Peppered with pixie dust, high jinks and much grave peril, J.M. Barrie’s rollicking story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up and his evil nemesis Captain Hook, have provided entertainment for generations.

And as viewers tune in this Bank Holiday to the newest version of Peter Pan, just released on streaming service, Disney+, there’s yet another chance to escape to Neverland where Lost Boys – this time there are girls, too – encounter hapless pirates, a ticking crocodile, Tinkerbell and deep themes of growing up, motherhood and good versus bad.

There is, of course, the baddy: with straggly hair, wild eyes and a hook to replace the hand which became crocodile food, Peter Pan would hardly be the same without his demented arch enemy’s desperate efforts to put him to the sword.

But while this time it’s Jude Law who sheds his dashing image to become the wicked and slightly hapless pirate in Peter Pan & Wendy, almost a century ago, when Kirriemuir-born Barrie’s story was still in its infancy, it was a famous Edinburgh actor – one that most Scots today have never heard of - who laid the foundations for the role.

Unlike Law, whose good looks have helped secure a string of leading parts, Ernest Torrence was a sturdy 15-stones, with beady eyes, a big nose and middle aged when he made his film debut: not quite the image of a glitzy Hollywood star.

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Yet he would become a cinema superstar, familiar to millions for villainous performances in films that helped meet the public’s unquenchable appetite for moving pictures.

His role in the first live action film of Peter Pan in 1924 would go on to be regarded alongside Disney’s 1950s animation as the most significant versions of a story that simply refused to grow old.

But despite his influence in carving the key features of a character that would become one of cinema’s most enduring villains, Torrence’s star would eventually fade.

He died exactly 90 years ago this week – on May 15, 1933 - surprisingly hard up and destined to be forgotten by all but a handful of cinema enthusiasts.

J.M. Barrie’s classic childhood tale of the mischievous boy who defies age and, thanks to his ability to fly, gravity, had already entertained theatre audiences as a play and, in 1911, a novel titled Peter and Wendy.

The Herald: Scene from the 1924 film 'Peter Pan'Scene from the 1924 film 'Peter Pan' (Image: Getty)

But by the early 1920s, cinema was all the rage.

Barrie, by this time in his 60s, took a major part in the production, writing its screenplay – which ultimately wasn’t used - and even talent spotting the leading lady, 17-year-old Betty Bronson whose Hollywood career spanned four decades.

While Ernest Torrence was handpicked for a role that would become one of cinema’s best-known baddies.

Born in Edinburgh on June 26, 1878, Ernest Torrence-Thomson was the youngest of 14 children to Colonel Henry Torrence-Thomson and Jessie Bryce.

The family was clearly well-to-do: after studying at the Edinburgh Academy, Ernest, a talented baritone singer and pianist, arrived at Stuttgart Conservatoire in Germany, where he studied under a pupil of Liszt.

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He went on to carve a living as a piano teacher and opera singer until, in 1911, he borrowed cash to move to the United States of America.

It set him on course to make history: in the New Jersey laboratories of light-bulb pioneer and movie entrepreneur Thomas Edison, the first film sound was recorded, with Torrence singing the baritone role of the Faust’s Valentine.

Although the inventor 19 ‘talkies’ using his Kintephone, movie operators struggled to keep pictures and sound in synch. His project was abandoned and much of his equipment destroyed by fire in 1914.

Besides, silent movies were all the rage and, just as Torrence’s baritone voice was starting to fade, he caught the eye of legendary film director, Henry King.

The Scot’s remarkable presence, distinctive features and operatic training would translate perfectly to the silver screen.

The Herald: Jude Law stars as Captain Hook in Peter Pan & WendyJude Law stars as Captain Hook in Peter Pan & Wendy (Image: IMDB)

Torrence made his film debut in 1919 in A Dangerous Affair, the first of more than 40 films he would make over a 14-year period, usually playing larger-than-life villains, often peppered with a comedic edge.

He popped up in cowboy classics and murder mysteries, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Buster Keaton, Gary Cooper and Clara Bow, as King of the Beggars in Hunchback of Notre Dame and evil Professor Moriarty in 1932’s Sherlock Holmes.

But it was as Captain Hook in the 1924 Paramount Pictures live action film of J.M. Barrie’s beloved book and play, that set the bar high for the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Jason Isaacs and, now, Jude Law to follow.

“His eyes were the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly,” wrote Barrie.

“He was never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding...”

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Torrence’s Captain Hook was praised by the critics. Life magazine’s film critic wrote the film was “so extraordinarily beautiful, so utterly true to the childish spirit in which it was originally written, that I have no choice in the matter: I must fall down and blubber.”

While Motion Picture Magazine said of him in 1924: “Where Ernest Torrence stands is the center of the screen.”

More recently, in 2000, it was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Torrence, unlike some silent actors, became a success in the talkies too, earning $3000 a week when the average US wage was just $1368 a year. Home was a luxurious red-brick “comfortable English manor” house at the end of Hollywood Boulevard.

He was on board an ocean liner in New York preparing to travel home to Scotland in 1933, when he took ill. He underwent surgery for gall stones, fell into a coma and died with his wife and brother David – another successful actor - by his side. He was just 54.

The Herald: Ernest Torrence as Captain HookErnest Torrence as Captain Hook (Image: Paramount)

While The Los Angeles Times described him as “The giant Scot known to millions all over the world”, it later emerged that despite his earnings, he died with just $2000 in the bank.

Although these days his name is largely forgotten, fans of silent movies watched him in action last year, when the 1924 Peter Pan was screened at HippFest, the annual festival of silent film that takes place in Scotland’s first and oldest cinema: the Hippodrome Bo’ness.  

HippFest director, Alison Strauss, said: “Ernest Torrence and his older brother David were Scots who made a great success with their careers in the early days of Tinsel Town. 

“Ernest as Captain Hook – with his signature towering physique – is just the right balance of menace and tongue-in-cheek pantomime villainy.

“The filmmakers were keen not to over-Americanize or tinker with this much-loved work and it was perhaps with a nod to that sensitivity that they cast Torrence in the role - or perhaps Scots were just seen as plain piratical! 

“Either way, he is just perfect in the role.”

The 14th edition of Scotland’s annual silent movie festival, HippFest, takes place at Bo’ness Hippodrome from 20 – 24 March 2024 (