Saturday, February 1, 2014

Captain Hook's Red Coat (Part 1/3)


Captain Hook has often been criticized for not being all of one piece (the magnificent Frank Thomas acting vs Woolie Reitherman's cartoony coward). In this first part I am analyzing how deliberately his dual personality seems to have been planned. The visual key to this is Hook's red coat that establishes him as both a wealthy leader and a flamboyant villain. The next post then will be about the variations in the following Captain Hook sequences.

Of all the 1950s Disney features, PETER PAN (1953) is still my favorite. Although Walt Disney and his storyboarders missed almost all of the play's interesting subtext, they came up with a film so full of memorable set pieces and visual wonders that it would be unjust to dismiss it solely on the basis of failing to capture J.M. Barrie's intentions*. In fact, there are only a handful films from that era that still feel as fast-paced and action-packed as PETER PAN. And hardly ever has the studio managed to create a movie so timeless - nothwithstanding the dated attitude towards women and American Natives.

A Child's Outlook On Life
In my opinion, Captain Hook is one of the greatest Disney villains. And although this has been criticized ever since 1953 I daresay BECAUSE (and not in spite) of his dual personality as a menacing brute and a whimpering cartoon character.
"...all the characters are really children with a child's outlook on life. This applies to the so-called adults of the story as well as the young people. Pull the beard off the fairy king, and you would find the face of a child." J.M.Barrie

As you can see from the stills above (taken from the 1924 silent film version of the play), James Matthew Barrie emphasized the notion that all his characters are basically children in disguise, no matter how old they are. And I believe that this is indeed one of the things the filmmakers managed to translate really well to the screen. As an adult, it is hilarious to see all grown men in this film behave like children, especially when they cannot have their own way. And Hook, however much authority he has over the pirates, cannot have his way with Peter too often.

Traditional Color Coding
Humans perceive the color red most strongly. Therefore it has always been seen as a very powerful color that stands out against almost any other color, especially against gray and muted earth tones. So in classical paintings and illustrations leaders often wore red displaying their power. In the Technicolor "consciousness" red was to be kept precious, i.e. sparsely and deliberately used so its dazzling effect would not wear off.

It is therefore no surprise that group leaders in Disney features have been wearing red coats (sometimes with expensive golden buttons) from the very beginning in 1937. This practice did not stop during the 1950s when pastel shades came into fashion (most notably in CINDERELLA, 1950).
Doc, the dwarfs' leader in SNOW WHITE and Jacques, the mice's leader in CINDERELLA.

While red is associated with blood, fire, rage or passion, the color purple - although basically red with a blue tint - evokes different connotations.

Most importantly, Tyrian purple used to be a very old and very expensive color. It was therefore used almost exclusively for the elite like Roman emperors or later aristocrats. When synthetic colors made it widely available about a century ago, it remained associated with the upper class but often used in paintings of elegant women. On a basic visual level, violet and purple feel more artificial and therefore stranger than the "natural" primary red. Therefore supernatural occurences are often depicted in shades of purple (or artificially poisonous neon green).

About 100 years ago, the suffragettes adopted it as a color of dignity. And since shades of violet and purple felt (and still feel) different (they are among the least favorite colors) and are commonly associated with either snobby or insubordinate women and therefore individualism, vanity and extravagance - in short: non-conformism - purple is and was a natural color for ambiguous characters or outright villains. Also it could hint at the feminine side of male characters (traditionally strong colors like red were male and receding colors like blue were female like the Virgin Mary).

There is a strong tradition of Disney villains - especially women or effeminate men - wearing purple which is closer to red than blue. More often than not, non-conformism is portrayed as evil and must be fought by the protagonists.
Grumpy, the angry dwarf in SNOW WHITE and Lady Tremaine, CINDERELLA's evil stepmother.
Although Grumpy is not the villain of the film, he certainly is the dissenter within the dwarf group. [On a side note: in the light of classical character development he could as well be the protagonist because he is the only person who is psychologically growing in the course of the events.] Cinderella's evil stepmother Lady Tremaine who married into a well-to-do family certainly epitomizes the appearance of the beautiful but sinister aristocrat.

