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Review: Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

This paean to undying love stands as one of the strangest, most beautiful Hollywood films of the 1930s.

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 Peter Ibbetson

Henry Hathaway’s 1935 gothic melodrama Peter Ibbetson is completely out of step with most other films of its era. Its more surrealistic flourishes often pull from the visual vocabulary of silent cinema, while its labyrinthine narrative structure is far more attuned to the Hollywood filmmaking to come in the 1940s. In his book Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, David Bordwell describes Peter Ibbetson as a prototype for the supernatural romance, whose “unusual story rules” influenced such films as Portrait of Jennie and Pandora and the Flying Dutchmen. The film is an odd blend of form and content that baffled American audiences at the time of its release, but it was quickly embraced by European surrealists like Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau before falling into relative obscurity.

As impressive as the forward-thinking qualities of Peter Ibbetson are, they’re only part of what lends the film its unique charm and power. Charles Lang’s ethereal cinematography is particularly evocative at conjuring the fantastical nature of the lifelong love between Peter (Gary Cooper) and Mary (Ann Harding), who transcend the wrenching experience of their separation upon discovering that they have the ability to meet one another in dreams. And while the story’s intense romanticism verges on over the top, with an unwavering insistence on the transportive and transcendent powers of love, the muted performance styles of both lead actors give the film an earnestness that keeps it grounded in real emotions.

Harding and Cooper tend toward the type of acting in the 1940s that critic Jerome Charyn has described as “dreamwalking,” quite literally evoking, through every glance and gesture, the somnambulistic state that the film’s star-crossed lovers slip into throughout. Even Cooper’s typically wooden presence seems perfectly suited to the material here. The actor’s flatness has a punch-drunk quality, and he feels at once present and constantly lost in thought, even more so when Peter finds himself torn between the brutal materiality of his earthly existence and the divine beauty of his otherworldly journeys to meet Mary.

Hathaway and Lang strikingly blur the lines between life and death throughout Peter Ibbetson, as well as dreams and reality, especially in the film’s more stylistically adventurous second half, which presents a world almost singularly defined by intense longing and eternal separation. Even in their early scenes as children, when they’re known by their nicknames of Gogo and Mitzy, Peter and Mary (played by Dickie Moore and Virginia Wiedler) are frequently separated by the bars of a metal fence—a shot that’s later mirrored in their first meeting as adults and again in the prison bars that permanently separate their corporeal bodies.

If the early stretches of the film are reminiscent of a childlike fable, with Peter and Mary’s innocent love being disrupted by the practical concerns of the adult world, the latter portions slide effortlessly into full-blown romantic fantasy. Here, the two lovers find themselves separated as Peter is chained in a prison cell after causing the death of Mary’s husband, the Duke of Towers (John Halliday), but manage to converge in a liminal space where, as Mary says, “the strangest things are true and the truest things are strange.” Lang’s use of high-contrast lighting gives this section of Peter Ibbetson a truly otherworldly feel, as in one shot in which the camera traces the sunlight shining on Mary up to a window before dissolving to another ray of light and panning down to Peter asleep in his cell.

It’s such poetic touches that lend Peter Ibbetson an uncanny quality that raises the couple’s love to the level of myth. And indeed, the film positions their love as something of a permanent dream state in which they both may escape their worldly suffering and enter a self-contained reality where only they exist. At one point, Peter’s boss, Mr. Slade (Donald Meek), says, “I was born blind, but I’ve seen things just the same.” He’s speaking here about plumbing the depths of one’s thoughts and feelings to discover something purely sensorial. And really, that’s what’s especially remarkable about Peter Ibbetson: its capacity for visualizing the most powerful of emotions. And in doing so, it’s an affecting work of tragic romanticism that risks being seen as silly or naïve as it reaches the feverish pitch of an undying love.

Image/Sound

There’s no mention online or in the disc’s liner notes of a restoration having been used for his Blu-ray presentation, but given how lush and finely detailed the resulting image is here, at least some preservation work appears to have been done on the film. Aside from occasional and very slight signs of scratching, Peter Ibbetson shows virtually no signs of deterioration, which is an extremely welcome surprise given how long the film has been difficult to see. Both the contrast ratio and grain levels are fantastic, lending a crispness to the deep, inky blacks and enhancing the beauty of Charles Lang’s cinematography, especially during the central couple’s romance in dreams in the film’s second half. The audio is also quite strong, with the dialogue clean and robust and the track completely free of any hisses or pops.

Extras

On a newly recorded audio commentary, film historian David Del Valle and producer Miles Helver delve into the strange history of Peter Ibbetson, which was initially embraced in Europe but found little fanfare in the United States, becoming incredibly difficult to see for decades. The duo exhibits a strong grasp on the film’s unique style and touch on its various Freudian elements and motifs. They also talk at great lengths about the careers of star Gary Cooper and director Henry Hathaway, both of whom were far from obvious choices to work a gothic melodrama such as this. Overall, it’s a lively and informative chat that sheds new light on a film not often written about or discussed at great length. The only other extras on the disc are a handful of Kino Lorber releases, including one for this film.

Overall

Henry Hathaway’s beguiling and long-unavailable paean to undying love stands as one of the strangest, most beautiful Hollywood films of the 1930s.

Cast: Gary Cooper, Ann Harding, Ida Lupino, John Halliday, Douglass Dumbrille, Donald Meek, Doris Lloyd, Virginia Weidler, Dickie Moore, Gilbert Emery Director: Henry Hathaway Screenwriter: John Meehan, Edwin Justus Mayer, Waldemar Young, Constance Collier, Vincent Lawrence Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1935 Release Date: August 10, 2021 Buy: Video

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