Silver Screen Standards: The Ghost Goes West (1935)

Silver Screen Standards: The Ghost Goes West (1935)

Supernatural romance and comedy are unique but often overlapping subgenres with some truly outstanding movies among their ranks, from Topper (1937), Blithe Spirit (1945), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) to the more recent blockbuster, Ghost (1990). I love a good ghost story, whether it’s spooky or silly, so of course I find The Ghost Goes West (1935) thoroughly delightful. It’s a fairly modest British production from producer Alexander Korda and French director René Clair, but its tremendous charm and engaging cast help explain why this ghostly romantic comedy was such a huge hit with British audiences in 1935. Aside from its supernatural elements, The Ghost Goes West also offers some sharp and very funny commentary about the way Americans – especially wealthy ones – view and consume other cultures; most viewers, however, will come for the engaging fairy tale romance as enacted by Robert Donat and Jean Parker.

Ghost Goes Robert Donat Dual Role
Robert Donat plays the dual roles of Scottish ghost Murdoch Glourie and his identical descendant, Donald Glourie.

Donat plays a dual role as both the titular ghost, Murdoch Glourie, and his identical descendant, Donald Glourie, neither of whom has helped the family’s fortunes over the centuries. The impoverished Donald is forced to sell his haunted ancestral castle to a rich American businessman, Mr. Martin (Eugene Pallette), who promptly disassembles the home and has it reconstructed in Florida, unwittingly taking the ghost along, too. Ghost mania erupts when Murdoch makes an appearance on the transatlantic voyage, but Murdoch also causes trouble for Donald with Martin’s daughter, Peggy (Jean Parker), who assumes that the ghost is really just Donald playing pretend.

Ghost Goes Robert Donat Jean Parker
Both Murdoch and Donald are attracted to Peggy Martin (Jean Parker), who encourages her wealthy father to buy the Glourie family’s castle.

The setup of The Ghost Goes West has a lot in common with The Canterville Ghost (1944), which appeared almost a decade later but is based on an 1887 short story by Oscar Wilde. The 1935 movie is adapted from a short story called “Sir Tristam Goes West” by Eric Keown, and if you’re interested in reading it you’ll find it included in the 2007 anthology, The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories. Given the changes to Wilde’s original story in the 1944 movie, it’s entirely possible that the Charles Laughton vehicle borrowed some of its plot elements from Keown’s story or its 1935 adaptation. In both movies, an angry father curses his disappointing son to haunt the family home until he can prove himself worthy, and then, centuries later, modern Americans show up to force the ghost outside his comfort zone. In The Ghost Goes West, however, the unhappy spirit actually gets transported to America, which offers lots of opportunities for him to affect and be affected by the modern American culture he finds there. Donald also goes along due to his romantic interest in Peggy, and, like his ancestor, Donald finds a lot to complain about in the way Martin and his compatriots treat the castle, the ghost, and Scots heritage. The ticker tape parade, the Venetian gondola, the omnipresent radios hidden in everything, the rival businessmen in their kilts, and the “authentic” Scottish music are all very funny but also underscore general American ignorance and appropriation.

Ghost Goes Robert Donat crates
Poor Murdoch finds himself transported to America along with the disassembled stones of his ancient home.

If the commentary is a bit pointed for American viewers, that medicine goes down better with the sweet romance and comedic performances. The fairy tale quality of the story is enhanced by the use of elaborate miniatures for exterior shots throughout the picture, and the atmosphere of the whole brings to mind the similar qualities of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), especially because both share an interest in Scottish characters and culture. Robert Donat is, ironically, livelier as the girl crazy Murdoch but more serious about Peggy as Donald, while Jean Parker gives Peggy playful energy in her scenes with both of the Glourie men. It’s great fun to see Donat switch between Murdoch and Donald and even act against himself thanks to the usual split screen technique used for dual roles. Eugene Pallette is perfectly cast as one of his trademark characters, the wealthy but unpolished father, while Ralph Bunker gives Pallette plenty of pushback as Martin’s rival grocer, Mr. Bigelow. If I have a complaint about The Ghost Goes West, it’s the glaring underuse of the fabulous Elsa Lanchester as Miss Shepperton, a character who only appears as a guest at the Florida party and has no apparent purpose. If you want to see more of a performance from Lanchester in a supernatural comedy, you’ll have to move on to Bell, Book and Candle (1958) or Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968).

Ghost Goes Robert Donat Ralph Bunker
Murdoch finally finds a descendant of the hated McLaggen clan in Mr. Martin’s rival, Mr. Bigelow (Ralph Bunker).

René Clair also directed another of my favorite supernatural comedies, the wonderful I Married a Witch (1942). Robert Donat won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and you can also see him in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Citadel (!938). Jean Parker plays Beth in the 1933 adaptation of Little Women; she also appears in Beyond Tomorrow (1940), One Body Too Many (1944), and The Gunfighter (1950). Eugene Pallette’s other memorable fathers include those in My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), and Heaven Can Wait (1943), but you’ll also find him in the iconic ghost comedy, Topper (1937). For more haunted hijinks, try Haunted Spooks (1920), The Ghost Breakers (1940), 13 Ghosts (1960), and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). More modern ghost comedies include Ghostbusters (1984), High Spirits (1988), Beetlejuice (1988), The Frighteners (1996), and the 2023 Haunted Mansion, but I can’t close without recommending both the British and American versions of the TV series, Ghosts, and the excellent Paramount+ series, School Spirits, if you want more ghostly adventures than a single feature film allows.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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