Sunday, May 12, 2013

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Peter Ibbetson3

Peter Ibbetson is a quirky romance with a supernatural theme, or at least with a theme that can be interpreted that way. This 1935 Paramount production was helmed by Henry Hathaway as a starring vehicle for Gary Cooper.

Two English children are growing up next door to each other in Paris. They have more than their fair share of childish quarrels but they’re clearly devoted to each other. Then the young boy’s mother dies and the boy is sent to his uncle in England. Twenty years later Peter Ibbeston (Gary Cooper) is a promising up-and-coming architect. On a holiday in Paris he finds the house he grew up in and the memories come flooding back. What he doesn’t yet know is that he is destined to meet his childish sweetheart again, in very unexpected circumstances.

Peter is engaged by the Duke of Towers to supervise the rebuilding of the Duke’s stables. The Duchess, Mary (Ann Harding), is his long-lost childhood playmate, but he doesn’t know that yet. Peter and the Duchess quarrel over the plans for the stables, a quarrel which is very much like their long-ago childish quarrels. They are both people who like to get their own way.


Peter and the Duchess make a curious discovery. They share the same dreams. Literally. They appear in each other’s dreams and the dreams are more life-like than reality. Slowly the truth dawns on them that they are indeed the two children who had been growing up together in Paris all those years ago. And another, more disturbing, truth dawns on them. They are in love, and always have been.

Unfortunately the Duke, who is much older than his Duchess, soon figures out what’s going on. There is an argument; the Duke is killed. Peter Ibbetson ends up in prison. after a beating he is lying in his cell dying, when Mary comes to him in a dream. She tells him they can be together always. And for many years afterward they are, in their dreams.


The big problem with this movie is that the story is just too ethereal, too fanciful and too whimsical to be convincing. It stretches our credulity too far. Despite this the romance has a definite charm and Gary Cooper and Ann Harding make a perfect romantic couple. The movie has no right to work, but somehow it does work.

Cooper was always very likeable as a romantic lead and in this role he also has the stubbornness that his character requires (a quality Cooper always did convincingly). Ann Harding plays Mary as a kind of other-worldly figure, which is perfectly appropriate. Look out for a young Ida Lupino in a supporting role.


The fact that this movie employed the services of no less than eight writers tends to indicate that the screenplay (based on a novel by George du Maurier) gave some trouble. The problems with the script were never really resolved.

Director Henry Hathaway and cinematographer Charles Lang give the movie a slightly fairy-tale look that suits the material.

Whether there is anything supernatural going on or whether it is just a case of people who are close to each other having an exceptionally vivid dream life is open to question. The movie seems to come down on the side of something fantastic actually occurring.


Peter Ibbetson is included in the Gary Cooper Collection DVD set from Universal. Picture quality is slightly grainy but otherwise very good.

This is a rather dreamy and sentimental romance that works better than you might expect. It’s an interesting oddity in Gary Cooper’s filmography. Worth a look provide you have a fairly high tolerance for sentimentality.

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