Silenced Movie: The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

Generally, we don’t regard our movie comings and goings as once-in-a-lifetime events, no matter how extraordinary the experience. In fact, we are inclined to opt for a rerun if a film manages to make us wax hyperbolic in our enthusiasm for it. To be sure, not many moving images have this force; nowadays, they are so readily reproduced, so instantly retrieved, that many of us won’t even bother to sit down for them, knowing that they can be had whenever we are ready for them. We miss out on so much precisely because we are comforted to the point of indifference by the thought that we do not have to miss anything at all. When I write “we,” I do number myself among those who are at-our-fingertipsy with technology. Last weekend’s screening of The Life Story of David Lloyd George at the Fflics film festival here in Wales was a reminder that films can indeed be rare; that they are fragile and subject to forces, natural and otherwise, that cause them to vanish from view.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George was produced in 1918; directed by the prolific but less-than-acclaimed British director Maurice Elvey. Now, I do not quite share the view that the hugely prolific Elvey was a hack. His talkie The Phantom Fiend (1932), with Hitchcock’s Lodger Ivor Novello may not be a cinematic masterpiece; but for all its technical flaws it nearly as experimental as Hitchcock’s version of the old Jack the Ripper thriller. Aside from Novello’s piano playing, Elvey makes great and at times reflexively sly use of the telephone, as he readies the silent version for sound. More accomplished still is Elvey’s second version of Hindle Wakes (1927), a bleak working class melodrama I mentioned here previously.

Like Hindle Wakes, Life Story was partially shot on location in Wales; but in the latter film, the scenery is no mere backdrop for romance, of which the documentarian if propagandist Life Story is almost entirely devoid (notwithstanding the sentimental scenes involving Lloyd George’s relationship with his daughter, portrayed by Hitchcock’s partner Alma Reville). It is the soil in which flourished the career of a British Prime Minister (pictured), the reformer they called the “Welsh Wizard.”

Elvey begins his biography of Lloyd George very nearly ab ovo by presenting us with a shot of his birth certificate. Life Story strives to be historically accurate, but is unapologetically propagandist in its portrayal of the Prime Minister’s accomplishments during the days of the Great War, near the conclusion of which the film was produced. The final image is of Lloyd George (portrayed by Norman Page) looking at his audience, insisting that there must not be another war.

His audience? That, of course, is the crux, the tragedy, and the mystery of Elvey’s D. W. Griffithean epic: it was never publicly screened during the Prime Minister’s lifetime, never referred to by those involved in its making, and discovered not until the mid-1990s, at the home of Lloyd George’s grandson. As film historian Kevin Brownlow remarked in his introduction of the film at the Fflics festival, it is equally astonishing and deplorable that no documentary has as yet been attempted to investigate the film’s disappearance and the silence surrounding it for nearly eight decades.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George is soon being released on DVD, another rarity to become widely available and largely ignored; but it was the bravura performance of silent film composer Neil Brand, whose dramatic underscoring of the cinematographically not always compelling 152-minute biopic made for a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience.

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