Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghost of 1918

A title from "The Life Story of David Lloyd George," 1918.
In tracing the relationship between modernist and popular biography in the war years and after, I've been working a lot on ways in which Britons tried to refashion the life writing genre at this time. New Biographers (British modernists working on life writing) looked to newer media (film, photography, radio) of the day for inspiration, some feeling that a cinematic approach was the most fitting way to depict a subject. But can text successfully emulate other media? Can it borrow the qualities of film, for example? This is a big question in general, but within the scope of my project, I am interested in biographers who imagined ways of writing lives that felt more lifelike or of (re)creating more human subjects. And, in considering film and life narratives of this era, I would be remiss in forgetting Maurice Elvey's "The Life Story of David Lloyd George," an incredible early British biopic (perhaps the first?) that, though filmed in 1918, was lost for decades until a copy--the copy--was found in Wales in 1994. After restoration, it premiered in 1996.

David Lloyd George (1863-1945), Prime Minister of the U.K. from 1916-1922.

Being someone interested in ghosts (more on that later), I can't help but be fascinated by the fact that this film's original, intended, audience, were a company of ghosts by the time the first frames of Elvey's film were at last projected onto a screen, when the figure of young Lloyd George finally flickered into existence in a darkened theater. His cinematic, biographic, "birth" thus took place too late for Britons of 1918 to have lived to see it--how strangely ironic! The film, which I was lucky enough to see at Yale a couple of years ago, is somewhat sentimental, not exactly New Biographical in nature. It takes a propagandist approach to Lloyd George and traces, as many traditional biographies are wont to do, his 'destiny' as a great British leader from earliest childhood. Narrative in these sorts of life stories is regarded as a structure completely sound and coherent, a sealed arc whose endpoint is clearly charted on the day of its beginning. The lack of innovation in this regard, however, is unsurprising, as Lytton Strachey's groundbreaking quartet of biographies, Eminent Victorians, would only make its appearance and begin to revolutionize the textual biographic genre in 1918. Whatever its nature and intentions, the film was suppressed before its release under what the UK's Moving History calls "mysterious" circumstances. Thought to have been destroyed, the film lingered in a state of suspended animation for nearly eighty years.

As an early biopic--perhaps the very earliest--"The Life Story of DLG" remains fascinating and its attempt to capture a life narrative in cinematic form, to map the will-o'-the-wisp aspects of any person's earthbound journey onto the progressing frames of film, as well as this particular film's own death and rebirth, are definitely worth exploring.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading:
"The Life Story of David Lloyd George" title image and film information:
National Library of Wales (where the original film resides):[tt_news]=2185&cHash=63a1e8312e179d37b7af26e5d8d574d9

Image of DLG:

Kenneth O. Morgan, George, David Lloyd, first Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (1863–1945), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [, accessed 21 Oct 2011]

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