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.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: Michael Balcon

9 07 2010

Michael Balcon, the producer who gave Alfred Hitchcock his start

Michael Balcon may not be as familiar a name to fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films as our previous collaborator, Alma Reville, but he had a vital role in Hitch’s career and an even greater one in the history of British cinema. As the man who first suggested that Hitch try directing, he put the Master of Suspense’s career into motion; later, as a producer at England’s Ealing Studios, he had a hand in a series of movies that reflected the nation’s spirit and pride in the post World War II era.

Born in 1896, Balcon was the son of Jewish immigrants, and was raised in poverty in Birmingham. He won a scholarship to a grammar school but had to leave in 1913 due to his family’s financial needs. His poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, and in 1915 he went to work for the Dunlop Rubber Company. His friend, Victor Saville, suggested that they go into partnership in the film industry with a small distribution formed in 1919. In 1921, Balcon and director Graham Cutts formed Gainsborough Pictures, which in 1923 released “Woman to Woman,” directed by Cutts and written by Alfred Hitchcock.

Seeing the multitalented Hitchcock at work as a title designer, writer, set dresser and assistant director, Balcon suggested Hitchcock try his hand at directing. Hitchcock later said that he had not really considered directing, and that he had been perfectly happy with his work up till that time. The earliest of Hitchcock’s directorial efforts were not particularly promising, starting with the unfinished “Number 13” and “The Pleasure Garden.” But Balcon had faith in his young director, and his film “The Lodger” was a sensation (once it had been re-edited by Ivor Montagu; it was released before “The Pleasure Garden”), while “The Ring” showed Hitch’s growing talent at storytelling.

Balcon continued on Hitch’s movies through his British period, usually uncredited, producing the aforementioned films as well as “The Mountain Eagle,” “Downhill,” “Easy Virtue,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage.”

In the late 1920s, Gainsborough was absorbed by Gaumont Pictures; Balcon continued producing, and in the 1930s helped individuals including the actor Conrad Veidt escape Nazi Germany. Balcon returned from a trip to the United States in 1936 to find Gaumont in financial ruin; he briefly worked for MGM, then joined Ealing Studios in 1938. He would remain a fixture at Ealing through the 1950s, working on dozens of well-regarded films that captured the British post-war spirit — its can-do attitude, a spirit of good-natured rebellion, and, visually, the nation’s slow recovery from the war. It was Balcon’s belief that before a movie could achieve international success, it had to possess a strong, identifiable national character. The best known of these films include the Alec Guinness comedies “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers,” as well as the adventure “Scott of the Antarctic” (later parodied on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). Balcon was knighted in 1948.

After Ealing closed its doors in 1957, Balcon formed Brynston Films, an independent production company. The last film he worked on as Executive Producer was 1963’s “Tom Jones.” Although officially retired after this, Balcon continued to encourage young directors and served as chairman of the British Film Institute. Balcon died in 1977. In 1989, his grandson, Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Academy Award for “My Left Foot” which he accepted “in honour of my grandfather, Michael Balcon.”

Interestingly, in the late 1930s Alfred Hitchcock was determined to leave England for Hollywood in part because he wanted to work with actors who were more natural on screen, playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s just what Balcon championed at Ealing Studios. It’s easy to imagine how different Hitchcock’s career might have been had he stayed in England, while in some ways, how similar to his Hollywood path.

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