From early in his 56-year career in film, Alfred Hitchcock was a director. He made his feature debut in 1925 with The Pleasure Garden, and he will always be remembered as one of the seminal figures around which the auteur theory was centered. But even the man who had the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd genuflecting didn’t start at the top.
Hitch began his film career in 1920 as a title designer and picked up the other skills that would serve him well over his long and fruitful run during his first five years in the business. While most of his earliest output has gone to that great film vault in the sky, it may be safe to say that the apotheosis of his apprenticeship was his near one-man-band work (assistant director/screenwriter/editor/set designer) on the Graham Cutts-directed melodrama The White Shadow.
Discovered in 2009 among 75 American films stored and forgotten in the New Zealand Film Archive, and missing its last three reels, The White Shadow was brought back to life through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production.
Annette Melville, former executive director of the NFPF, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered, 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.”
Cutts filmed the bulk of The White Shadow at Islington Studios, where both Reville and Hitchcock were employed. Reville had come to Islington to work as floor secretary to actor-director Donald Crisp in 1921 after six years with London Film Company. Hitchcock became a full-time employee of the studio that same year after designing title cards on a freelance basis for Supervising Art Director Norman Gregory Arnold. The White Shadow reached UK screens in 1923 and came to the United States in 1924.
So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. Hitchcock’s screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that his lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early. Betty Compson plays dual roles, as devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe. A cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signals 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 the heartbroken 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 because she in 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. Although Hitchcock served the whole of his cinematic apprenticeship on films Cutts helmed, he seems not to have adopted Cutts’ style; 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 would have preferred a different 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 villains, from Uncle Charley to Norman Bates, as well as 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.
The film is available on the NFPF’s Lost & Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive DVD box set. Its magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla, I am pleased to say, was funded by the generous contributions of film buffs everywhere to the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, which I cohosted with Farran Smith Nehme and my blog partner, Roderick Heath.