George Ali in “Peter Pan.”
Best remembered for portraying Nana the dog in Herbert Brenon’s 1924 film adaptation of “Peter Pan,” George Ali excelled at playing all types of animal characters in vaudeville and the stage for over thirty years. His realistic, animated portrayals of four legged creatures earned him the moniker, “world’s greatest animal impersonator” in many reviews. Wearing an oversize animal costume, Ali’s expressive, whimsical performances touched children and adults alike, giving dignity and human like qualities to pets or service animals.
Not much is known about Ali’s early years prior to working on stage. A 1925 issue of Photoplay, describing his wonderful work in “Peter Pan,” states that Ali “was trained as an acrobat in his youth by a troupe of strolling Arab gymnasts. His non-professional name is George Edward Bolinbroke.” Searches under both names, however, fail to turn up any evidence of his true name and background.
A clip from “Peter Pan.”
A 1905 issue of “Munsey’s Magazine” claims Ali began his career playing a jackass in the London pantomimes, before traveling to America and appearing as a trick donkey in a lavish June 1892 production of “Ali Baba Jr., or Morgiana and the Forty Thieves,” at the Chicago Opera House. He made his name playing animals in Weber and Fields’ shows.
Perusals of trades and Media History Digital Library do turn up reviews listing him in various Weber and Fields’ productions beginning as early as 1899. That year, Ali appeared in “Whirl-i-gig” starring Lillian Russell as the trained bear, “Bruno,” and played Leo in a production of “Fiddle Dee Dee” with Russell, David Warfield, and De Wolf Hopper in 1900. He appeared in four song sketches, including “Ham Song,” “Tip It,” and “Sparrus Copus.”
Over the next several years, Ali essayed various roles in these and other revues, playing real people in “Hoity Toity,” “Man From Mars,” and “De Pleurissy” in 1901, the dancing bear, “Baby,” in the 1902 production of “The Wild Rose,” “Mr. Black Bear” in the 1903 “Midsummer Night Farces” and “Pretty Polly” in “The Jersey Lily” later that year. Reviews often pointed out his humorous scene stealing in the small parts.
A 1905 issue of “Men’s Wear” features him in his most popular role of the time, Buster Brown’s dog, “Tige,” in which he stole the show from live actors such as Master Gabriel as the darling little dog. Most reviews singled him out for praise, with many stating how the audience often wished the size of his role could be doubled, as it often saved the show. Everyone seemed to enjoy his enthusiastic and energetic performances, full of emotion and character. This recognition forced producers to prominently feature and highlight Ali in advertisements with second billing.
The January 21, 1907 edition of “The Rock Island Argus” called him tops in the line of animal pantomime, stating many recognized him as “the foremost four-footed actor” for the past several years. Ali toured both America and England for several years playing Tige in various iterations of the show. In fact, during one production in Pennsylvania, Ali visited a local city hall and bought a dog license making “Tige” legal in town.
In 1908, Ali traveled to England, appearing for several years in pantomime at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, portraying Dick Whittington’s cat, which the theatre took on the road across England and Scotland. Advertisements at the time noted he received the largest salary every paid to animal impersonators. He portrayed a dog in the Drury Lane’s production of “Aladdin” in 1910. “Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes” called his act the best in the world in their review of the show. After traveling with Fred Karno’s troupe across Scotland in 1911 and appearing in France, Ali performed in shows in Europe.
Hired for his animal expertise, Ali made his first film appearance in 1921, portraying the wolf in PrizmaColor’s production of “Little Red Riding Hood,” shot in the Fort Lee, New Jersey area. For once, Ali brought menace and darkness to one of his creatures.
In 1924, Famous Players Lasky bought the rights to “Peter Pan” for director Herbert Brenon. The respected director requested Ali play the alligator and the part of Nana instead of a real dog, intending to give the role some dignity while also portraying it as seen through children’s eyes. A 1925 Photoplay story states that Seidel’s of New York created the costume from Ali’s design and specifications, with the face folded in the style of a taxidermist. Real shaggy dog fur covered Nana’s head, with caracel covering the body and buttoned up inside.
Master Gabriel as Buster Brown and George Ali as Tige, Newport News Daily Press, Feb. 11, 1906.
From inside the costume, Ali operated the eyes, ears, tail, and mouth through a series of strings enabling him to cock an eye, wiggle his ears, wag his tail, and the like, enabling him to tug viewers’ heart strings as well. Jumping from wistful to joyous celebration to sorrow, Ali’s strong portrayal charmed audiences.
Photoplay imagined that Ali loved animals and children, if he could so naturally bring such innocent creatures to life. His exceptional imagination gave children such tremendous pleasure that the magazine figured it must bring him great joy. “It requires a flight of fancy, an insight into the minds of others, and a wholesome attitude toward life to blend into the gossamer fabric of “Peter Pan” an artistic conception of the faithful Nana. Nana is a character that will never be forgotten.
George Ali has achieved a subtle feat. Indeed, he must be a Peter Pan himself, for only one who is still a child in spirit could read and interpret the heart of Nana.”
Though he continued playing animal roles, nothing so grand or glamorous as Nana came his way again. Ali played a horse named Joseph in Phillip Barry’s stage comedy, “White Wings,” in 1926, a failed show about a street cleaner or white wing, who cleans up after horses, threatening to break off his engagement to a young woman whose father invented the automobile, vowing never to take another job until the last horse (Ali) dies.
In 1928, Ali portrayed San Toy in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1928 production of “Chee Chee,” and in 1930, played a monkey in a production of “Robinson Crusoe.” Ali portrayed a jackass in the 1935 “Parade,” a musical revue, and then appears to have retired from the stage. Film journals claim he died April 26, 1947 in Freeport, Long Island.
Playful and whimsical George Ali gave life to many fantastical characters throughout his career, bringing joy and happiness to audiences throughout the world. While his roles might not have examined the human condition or the often difficult circumstances surrounding a person’s daily life, they perhaps performed something more important, removing cares and concerns to bring happiness and innocence, if only for a few moments.
I wonder how many actors specialized in playing animals. Surely only a few, but Mr. Ali was not the only one. There was also Arthur Hill (c.1875-1932) who played animals mostly on stage. He was the (highly anthropomorphized) “Cowardly Lion” in the 1903 Broadway production of “The Wizard of Oz,” though he is not known to have appeared in any of the early film versions. However he also played “The Friendly Bear” in a 1907 musical “The Top o’ th’ World.” Ten years later he played three roles with suspiciously animal-like descriptions in “The Cohan Review of 1918”: “A Spanish Bull,” “Bosco,” and “A Regular Tiger.” But his most famous role may have been as “Rab, the dog” in “A Good Little Devil” in 1913, both on stage and in the Edwin S. Porter film version of the same. A copy of this performance (though the surviving film is incomplete) can be found at BFI in London. Mr. Hill did a little more work in film, directing a number of shorts for Pyramid in 1915 before returning to stage work.
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