The London hospital, which was gifted the rights to the play by JM Barrie in 1929, had hoped a new cinema version of the classic children’s story would generate tens of thousands of pounds towards patient care.
The $10 million movie, proposed in 1964, was to have been made by George Cukor, the director of My Fair Lady and The Philadelphia Story. But it never got off the ground because Disney’s Hollywood studio threatened legal action, claiming it owned all the cinematic rights to the play.
The studio had paid the relatively low sum of £5,000 for the animation rights to Peter Pan in 1939, and had released its classic cartoon version in 1953.
The row, which is outlined in confidential documents in the hospital’s own archive, will prove embarrassing for Disney. Correspondence in the files reveals that hospital managers believed that the film maker was putting its own commercial needs before the needs of sick children.
While tensions between the studio and the hospital have surfaced in public over the decades, the aborted movie starring Hepburn and Olivier remained under wraps until now.
In 1964, Cukor and an enthusiastic Hepburn, whom he had just directed in his Oscar-winning classic My Fair Lady, began negotiations with an equally-excited hospital.
But the film, which was to be produced by Hepburn’s then-husband Mel Ferrer, was stopped in its tracks after Disney threatened court action. On 24 Aug, 1964, a furious Cukor vented his anger to Gordon Piller, the hospital’s secretary.
Cukor wrote: “Quite apart from the serious inconvenience that Disney has caused us all, I find his behaviour unconscionable. He [Walt] cannot honestly believe that he has any legal or moral claim to the title.
"He must or should recognise that he’s trying to appropriate something for himself that belongs to a hospital for sick children. I don’t think he’d cut a very good figure, in his eyes or anyone else’s, if this was generally known. All the more so because he represents 'wholesome entertainment’ to the world.”
In an handwritten postscript, Cukor adds: “We’ll stick right with it until we succeed!”
Cukor later complained to the hospital about Disney’s decision to release a big screen version of Mary Poppins, starring a flying Julie Andrews, while he was still trying to get the Peter Pan film off the ground.
In another letter to Mr Piller, Cukor wrote: “I haven’t seen it yet but Mary Poppins flies and flies all over the place. That makes Disney’s behaviour all the clearer. He is determined that not only does he own the title Peter Pan but he and he only is permitted to make characters fly.”
On 15 Sep, Mr Piller told Cukor: “My feelings are getting more roused towards Disney ... I believe we should pull no punches in dealing with him.”
To defend its rights over Peter Pan the hospital launched legal action against Disney, but the courtroom wrangling dragged on for years, meaning that Cukor and Hepburn were no longer able to make the film.
The dispute carried on after Walt’s death in 1966 and was not finally settled until 1969, when the hospital was awarded £14,000 in compensation as well as £30,000 in costs.
The manner in which the studio and its chiefs conducted themselves during the legal action seems to have infuriated the hospital staff. On 14 Nov, 1969, Peter Sneath, the hospital’s legal adviser, wrote that Disney would have to pay for its “very rash acts”.
The row over the planned film followed a series of earlier clashes between the two sides.
The documents show that in 1962, Walt Disney had offered the hospital £10,000 for the live action film rights to Peter Pan, plus one per cent of the gross box office receipts of the animated version which it wanted to re-release.
The hospital initially accepted the offer but the following year called it “unfair” and proposed an alternative contract which would have given it a greater share of box office receipts, TV sales revenue and merchandising royalties.
The hospital’s U-turn infuriated Walt and his brother Roy, who had presided over the negotiations.
A letter dated 15 Mar, 1963, from Disney’s legal adviser to Mr Sneath, reads: “Mr Roy Disney ... is frankly shocked that the Governors of the hospital should think themselves free for any reason to go back on the basic terms which were agreed for the acquisitions by Disney of live rights ... We hope that even at this late stage the governors in reconsideration will come to the conclusion that nothing not even their desire to serve charity justifies bad faith of this kind.”
Other internal memos reveal that Great Ormond Street was advised in 1939 that it was selling the animation rights to Disney too cheaply, but went ahead with the transaction anyway.
The 1964 dispute was not the last time the two sides would clash. In 2003 The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Walt Disney had pulled out of a live action cinema version of Peter Pan by the Australian director PJ Hogan, starring Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams and Richard Briers, only a month before its release, after it objected to sharing royalties from the sale of merchandise with the hospital.
A spokesman for the Walt Disney Company said: “Disney has supported Great Ormond Street Hospital over many years and in January 2008 the Company announced that it would join forces with Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity to raise £10 million towards the Hospital’s capital appeal.”Original here