For episode 56 of the podcast Criterion Reflections, going through the films in the Criterion Collection year by year of their original release, I joined David Blakeslee to discuss the earliest Beatrix Potter adaptation – a part of the collection for streaming on the Criterion Channel. It’s an episode that helped me remember these books and locations I grew up with; even recently I couldn’t help but notice a stone ornament of Jemima Puddleduck in a garden centre! (My previous efforts of podcasting can be accessed on Soundcloud.) However, as always happens even when notes have been written and with only so long a conversation can progress through until it reaches its natural conclusion, I didn’t cover everything that I researched and observed about the film, so I compiled a companion thread on Twitter with additional thoughts and information. This post will serve to organise this all into one place as a supplement to the episode. I’d recommend listening to the episode first for our thoughts, but perhaps the information presented here will encourage some more listeners?
The episode can also be accessed through Apple Podcasts.
Beatrix Potter’s life and books
One of the aspects we discuss on the episode are the darker elements of the film and of Potter’s work. For those that know her from more recent adaptations and the painted cover/interior illustrations, it might be a grisly surprise that:
Beatrix was happy in time to put down any little creature who fell ill, skin it, and boil the carcass to extract the skeleton for drawing.
Potter was engaged to her publisher, Norman Warne (who was younger than her), before his untimely death of leukaemia in 1905. Considering the state of the publishing industry and the size of Penguin Random House today, it’s pretty mindblowing to learn that the Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down by commercial publishers before initially being self-published in a run of 250. The public domain status of her books in the UK means that a lot of her books come up with horrific Kindle/Createspace covers!
One of the most beautiful parts of the film is where it approaches Beatrix Potter’s creative process and see her animals become reproduced as sketches, including the transformation of her mouse in a cage. Indeed, Beatrix Potter seems to exist in the same universe as her fictional creations! The film’s use of scale – including human sized animals, the doll’s house, mice with massive surroundings, a cat through the floorboards – reminded me of the trickery of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), with massive everyday items contrasted against human actors.
I’m still terrified by the prospect of where the feathers in the doll’s house’s pillows came from, considering the other animals we see in the film. Can Jeremy Fisher eat the Cadbury’s milk chocolate advertised in the newspaper he reads?
Despite not being successful in the US and internationally, Richard Goodwin reveals in Laurent Bouzereau’s making of documentary for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), produced for the Paramount DVD release, that the film was successful in the UK and Russia, and that Agatha Christie saw and liked the film and its faithfulness to the books – encouraging her to trust in the adaptation of Orient Express. Speaking in the newly produced interview for StudioCanal’s 2017 Blu-ray, Goodwin discloses that the US distributor, MGM, presented the film in a double bill with Shaft!
Roger Ebert was always a wonderful source for his writing, even if I don’t agree with all of his verdicts. His conclusion in a four star Chicago Sun-Times review for this film’s power in interesting different audiences was rather moving:
I still would have testified it was too highbrow for kids, though, because as a kid it would have been too highbrow for me. […] I took along three kids who hadn’t been told they didn’t like ballet and therefore didn’t know that they were supposed to have a bad time.
Ebert also complains about the film’s limited distribution outside of affluent, middle-class theaters, concluding:
It could be that the kids of the [Chicago] urban core (black and white) could use a little whimsical fantasy once in a while, wouldn’t you think? I mean, a kid’s a kid, right?
EMI produced quite a few children’s films around the same time as Tales of Beatrix Potter, including The Railway Children (1970), Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974). The Go-Between, certified AA on release (14 or over), deals with more mature themes around innocence, the loss of childhood and memory, but was partially shot in my hometown of Norwich! EMI themselves have many Criterion connections, being headed by Bryan Forbes (The League of Gentlemen, Seance on a Wet Afternoon). EMI worked on titles that were released on laserdisc (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), unreleased on laserdisc (The Elephant Man), with an additional DVD title, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that would have been funded by EMI before the film helped form George Harrison’s HandMade Films. Originally a part of the record label, for a year, EMI’s library was owned by the Cannon Group before now being under StudioCanal in the UK. An additional Criterion connection can be found in Maggie Unsworth, who worked in the role of Continuity, worked on the films of David Lean, Powell & Pressburger; The Browning Version (1951) and The Ruling Class (1972), and was the wife of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (A Night to Remember, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tess).
The short story of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) has some differences – the elision of time, omitting the 6 days of returning to Owl Island with mice (!), a mole, minnows, beetles, honey and an egg; it uses no dialogue but does uses nursery rhymes – Humpty Dumpty and Arthur O’Bower. However, Humpty Dumpty is an older version of the rhyme published by scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, before the modern version of the rhyme became more popular.
Another filmed version of her work was the ITV/Thames Christmas special The Tailor of Gloucester (1989).
I don’t remember if I ever went to the Lake District’s World of Beatrix Potter, although I probably did, I have a very distinct memory of going to the Wind in the Willows experience in Derbyshire in 2003 (its last year of operation) – run by the same people as World of Beatrix Potter!