A bit more Robert Donat, I fancy – as my Grandpa Gus would say. Here is his 7th film. He’s three years into his film career, a proper movie star, still boosted by the plaudits of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and just back from America and the glories of The Count of Monte Cristo. He elected to make an adaptation (and Scottishisation) of a short Punch satire on history, honour and the financial predilections of America by Eric Keown – The Ghost Goes West.
Fun! You get two Donats for your money. One is Murdoch Glourie, an Eighteenth century Scot with a manner so charmingly flirty that all the girls embrace the kiss that’s coming. The other is Donald Glourie, his modern descendant, more reserved and trapped by a mighty financial mess. Murdoch is too busy kissing girls to properly take part in fighting either the English or the clan McLaggen (enemies of old). A brief moment of panicked cowardliness and he is caught behind an exploding barrel, doomed to be a ghost in the family castle by his recently departed and properly pissed off Dad, Gavin “The Glourie” Glourie. The Glourie insists his son has a McLaggen at his feet and begging before Murdoch gets to see heaven. So, at midnight every night, Murdoch pitches up in the castle in a series of classy visual effects, making the place unsellable. And into the Twentieth century, descendant Donald really needs to sell the castle.
This dumps the original Fifteenth century English setting of Keown’s Punch story and – whilst stuffed with caricature and clunky ’30s humour – is much better for it. Donat pulls off two pleasingly distinct versions of clan Glourie, even layering Eighteenth century Murdoch who is played for laughs before he looms out of the shadows for 200 years. My Grandpa Gus always chortled through The Ghost Goes West, delighting at Donat’s romancing of the ladies (spell me a riddle…”what’s the difference betwixt a thistle in the heather and a kiss in the dark?”), thrilling to his emergence from fireplaces and through tables, nodding knowingly as the satire kicked in.
For the Americans are on us inside fifteen minutes. It’s the Twentieth century, and the rich Martins are wandering Scotland. Peggy (Jean Parker looking very 1930s chic at 19) rushes into the castle followed by her Dad (the porky and splendidly loaded Eugene Pallette). There is some dinner-based business with grumpy local creditors pretending to be servants, then the plot proper kicks in: Mr Martin and Donald Glourie do the deal and the castle is sold and goes the way of London Bridge. Oh yes.
The castle is packed up by loads of swarthy white Scots, and put on one of the least convincing models of a ship you will ever see. There are some lovely comedy misunderstandings during the voyage (not least Peggy being romanced by Murdoch and nearly romanced by Donald) before they all pitch up in America, where the castle is unpacked by lots of muscular black Americans. Hmmmm…the satire is about Americans with money, but French director René Clair takes a couple of cultural sidewipes along the way. Another black-white balance happens at different dinner tables: tartaned-up white pipers entertain early in the story; tartaned up black bandsmen do the same in America. Hmmm.
The film was the UK’s biggest money-maker of 1936. It is dated to its bones, but the fun of the story, the combination of two deft, funny and tender performances from Donat, the contrast of romantic Scotland (not one iota of real in it…the history, the dress-code, the Scotchishness – shudder…) against ‘modern’ American noise makes The Ghost Goes West a cracking diversion.
The film was also a big hit in the States – no doubt because of its robustly caricatured Americans (there are a few too many verbal battles between smug old capitalists) and they were up for the satire. What else in the old world could be moved to Florida, surrounded by palm trees and monetized…?
And for film-buffs – despite most of its appearances – Castle Glourie was one of the first builds by the Kordas at their Denham Studios… And, damn me britches, there’s Elsa Lanchester giving out modernity like a 21st century girl! But you probably want to know whether Murdoch got a McLaggen on his knees or whether Donald got the girl…?
I had to hunt The Ghost Goes West down on DVD before realising it’s on Amazon. Get your nurse to sort you out. The film is of its time and of the light-comedy, nothing great genre. But it is fun. And Grandpa Gus loved it.