The Intertitle Vanishes

Anna Aslanyan

One of the earliest movies on which Alfred Hitchcock is known to have worked is the 1922 British silent Three Live Ghosts. The original is gone, together with Hitchcock’s intertitles, but last year a copy was found in Moscow. When the organisers of the British Silent Film Festival asked me to translate the Russian intertitles back into English, I wondered how to go about trying to recreate Hitchcock’s style, but I needn’t have worried: the Russian intertitles have little in common with the lost originals. ‘The film treats of the consequences of the World War in a positively dangerous and unacceptable manner, promotes friendship between socially antagonistic classes, and should therefore be banned,’ the Soviet censor concluded in 1925. But it wasn’t banned; it was re-edited instead.

According to Kinematograph Weekly, the original Three Live Ghosts, directed by George Fitzmaurice and based on a Broadway play, was a comedy about three men, thought dead, returning to London after the First World War. Jimmy unsuccessfully tries to claim his pay at the War Office; Bill is wanted for a murder he didn't commit; Spoofy, shell-shocked, can't remember who he is. It turns out at the end that he’s the Earl of Mannering. Bill, originally from America, was a Cambridge student before enlisting in the army; Jimmy is an East End lad. The three become friends, crash at Jimmy's aunt’s place in Whitechapel, have a few brushes with police, but it all ends happily.

The plot outlined by the Soviet censor is similar to this, with some variations: he either found Hitchcock’s titles confusing or watched yet another version. He found the film too complacent: ‘The World War is a negligible episode in the eternal and indestructible bourgeois prosperity of the English.’ The display of solidarity between class enemies made the censor predictably angry – he compares it to Burgfriedenspolitik – but what seems to have annoyed him most is the depiction of Jimmy's aunt: ‘an appallingly portrayed character, a poor old woman who is never seen without a bottle … shown in an expressly comical(!) light.’ (Hitchcock, who liked a drink both on and off screen, might have seen it differently.)

The opening scenes of the Soviet version intercut a 'humble garret, starvation knocking on its door' with a posh ballroom, and the trembling hands of a dying man with a woman’s dainty fingers picking chocolates out of a box. There are no references to the war, except for an institution whose name translates as 'Bridge Guard Office' (no one I have consulted can think what the original would have been). Jimmy is said to be 'often out of work because of his frankness'. The American Bill Foster gets a new surname and nationality. He is called both O'Brien and O'Neil, and to explain why the police are after him, a title is inserted, a newspaper article headlined: ‘Those Irish Again!’ Spoofy is no longer the Early of Mannering but Harold Renzi, a former opera singer 'thrown out like a used rag by those who applauded him at the height of his fame'.

The Soviet editor dispensed with most of the bottles, keeping the aunt sober and poor: she works as a laundress and is often late with her rent. A pub interior is glimpsed only once; no alcohol is openly consumed; and when a drunken sailor stumbles onto a pier, nearly falling off, he is given an anti-capitalist couplet to sing.

There is nothing unusual about the fate of Three Live Ghosts: in those days most Western imports were re-edited by Soviet production companies. Viktor Shklovsky, who worked for one of them, talks about the process in his 1927 article ‘On Re-Editing Films’. The demands of censorship weren’t his only consideration. Once, finding the protagonist of a bad film 'quite unbearable, her character beyond re-editing', he made her a hysteric. Another time, he ‘took twin brothers – one virtuous, the other a villain – and made them into one man leading a double life’.

Hitchcock remembered that his early work had taught him to 'change the way audiences read an action or an expression by changing the intertitle'. Shklovsky, who introduced the concept of defamiliarisation in art, believed that a good caption should 'turn the shot around' rather than match it. Whoever wrote the Russian titles for Three Live Ghosts – their purplish prose suggests it wasn't Shklovsky – turned around the shots of Tower Bridge by warning of overzealous constables waiting nearby to arrest anyone sleeping under it. They also renamed the villain of the piece 'Lord Percy Alpers'. Bad guys in other movies were often given new names along the lines of Count Romanovsky.

Three Live Ghosts will be showing at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival later this year.

Read more in the London Review of Books

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