The White Shadow (1924)

Director: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Film fans, the day you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Just a few hours ago, the rediscovered “lost” film that marks the earliest surviving feature for which Alfred Hitchcock received screen credit debuted on the internet.

Although missing its last three reels, The White Shadow, a good-looking melodrama of uncommon richness, has come back to cast its white shadow upon audiences again through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production, donated web hosting by Fandor, and a magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla with violinist Nicole Garcia funded by donors to this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon! For the next two months, anyone anywhere in the world can watch this treasure free of charge here, solving one of the biggest problems in film preservation: offering access to films that have long been out of circulation and are not likely to get wide distribution again.

Annette Melville, executive director of the NFPF and the best collaborator Farran, Rod, and I could have had in making the blogathon a success, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered last year, David Sterritt, who wrote a book on Hitchcock for Cambridge University Press, pointed out that it was quite a find. But a little more research suggests that it is more like ‘the missing link.’ It appears to be the first surviving feature on which he collaborated with his wife Alma as well as the film that established his connection with the Selznick family. Lewis J. Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, was the American distributor, and the film survives as a Selznick distribution print.”

So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. The screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that Hitchcock’s lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early and tracks with the style of melodrama favored in silent pictures. Betty Compson plays devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets American Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe, a cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signaling to Nancy that she is almost returned to her “beloved” Devon. Field is immediately smitten with the vivacious Nancy and turns up on her doorstep just as she is becoming bored and restless with life at home. Her romance with Robin is cut short when she impulsively runs away, followed by a father determined to bring her back. Both go missing and the failure of a final effort to find them kills Mrs. Brent (Daisy Campbell).

Georgina meets up with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) by chance, and the romance is back on, with Georgina pretending to be Nancy to save her sister’s reputation. However, when Louis, a painter who has returned to his home in Paris, spies Nancy drinking and gambling in a bohemian nightspot called The Cat that Laughs, he rushes back to Robin to prevent him from marrying the woman who is not the person she appears to be.

I can’t pretend to know much about Graham Cutts and his directorial style, but I would venture to say that the depth of the portrayal Betty Compson gives to her twin characters may be down to his coaching. I would expect Hitchcock to direct the evil twin as more cold and duplicitous, even this early in his career. Compson acts like neither a cardboard goody-two-shoes nor a wildly amoral sensualist. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Nancy for having her character judged so harshly by the title cards. A woman who wants to travel, have the upper hand in romance, play poker, and smoke—in other words, have a man’s freedom—seems to have the kind of spirit Victorian women like Georgina were straining after; indeed, this tale of good and evil seems outdated even by 1920s standards, belonging more to the vamp era of the 1910s. Of course, Nancy wishing her father would break his neck while horseback riding and then showing up his poor “seat” on a horse is awfully wicked, but we are told Mr. Brent made his wife and family miserable. It’s no wonder Nancy ran away.

If a film has to end in the middle, the shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of the Paris nightclub, gaily unaware that she is about to have a vicious confrontation with Robin, is the perfect place to stop. The synopsis of the rest of the film shows that it veered into a kind of Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul. I prefer to write my own scenario for a film that is filled with some interesting, full-bodied characters who deserved better than to have a moralizing fate determine their lives. Some truly suspenseful moments and occasionally murderous emotions leapt from the screen, perhaps revealing Hitchcock’s touch. A raft of interesting villians, from Uncle Charley and Norman Bates to the cruel death dance of Judy/Madeleine and Scottie, have some ancient echoes in this substantial blast from the past happily restored to the world again. Go watch it!

  • David Wells spoke:
    15th/11/2012 to 4:48 pm

    Hi Ferdy! Glad to hear you liked the film. For me, it gets better each time I watch it. The plot is wildly melodramatic of course, but there is a lot of subtlety going on as well. There are several small gestures and moments that hint at a rich backstory, like when Georgina looks down during the (overly?) affectionate display of affection between Nancy and their father, or when Nancy says goodbye to her horse before running away from home. Thanks again to you and all the folks who contributed through the Blogathon for making this presentation possible!

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    16th/11/2012 to 7:31 am

    Nice to know these blogathons actually achieve something other than a bunch of links and comments (although that’s good, too). And I really look forward to watching this now, free of charge.

    But, oh how I wish they hadn’t given a synopsis for where the film goes after abruptly ending three reels from its conclusion. I pledge to not read it so that I may end the film my own way. In all honesty, how many other films could’ve been made better by ending 75% in?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/11/2012 to 7:48 am

    David – I am thrilled to have played a hand in helping the film reach a worldwide audience, and feel Michael Mortilla’s score fully justifies the money our blogathoners pledged. It is a much more subtle film than I thought it would be based on Annette’s description, and was very impressed with it. Thanks, David, for your help with the blogathon.

    Greg – It’s interesting to read the synopsis, which didn’t go anywhere I thought it would. Still, this is the most satisfying fragment I’ve ever seen.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    18th/11/2012 to 10:33 am

    it’s a joyous revelation that we have this film at all, and not even the lamentable loss of the last reels can diminish that fact. I just watched the entire film on the link you provided, and thought it was truly wonderful. Michael Mortilla’s piano and string dominated score is sublime, and the tinting was quite nice. A real time of celebration for cineastes as you glowingly attest to here Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/11/2012 to 11:52 am

    Sam – I quite agree about the score and tints. I can’t get the music from the Paris nightclub sequences out of my head. Thanks for helping to fund that score through the blogathon

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    22nd/11/2012 to 11:36 pm

    It also looks like effort to restore The Sound of Fury / Try and Get Me will come to fruition in the coming year.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/11/2012 to 9:09 am

    Yes, Peter. That one has been stuck in the works a while, but we have been assured that it will be repremiered at the beginning of 2014.

  • Bob Myers spoke:
    11th/12/2012 to 5:53 pm

    Ummm… did you and I see the same film? I see an endorsement of your site by Roger Ebert. He coined the term ‘idiot plot’ for films that would collapse if everyone in them did not act like complete idiots. Nancy/Georgina’s manipulation of Robin over a period of _years_ is incredible. That no one ever tumbled to, or revealed the fact that they are twins strains willing suspension of disbelief well past the breaking point. When Robin meets Georgina in the village and she says she doesn’t know him, if he simply went ‘Eh what, dear?” the movie would (and should have) ended right there.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/12/2012 to 7:49 pm

    Bob – If you accept the premises of silent melodramas, there is nothing unusual about this kind of plot. You seem to have trouble letting go of your thoughts about how things should be and evaluate the film that is presented to you. This film does not have the kind of idiot plots Roger and I are so familiar with. Identical twins I know do play with people by impersonating each other, so it’s not a stretch.

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