Whenever I am on a Metro North train, barreling along the Hudson River north of New York City, I try to sit on the river side of the car in order to get a good look at Bannerman’s Castle. Perhaps you, too, have been intrigued by the carcass of what appears to be a red brick castle fallen into decay, about 1,000 feet from the shoreline on the six-acre Pollepel Island. Having just watched René Clair’s The Ghost Goes West, I couldn’t help but think of the decrepit, battered ruin.
The Ghost Goes West was René Clair’s first English-language film. Roughly a decade prior Clair created Entr’Acte (1924), one of the most important films of the Dada movement. Made with Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Erik Satie, this short film was the intermission or interlude for the ballet Relâche. Clair went on to have a considerable career in feature filmmaking in France and later in the U.S. The Ghost Goes West, based on the story “Sir Tristram Goes West,” originally published in Punch magazine in 1932, is a far cry from the Dadaist tendency toward severity. Instead, it’s a Preston Sturges–like humorous view of American consumer culture.
Robert Donat, in a dual role, first appears as the tartan-clad Murdoch, the quixotic, romantic son of the Glourie clan. When the head of the McLaggen clan insults the Glouries, Murdoch is responsible for avenging his family’s good name. But, as usual, Murdoch (who has a habit of canoodling with milkmaids in the hay loft) is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is blown to bits on the battlefield. Forever tethered to the clan’s castle, his ghost walks the parapets and halls as if he were still alive. As friendly dead as when he was alive, he is often seen on dark nights by living family members, going about his spectral business.
Fast-forward to modern times, as Murdoch’s descendant Donald Glourie is forced to sell the family castle to Joe, a wealthy American businessman. But while Donald—who is also in love with Joe’s daughter Peggy—is soon surprised to learn of his ancestral ghost, he’s even more shocked by the revelation that his family croft is to be disassembled brick by brick and rebuilt in sunny Florida (yes, Florida!). Turns out Joe is looking to bring a little bit of the old country into his unrefined, nouveau riche American life, as surely the master of such a once-fine citadel must enjoy elevated stature in his community. He’s about to find out how an ornery ghost can complicate any real estate investment!
Imitation castles, lavish country houses, and even follies were built across American in the early 20th century. Industrialists, flush with enormous financial resources, built grand homes—even if they didn’t naturally suit the landscape. Thornewood Castle in Washington State was just such a home. Chester Thorne purchased a genuine Elizabethan Tudor home as a wedding gift for his wife, Anna, and had it brought piece by piece to the States. Here in New York, Frank Bannerman—a Scotsman like the hero of The Ghost Goes West—wanted a well-constructed, handsome building he could use as a warehouse and home. The construction on Bannerman’s Castle began in 1901 and was completed around 1918.
Bannerman had amassed a fortune in buying and reselling ammunition, which he kept stored in Brooklyn. But as his inventory grew, the city required that he move the explosives to a site farther away from such a populated area. Bannerman heeded the city’s ruling, constructed his castle…and sure enough in 1920 it was partially destroyed by an explosion. The site has been off limits ever since, and the property is now owned by the state of New York. I wonder if it’s haunted.