Characters with a more controlled exterior appearance like the wicked queen are often wearing red underneath or inside a coat or cape, so that it only flashes up during frantic movements (as can be seen here).

top left: wicked queen, top right: evil coachman, bottom left: Lady Tremaine, bottom right: queen of hearts.
The red in the dress of the flamboyant queen of hearts who wears her heart literally on the sleeve is pure without traces of purple (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, 1951). In fact, she acts more like a man than a woman. And like the coachman in PINOCCHIO (1940), she is typically wearing red with gold ornaments which denotes her as a leader.**

Just to show that this concept has not been abandoned in more recent films, you could look at the violet sea witch Ursula (THE LITTLE MERMAID, 1989) or the bullying leader Gaston (an update of Brom Bones) in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991):
Gaston from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
But back when PETER PAN was in production, the Disney studio still mainly sought for outside inspiration (as opposed to the derivative approaches of recent features that seemed to consciously refer back to the company's own body of work as a main influence).

Obviously red coats have been commonly used to make captains and flamboyant pirates stand out not only from a picture but among their crew as can be seen in the following illustrations by the great Howard Pyle:
"The Buccaneer was a picturesque fellow" by Howard Pyle.
"Captain Keitt" by Howard Pyle 1907.

Look at the black hair and moustache in this Howard Pyle illustration.


Captain Hook as we first see him: wearing a blood red coat with golden hems.
Hook's coat not only identifies him as the captain but also as a rather wealthy character (note the crown painted on his "throne" and combination of warm color red and gold).

Probably more than in any other Disney feature the antagonists are painted in colors that are complementary to each other on a traditional color wheel. So Peter seems to represent the total opposite of Hook. This goes as far as the feathers on their hats (pointed vs bushy) and toe-caps (pointed vs flat).

Establishing The Villain
Before we see Captain Hook for the first time, we see a reddish wooden door that gets pierced with knives by the bored crew while Smee skips and bounces to a pirate's shanty mentioning "Hook".

Then Hook is finally seen as a scheming and easily irascible man with long flowing black hair, a moustache and a five o'clock shadow.

When his concentration is disturbed by a singing sailor...
 ...he pitilessly shoots the man without displaying any emotions.
 However, he is furious as soon as Smee makes a jokingly accusatory remark about the incident.
It is notable, that until now, even during the fast eruption Hook's coat has remained closed so we do not see what he is wearing underneath. From what we see here, he is all red (the dark purple trousers do not compete for attention).
But then Smee is helping him take off his fiery red coat and underneath we see his pink shirt that makes him look softer, weaker (not unlike Michael's pyjamas) and slightly more effeminate when he whines about how Peter fed his hand to the ticking crocodile.

He behaves like a real drama queen while getting prepared to be shaven by Smee.
Of course, the crocodile comes precisely at the right time. And like Peter, Hook's second antagonist is also completely green. Interestingly enough, the crocodile never seems to be menacing or even thinking about eating the boy, so it is not surprising that they are on the same side of the color wheel, so to speak. [Note: in the original stage productions Peter used to be red and brown because his clothes were supposed to be made of (autumn) leaves. So the highly influential decision to give him a naturally green Robin-Hood-like appearance must have been a very deliberate choice by the film makers.]
And now Hook is finally acting like a cowardly child who tries to hide behind a parent's legs in the face of danger.

Although Hook is not wearing his coat, he is none the less covered in a piece of cloth, a barber's blanket to be precise.
This is one of my favorite shots because of the one-eyed expression that is picked up later in the film.
After Smee has been able to chase the crocodile away, he behaves so clumsily that Hook is about to bash him when one-eyed pirate up in the crow's-nest announces Peter Pan's arrival.

So it comes as no surprise that Hook demands his red coat as soon as he is strong and determined again. After a few orders to the crew he finally demands his hat...
... and then he is capped and gowned (coat firmly closed) and ready to fight his nemesis.

Hook's conflicting appearances as strong/evil and weak/fearful have been firmly established in this expository sequence by contrasting the flamboyantly red pirate with a pink and purple child that ducks and covers.

