LIFE STORY OF DAVID LLOYD GEORGE, THE (Maurice Elvey, 1918, UK, 150m, BW)
Directed by Maurice Elvey
Written by Sidney Low
Starring Norman Page
Ideal Film Company
Distributed by Ideal Film Company
Country United Kingdom
The Life Story of David Lloyd George (originally titled The Man Who Saved The Empire) is a 1918 British silent biopic film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Norman Page, Alma Reville and Ernest Thesiger. The film "is thought to be the first feature length biopic of a contemporary living politician". Finished in 1918, it was not shown publicly until 1996.
The Life Story of David Lloyd George is about David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922. It was written by Sidney Low, directed by Maurice Elvey, and stars Norman Page as Lloyd George. Other actors who appear are Ernest Thesiger, Alma Reville, and Douglas Munro. The film was produced by the Ideal Film Company, which had been started around 1910 by two Jewish Manchester-born brothers, Harry Moses and Simon Rowson (born Rosenbaum).
The film's release was much anticipated, and the film press carried impressive advertisements for it in late 1918. However, in December 1918, all the advertisement stopped, following an attack in the influential paper John Bull by its owner, the MP Horatio Bottomley, who claimed that the Rowsons, because they had changed their last name and had employed some foreign-born extras to play soldiers in the film's war scenes, had less than patriotic motives for making the film.
The Rowsons started the process of suing him for libel, but were shortly afterwards informed that Lloyd George, who initially had supported the production of the film, no longer wanted it shown. Solicitors, presumably acting for the government or for Lloyd George's Liberal party, visited the film company, paid £20,000 in cash (a very high figure at the time), and walked away with the negative and the only print.The reason why Lloyd George took this action is still unknown, but is the subject of much speculation.
The story of Maurice Elvey's THE LIFE OF DAVID LLOYD GEORGE is amazing. Elvey considered it his best work but, at the point where he was about to send the camera materials and edited work print for duplication, it was siezed by the British Liberal party who felt it might taint war time Prime Minister Lloyd George in the coming election. The film was believed lost till the nineties, when rusty cans discovered in the Lloyd George family attic were opened. Beautifully restored by the new Welsh film Archive, it had a world wide success, spawning a small Elvey retrospective at the Silent Film Festival at Pordenone in Italy.
Not only is the movie's appearance eighty years after its production and twenty years after the death of it's director, an amazing story but the work itself is exceptional, accepted as the best British film of it's day.
A mixture of newsreel like reconstruction - mill girls dance on the edge of the crowd as Lloyd George inspects a factory, helmet wearing bobbies hold back a rioting crowd in a frame masked to wide screen, debates with Randolph Churchill in the Chamber - and visionary tableaux - the spectre of past Prime ministers super-imposed on the entry into the office, an atrocity frozen as spike hat huns march in the background and we can forgive Elvey for the future as waves breaking viewed through a figure eight mask. Performances, settings and the film's unfamiliar structure (compare the Thomas Ince CIVILIZATION) support the authoritative handling which still registers in the Twenty First Century.
Made with the blessing of Lloyd George's family, and featuring a distinctly hagiographic tone, the film begins by showing his genuine birth certificate and snapshots of his parents, shoots extensively at genuine locations, and features numerous details and anecdotes from his career, shared by friends and confidantes, alongside his notable political triumphs. From a humble background, he becomes a solicitor, before his gift for oratory finds him a place in the House of Commons, then the cabinet, and then the hot-seat.
He fights for the poor, runs away from the Suffragettes like a big girl's blouse, and then inspires his nation to triumph against the empire-builders of Germany - while lamenting the human cost of the conflict - in what may be a slightly fanciful retelling of the Great War. (I also can't help but notice that the French celebrate his uplifting wartime speech in Paris by waving white handkerchiefs in the air; typical French.) Lloyd George is played, as an adult, by Norman Page, with Alma Reville - Hitchcock's wife and sometime collaborator - as his spouse, and Ernest Thesiger, the great Golden Age character actor, best-known for The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, as Joseph Chamberlain. It's Page's show, though, he's rarely off-screen and proves a charismatic screen presence, with a perma-pointing finger.
Such is its antiquity that the flaws are obvious to the modern viewer: there's little dramatic tension throughout the narrative, the scenes of ordinary people's lives being transformed by the beneficent title figure are heavy-handed in the extreme, and where the writers don't have access to speeches from the late 19th century, they're resistant to speculation, and so simply show Lloyd George speaking with no intertitles.
There's also a truly baffling scene in which the film breaks off from its story about social reform to let us know that Dave enjoyed a day off and scored a bogey on the first hole of the golf course, an impressive achievement that's then expressed pictorially. Sadly, no mention is made of Lloyd George's greatest attribute; greater even than his golfing prowess. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls how he was showing a group of students around the Strangers' Gallery at the House of Commons when he happened to mention the former prime minister. At this point he was interrupted by a very old man, who rose to his feet and announced, "Lloyd George had a prick like a donkey".
As a director, Elvey shows extraordinary promise, but also comes up short compared to, say, Griffith, due to a marked lack of close-ups. The film is rousing and frequently compelling, with an eye for a crowd scene and an ear (or another eye?) for a great line of speech-making, but it's missing the human touch that comes from photographing the face. Elvey is a whizz with a long shot and a wonder with a montage, but a film is often too aloof if you can't read people's expressions. Having said that, on one of the rare occasions when we do get a medium close-up, it's in order to view what must be the most unconvincing false beard I've ever seen. Lloyd George's dad looks like someone has affixed a doormat to his face.
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