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.


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