Next I will look at how these changes are varied during the film and how the surrounding colors define the characteristic look of each sequence.

* Two major points are lost in the adaptation:
1) J. M. Barrie's Peter is a self-centered and therefore cruel child with little concern for other people. This rather dark and ambiguous aspect of his personality is barely touched upon in the film.
2) Peter is a preadolescent boy with no understanding of love between a boy and a girl. He does not even know the concept of a kiss (as seen in the beginning of the film, the "thimble" allusion of the play is hinted at by having Tinker Bell glare from under a thimble when Wendy tries to kiss Peter). When Wendy falls in love with Peter and repeatedly tries to talk to him about that he is completely oblivious of what she is trying to say. Therefore it seems to be a major blunder that Peter gets red after Tiger Lily "kissed" him at the powwow.
Considering these alterations one can comprehend the rather strong British reactions that Walt Disney "murdered" Peter Pan when the film was first released.
Tinker Bell with thimble on head;      Peter turns red after Tiger Lily's "kiss".

**Note: I am not saying that these color decisions have all been conscious or entirely based on rational rules. I am pretty sure that a lot of it simply felt right and was intuitively done because it looked right to the color stylist. But there is little doubt that once the basic concept was laid out they sought for coherence throughout a film.

4 comments:

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...

Another fantastic post on a great subject, Hook is one of favourite Disney villains. His design and animation are easily the highlight of Peter Pan and your comments on the use of colour are illuminating!

Interesting that Hook hides under a pale blue sheet when he's at his most cowardly, hiding from the crocodile.
I look forward to the next installment of your analysis!

scarecrow33 said...

Thanks for this post--a fascinating color analysis of one of Disney's more fascinating films.

One point I disagree with, however--I don't see it as a "blunder" that Peter blushes at Tiger Lily's kiss. The Disney Peter Pan is depicted not as a small boy, but as an adolescent on the very brink of young manhood. Notice that Bobby Driscoll's voice had already changed by the time he voiced Peter Pan (compare it to his voice in "Treasure Island," which was definitely a boy's voice). Peter in the Disney film seems poised at the very last phase of childhood--and at that age, boys, especially boys who are "leaders" among their peers, often are somewhat unconscious of their appeal to young girls, who are more sexually aware and developed at that age. Disney's Peter clearly relishes the attentions lavished on him by Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, the Mermaids, and Wendy--you can see his pleasure and enjoyment in their appreciation of him. Yet all of the females are aware of more explicit feelings, of which Peter is largely naive. So Peter can allow Wendy to be teased and tormented and laugh it off, because he does not yet appreciate the deeper feelings that are motivating the jealousy of the Mermaids and Tinker Bell, yet he savors all of this feeling that is raging through all of the females over him. As a teacher, I have seen this many times in pre-adolescent boys who maintain a blithe unawareness of their attractiveness to girls and yet are not so unaware that they cannot appreciate its effects.

Thematically, this ties in with Wendy's reluctance to leave the nursery (although she seems all too aware that she is growing up) and with Tinker Bell's sense of a threat to her perfect relationship with Peter.

So when Tiger Lily kisses Peter, it doesn't necessarily mean that he understands his emotional response, only that he responds that way, somewhat unconsciously. At any rate, it does not seem like a contradiction, but rather a consistent part of the way Peter is being portrayed.

Oswald Iten said...

@Joshua: as we will see, he is in fact covered with three different "sheets" during the film.

@scarecrow33: You are certainly right about Peter being depicted as a slightly older boy. And of course, Bobby Driscoll's voice is crucial to this - so crucial in fact, that in the dubbed German version they were not able to match it with the result that Peter sounds even older.

Your insightful analysis of Peter Pan's personality proves that in those days the story people really understood how real children interacted (as opposed to cartoon clich├ęs).

I agree with you that his emotional response to Tiger Lily's kiss is consistent with the way Peter is portrayed in the film (it is also the perfect illustration for the song it is part of). For me, however, it is a good example of how the Disney version differs from J.M. Barrie's concept of the character which might be the reason the English did not like the film.

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