Pordenone Silent 2017 – review – THREE LIVE GHOSTS (George Fitzmaurice, 1922, United Kingdom)

Three Live Ghosts posterHistorically, Three Live Ghosts is a film of great interest. Firstly, it was directed by George Fitzmaurice. Secondly, it is the earliest surviving film that Alfred Hitchcock worked on. Thirdly, its cast featured Edmund Goulding, who later became an acclaimed filmmaker, and was shot by cinematographer Arthur Miller, who worked with him throughout the 40’s. Finally, Three Live Ghosts has been referenced as one of the better productions of the English branch of the Famous Players studio, now chiefly known as the studio through whose portals Hitchcock entered the film business in 1920, hired to write and design titles.

However, at the time of writing, the film only exists in a version heavily re-edited for release in the Soviet Union. In this version, none of the original Hitchcock titles have survived. On the other hand, this version allows insight on the Soviet process of re-editing Western films for domestic distribution. Writing about the film on the festival catalog, Charles Barr states that “Three Live Ghosts was initially banned outright: ‘The film is extremely harmful and takes an unacceptable position on the consequences of world war, as well as promoting friendship with the enemy class, and is therefore forbidden.'” In the original version, the plot featured an English Lord suffering from amnesia (Cyril Chadwick), an American (Norman Kerry), and a Cockney (Goulding). All three are comrades who have returned to London at the end of the First World War from a German POV camp. However, on attempting to collect their back pay, they are told that no money is owed them since they have been officially registered as killed. Barr writes that “the initial ban on this film … pointed to two major obstacles: the angle on the Great War, and the theme of solidarity between classes. In the re-edit, the war context is simply eliminated: three protagonists become down-and-outs in London, victims in different ways of the capitalist system. Nor can Spoofy be allowed to retain his identity as the amnesiac Earl of Mannering, lovable representative of ‘the enemy class.'” In fact, in the Soviet version, Spoofy is introduced as a former famous opera singer with an amnesiac

In the original version, the plot featured an English Lord suffering from amnesia (Cyril Chadwick), an American (Norman Kerry), and a Cockney (Goulding). All three are comrades who have returned to London at the end of the First World War from a German POV camp. However, on attempting to collect their back pay, they are told that no money is owed them since they have been officially registered as killed. Barr writes that “the initial ban on this film … pointed to two major obstacles: the angle on the Great War, and the theme of solidarity between classes. In the re-edit, the war context is simply eliminated: three protagonists become down-and-outs in London, victims in different ways of the capitalist system. Nor can Spoofy be allowed to retain his identity as the amnesiac Earl of Mannering, lovable representative of ‘the enemy class.'” In fact, in the Soviet version, Spoofy is introduced as a former famous opera singer with an amnesiac

Barr writes that “the initial ban on this film … pointed to two major obstacles: the angle on the Great War, and the theme of solidarity between classes. In the re-edit, the war context is simply eliminated: three protagonists become down-and-outs in London, victims in different ways of the capitalist system. Nor can Spoofy be allowed to retain his identity as the amnesiac Earl of Mannering, lovable representative of ‘the enemy class.'” In fact, in the Soviet version, Spoofy is introduced as a former famous opera singer with an amnesiac disorder. Interestingly, the American character is changed into an Irishman, in reference to the strained relations between England and the Ireland (the latter achieved Dominion status in the year the film was first shown). The end result appears to heavily criticize of post-war Britain. It is inevitably messy, but also surprisingly ingenious and creative in its own way. Although condescending for the most part, it doesn’t completely rid itself of

The re-edit appears to heavily criticize of post-war Britain. It is inevitably messy, but also surprisingly ingenious and creative in its own way. Although condescending for the most part, it doesn’t completely rid itself of the film’s sense of humour, and is therefore rather enjoyable. It comes as no surprise: early Soviet cinema is associated with great theories of montage, and filmmakers such as Esther Shub and Sergei Eisenstein are among those known to have worked on such re-edits.

Despite the heavy alterations, other elements of the original vision remain. While the satirical bite of the original premise of Three Live Ghosts has definitely been harmed, some of its original radiance remains. The most notable of these lies in Miller’s cinematography. The many shots of London place the story in a specific historical and geographical context and give the film a touch of realism. This would later be celebrated in such Hitchcockian works as The Lodger (1944) and the later celebrated productions of Ealing Studios. – ★★★★

Three Live Ghosts ticket

THREE LIVE GHOSTS | 1922, United Kingdom | Comedy | Directed by – George Fitzmaurice / Written by – Ouida Bergére, Frederic S. Isham, Max Marcin, Margaret Turnbull / Cinematography – Arthur C. Miller / Starring – Anna Q. Nilsson, Edmund Goulding, Norman Kerry, Cyril Chadwick / Running time: 60 mins. [original version; lost]; 52 mins. [Soviet re-edit]

Note: This review was written in reference to the screening of Three Live Ghosts at the 2016 Pordenone Silent Film Festival. It was screened as part of the strand “Rediscoveries & Restorations.” Three Live Ghosts was screened from an original 35mm print from Gosfilmfond of Russia, Moscow [print missing main titles]

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