Bert Lytell).  Her petite size (Betty was 5' 0''; her reported height varies from 4' 8'' to 5' 3'', depending upon the journalist) was sometimes a help, sometimes a hindrance.  In her biographical notes she says "I was always very small, so the director always put me in front of the background people, and I reacted well to what the stars did, so I got quite a bit of work in those days."  [2]  However, DeWitt Bodeen relates that early in her career she lost a role in Lubitsch's Forbidden Paradise because she was too short.

Parts for Betty were limited in Long Island, so she decided to make the move to California.  Her careful parents agreed, but insisted that her grandmother go with her as a chaperon.  Six months later, her parents decided there was nothing holding them to the East Coast, and they joined her in Los Angeles.

In Hollywood, parts were just as difficult to find, but Betty was very determined.  Soon after her arrival she started seeing articles appearing in the trades (i.e. the trade papers such as Variety) reporting that Famous Players-Lasky was looking for an actress to play Peter Pan.  Tests had been done but a decision had not yet been made.  It was a youthful part, and Betty knew she was perfect for it.

Betty bent the ear of every friend she had at Paramount, and finally gained an introduction to Famous Players-Lasky's Studio Manager.  During her interview she was asked if she had worked for any directors; she mentioned Victor Fleming.  Fleming remembered her and told her he'd try to help her.  Betty as a page in `The Eternal City' Herbert Brenon, Peter Pan's director, was out of town but when he returned to Los Angeles a week later, Betty found that Fleming had been as good as his word and that an appointment had been made for her to meet Brenon.  A few days later, she tested for Peter Pan.  Shortly after that, Brenon left for Europe with the tests to meet with Barrie.

A few days before Brenon returned, Betty was offered a contract by Famous Players-Lasky, and she had her first inkling that she'd been chosen for Peter Pan, although she wasn't sure whether she had the role of Peter or Wendy.  The contract was for $150 per week for a year.  The next day Jesse Lasky told her she'd been personally chosen by Barrie to play the lead.  Lasky later said "We had decided on a pert kid named Mary Brian, when along came another unknown, even better suited to the part.  Betty Bronson was given the lead and Mary Brian shifted to the role of Wendy."   [1]

Production began on Peter Pan in September of 1924.  Barrie had written a scenario, but Brenon discarded this in favour of filming the stage play with some added tricks (as Betty referred to the photography).  He wanted the best photography possible and had already chosen James Wong Howe to shoot the film.  (Years later, Betty sent Howe a congratulatory letter for winning an Oscar, and he responded with a note reminiscing about their experiences on Peter Pan.)  Barrie sent Lichfield Owen to Los Angeles as his representative.  Betty's long hair was cut short, and she was put into a hand-painted costume.

Peter Pan was her first starring role so she was understandably very nervous, but she soon settled into it.  She wrote in her biography that although she had little experience she had " or two of the important possessions for an actor.  I had a well-developed sense of concentration and this, combined with a great love of the part I know helped me to portray it."

Peter Pan was an important production and there were many visitors to the set.  Mary Pickford came with the Duchess d'Alba and the King and Queen of Siam visited.  This was Betty's first meeting with Pickford and the two actresses remained cordial throughout their lives.

A fencing instructor was hired to train Betty for the fight scene with Captain Hook (Ernest Torrence), with an area duly screened off on the set.  She was practising with youthful enthusiasm one day when she looked up and found a very tall boy grinning broadly, watching her over the top of the screens.  "Hello!" he said.  "I was wondering what was going on here, I heard all the clashing swords."  Betty invited him in to watch, which he promptly did.  He was tall (over six feet) but she thought he looked very young "...although anyone under 25 or so seemed impossibly young to of course I paid little attention to this youngster."  The youngster was Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who had just returned to California with his mother, and who had also been signed on by Famous Players-Lasky.  Young Doug began coming to the set every day, and Betty began attending parties at Pickfair where she met such Hollywood luminaries as Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore.  In his autobiography The Salad Days, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, remembered Betty:

Another important picture had just started.  It was Peter Pan directed by a clever caricature of a wildly temperamental movie director, Herbert Brenon.  After exhaustive tests, Betty Bronson, a pretty and gifted girl in her middle teens, was given this famous role...  I fell for Betty!  It was my first intensely juvenile, deep-sighs-and-bad-sonnets love.  It was not fully requited.  She only flirted with me.  My rival was a fellow in his twenties, a newspaperman who was to become one of New York's most respected theater critics, Richard Watts, Jr.  ...In any event, I was so smitten with Betty, I could think of little else, except when I could call on her, even though her protective mother was always just in the next room.
Betty and Doug became an item in the gossip columns.  Betty's son thinks that she was quite a bit fonder of young Doug than her biographical notes make out, and that to the best of his knowledge, Watts and Betty were just friends.  At any rate, Betty kept Doug's letters, bad sonnets and all, for the rest of her life.  Years later, she began a correspondence with Watts (who wrote "yours is the only Peter Pan I've ever cared for") and Watts made a point of telling Betty that he often ran into Fairbanks and that they always spoke fondly of her.

Peter Pan completed production on 10th December 1924, and Betty was sent to New York to do publicity for its Christmas opening.  The film was a critical success; Paramount awarded Betty a bonus equivalent to almost a year's salary.  Her performance was singled out for particular praise and she was catapulted to instant stardom.  She did interviews with Photoplay and other movie magazines, ads for Lux Soap, and began attending parties given by Hollywood's two elite hostesses--Mary Pickford and Marion Davies.  She attended the celebration of Gloria Swanson's triumphal return from Europe, and an afternoon tea for 100 people thrown by Mrs Harold Lloyd.  Other than that, Betty only attended parties arranged by the studio.  Her youth and her watchful mother helped her keep a level head; although she continued to be seen with Fairbanks, she was not known as a partygoer and did not frequent the night spots.

Click here for a "Moving Picture Stories" interview of Betty in October 1924


Betty's early years

Betty as Peter Pan

Prelude to Peter Pan

Further silent film work and the advent of talkies

Life beyond the movies

Film and promotional shots

Betty's available films

Bibliography and credits

This site is copyright © 2001 Don Koks.