Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Known Film, “The White Shadow”

28 12 2012

5944In August of 2011, film fans were thrilled to learn that a portion of the lost 1924 movie “The White Shadow” had been found, making it the earliest known work by Alfred Hitchcock.

In the excitement of this discovery, much of the coverage ignored the fact that the film was directed by Graham Cutts, not Hitchcock — and the fact that Hitchcock worked on it did not make it in any way resemble later films like “The 39 Steps” or “Notorious.” The three reels of WhiteShadow05“The White Shadow” (out of a total of six) show that it was a melodrama much like Hitchcock’s earliest films.

Despite this, there is some fascinating history here. The film was directed by Hitchcock’s early mentor, film director Graham Cutts, and produced by Michael Balcon and Victor Saville for Balcon-Saville-Freedman Productions. It was distributed in the U.K. by C.M. Woolf, and in the U.S. by Lewis Selznick (whose sons Myron and David would eventually become Hitchcock’s agent and studio head, respectively). This was only the second film from B-S-F, following the success of Cutts’s previous effort, “Woman to Woman.” Woolf, who had a financial interest in B-S-F, disliked “The White Shadow,” as he disliked most films with any sort of artistic vision; he would later block the distribution of the first films Hitchcock directed himself.

WhiteShadow03In his memoir, Balcon said of this film, “Engrossed in our first production [Woman to Woman], we had made no preparations for the second. Caught on the hop, we rushed into production with a story called The White Shadow. It was as big a flop as Woman to Woman had been a success.”

The film stars Betty Compson in dual roles as twin sisters Nancy and Georgina Brent. Nancy, coming home to England from school in Paris, meets American Robin Field (played by Clive Brook), who promises to look her up at home. We soon learn that Nancy won’t obey her dissolute, wealthy father. Nancy, the titles cards explain, was born “without soul,” unlike her good sister, Georgina. Nancy soon tires of living a quiet life in the country. After leaving a note saying that that she is “sick of everything,” she takes up residence at The Cat Who Laughs, a nightclub with dancing, drinking and gambling.

5991Meanwhile, Robin has decided to ask Nancy to marry him – but a friend swears that he saw her at The Cat Who Laughs.

The film ends here, but a plot summary explains that Robin confronts Nancy at the club and breaks off their relationship. Georgina, who had come to the club to tell Nancy that their mother had died, witnesses the whole thing. Later, believing that Georgina is Nancy, Robin begs her forgiveness, and Nancy convinces Georgina to take her place and marry Robin.

The mistaken identity plot is fairly ridiculous, but there are two things that make “The White Shadow” worth watching: Betty Compson’s spirited performance, and the beautifully framed shots, captured by cameraman Claude L. McDonald. As the movie’s scenarist, Hitchcock adapted the story from the novel “Children of Chance” by Michael Morton. Hitchcock also served as assistant director, art director and editor on the film.

This was the second of five films Hitchcock would work on with Graham Cutts over the course of two years before he moved to on to direct “The Pleasure Garden.”  Compson would work with Hitchcock again in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in 1941.

Advertisement for "The White Shadow" from a distributor catalogue.

Advertisement for “The White Shadow” from a distributor catalogue.

The failure of “The White Shadow” led C.M. Woolf to terminate his business relationship with Balcon-Saville-Freedman. This in turn led Balcon, Saville and Freedman to regroup as Gainsborough Pictures, the company that would give Alfred Hitchcock the chance to become a director.

You can watch the existing footage of “The White Shadow” here.


Petra Haden’s New CD Pays Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and the Movies

17 12 2012

I’ve been a fan of singer/violinist Petra Haden since I first heard her 2005 album “Petra Haden Sings The Who Sells Out.” On that amazing disc, Haden recreates the Who’s classic 1967 album in its entirety, solo and a capella, layering her vocals to simulate the sounds of the guitars, drums and bass from one of the best records of that decade.

Petra Haden Goes to the MoviesNow, Haden is back with a new CD, “Petra Haden Goes to the Movies.” The album features her interpretations of cuts from the soundtracks of classic movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Social Network,” with stops along the way “Taxi Driver,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Goldfinger,” “A Fistful of Dollars” and more.

Bernard Herrmann’s theme for “Psycho,” directed by one A. Hitchcock, also gets the Haden treatment, and you can have a listen for yourself here…

“Petra Haden Goes to the Movies” will be released on January 22, and you can preorder it here.

Alfred Hitchcock Cavorts with Dick Cavett

3 12 2012

On Friday, November 23, Turner Classic Movies ran a selection of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in honor of the opening of the new film “Hitchcock.” TCM kicked off the day with the June 8, 1972, episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” in which Cavett interviewed the Master of Suspense.

The breezy conversation took place at the time that “Frenzy” had just been released, and Hitchcock was in fine form. Cavett started with a tribute to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (see the photo below) and quizzes Hitchcock on many of his films, his background and his delightfully morbid outlook. Hitchcock makes some outrageous claims, such as insisting that he learned about fear from his mother, who said “boo” to him when he was three months old. He’s actually much more convincing later when, on the same subject, he talks briefly about learning about fear from his Jesuit teachers. Hitchcock relates many of his best known stories, such as being locked in a jail cell at age five, or about the time he told an ambitious starlet who asked which was her best side that she was sitting on it.

Hitchcock’s love of wordplay and puns (he actually claims that “puns are the highest form of literature) throws Cavett off once or twice. While talking about affairs between Hollywood stars, Hitchcock declines to give specific examples, saying that he was just generalizing—and by the way, he is not an Army man. General Ising, that is. And after showing a clip from “Frenzy,” in which the naked body falls from the back of a speeding potato truck, Hitchcock says that the most notable thing about the scene was how the taste of the potatoes was improved by the girl’s presence. I thought it Picture 5was more notable that the clip showed the actor’s naked bottom — especially since Hitchcock says that while movies have come a long way in terms of permissiveness since “Psycho” dared to show a toilet in 1960, television has not changed at all in that time.

All in all, it is a fun hour, in which Hithcock chats with great energy and animation — although he looks more comfortable seated than standing. When Cavett suggests they do another show soon, Hitchcock suggests the name “Cavoriting with Cavett,” which is the source of this post’s title. You can find several clips from it on youtube by searching “Dick Cavett Alfred Hitchcock.”

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