The White Shadow (1924)
Production Company: Balcon-Saville-Freedman. Distribution Companies: Woolf and Freedman Film Service (U.K.), Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises (U.S.). Producers: Michael Balcon, Victor Saville. Director: Graham Cutts. Assistant Director / Editor / Art Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Scenarist: Alfred Hitchcock, from Children of Chance by Michael Morton. Photographer: Claude L. McDonald. Cast: Betty Compson (Nancy and Georgina Brent), Clive Brook (Robin Field), Henry Victor (Louis Chadwick), A.B. Imeson (Mr. Brent), Olaf Hytten (Herbert Barnes), Daisy Campbell (Elizabeth Brent), Bert Darley, Maresco Marisini, Donald Searle, Muriel Gregory. Transfer Note: Copied at 18 frames per second from a 35mm tinted print preserved by the Academy Film Archive from source material provided by the New Zealand Film Archive. New Music: Michael D. Mortilla (score, piano, and percussion) and Nicole Garcia (violin). Running Time: 42 minutes, with new credits and intertitles. Incomplete (3 of 6 reels survive).
Film stills are no substitute for moving pictures, but even static images from The White Shadow convey a sense of Alfred Hitchcock’s early gift for creating drama by purely visual means. Betty Compson’s impish smile and half-open eyes framed by a jauntily angled hat and a wreath of artfully positioned smoke; the motley crew of men at the poker table she effortlessly controls; Clive Brook’s steely gaze set off by a slash of light across an otherwise dark background; the graceful shading of an ivy-draped window framing a wistful face. These and many other images confirm Hitchcock’s precocious talent for silent storytelling.
They also indicate why Hitchcock advanced so rapidly in the British film industry. Although he broke into the business as a designer of title-cards conveying plot information and dialogue, he knew that one eloquent picture is worth a dozen printed texts. Learning to conceptualize and create such pictures was the project he successfully completed during his two-year tenure as assistant director for Graham Cutts, with whom he worked on five movies, starting with Woman to Woman in 1923. All were made on economical six-week schedules. The first three were vehicles for Compson, an important star at Paramount who came to England when Balcon-Saville-Freedman, the enterprising production company that employed Cutts and Hitchcock, offered her a dazzling salary of a thousand pounds a week.
Hitchcock said later that Woman to Woman was “the first film that I had really got my hands onto,” and it proved to be a major hit. Reviews were good too; it was deemed the “best American picture made in England” by the Daily Express critic, who shared the British consensus that Hollywood movies were livelier and more entertaining than English ones. Woman to Woman was among the very few British films to do excellent business in the United States, and it also fared well in Germany, where previous British exports had sunk under the weight of lingering resentments from the world war.
Dazzled by their own success, producers Michael Balcon and Victor Saville rushed a second Compson picture into production — The White Shadow — and whisked it to theaters with a conspicuously clunky advertising tag: “The same Star, Producer, Author, Hero, Cameraman, Scenic Artist, Staff, Studio, Renting Company as Woman to Woman.” It also had the same Paris setting, and again Hitchcock’s scenario was based on a work by Michael Morton, this time his unpublished novel Children of Chance. The box-office results were definitely not the same, however: “It was as big a flop,” Balcon wrote in his memoir, “as Woman to Woman had been a success.” This notwithstanding, plans proceeded for three more Cutts-Hitchcock pictures, commencing with The Passionate Adventure in 1924.
The financial failure of The White Shadow was regrettable, but it paradoxically helped advance Hitchcock’s career. The film’s British distributor was C.M. Woolf, who owned the “rental company” referred to in the promotional tag. Woolf was famous for despising “artistic” moviemaking, and thanks to Cutts and Hitchcock, The White Shadow was far too artistic for his taste. Seeing its poor financial performance as proof of his wisdom, he used the occasion to withdraw his investment in Balcon-Saville-Freedman, which subsequently went out of business. Balcon then set up Gainsborough Productions, which went on to become one of England’s most respected, successful — and, yes, artistic — production companies.
Among its first ventures were two Cutts-Hitchcock films: The Blackguard, also known as Die Prininzessin und der Geiger, shot at Germany’s great UFA studio for release in 1925, and The Prude’s Fall, also known as Dangerous Virtue, released in 1924. Soon thereafter, Gainsborough and two German companies would coproduce Hitchcock’s first film as director, the 1925 romance The Pleasure Garden. Two years later, again with Gainsborough’s backing, Hitch made the thriller he regarded as “the first true Hitchcock film” — The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog — and Woolf, still at war with artistic moviemaking, did his best to keep it out of distribution. Fortunately for Hitchcock and for us, he failed.
Cutts was fourteen years older than Hitchcock, and he had a complicated love life that distracted him considerably during the younger man’s apprenticeship, leading to rivalry and envy on Cutts’s part. He belittled Hitchcock behind his back, according to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, and matters didn’t improve when The Prude’s Fall turned out so badly that moviegoers “practically hooted it from the screen,” as a Variety critic wrote. Hitchcock had limited amounts of sympathy for Cutts — he later said he was “running even the director” when they worked together — but in the 1930s, when Hitchcock was a rising star and Cutts was looking for any work he could get, Hitchcock quietly helped him out.
These things said, it would be a mistake to think of Hitchcock as a self-assured young genius butting heads with a directorial hack whose time had come and gone. Hitchcock surely profited from his close observation of Cutts, who had entered cinema in 1909 as an exhibitor — dubbed “the master showman of the North” by producer-director Herbert Wilcox — and had made his own directorial debut as recently as 1922, when his melodrama The Wonderful Story was praised by Kinematograph Weekly for its “truth, realism and perfect acting.” His films of the 1920s, including many that he made after Balcon put him and Hitchcock onto separate paths, were known for “spectacular production values, experimental virtuosity of camerawork and lighting and the intense performances… of his actors,” in film historian Christine Gledhill’s words. There can be no doubt that Hitchcock would have mastered cinema technique and discovered his own inimitable voice under almost any circumstances — as critic Andrew Sarris has remarked, he and filmmaking were born for each other, and at almost the same moment — but Cutts was far from the worst senior partner he might have had.
Hitchcock also got to practice and refine a considerable number of skills while making The White Shadow: he was assistant director, film editor, set designer, and scenario writer, and this alone made the production a valuable asset to his budding career. Indeed, his experiences as a “general factotum” on this and other silent films never stopped paying artistic dividends. His goal as a mature filmmaker was to create “pure cinema,” meaning cinema that blends story, style, and technique into an expressive, suspenseful whole. As film scholar Sidney Gottlieb has definitively shown, the lessons Hitch learned from silent film never faded in importance for him. Even decades later and a continent away, he energized his greatest Hollywood pictures with lengthy stretches of unadulterated visual storytelling — think of the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest (1959) and Scottie shadowing Madeleine in Vertigo (1958) and Jefferies spying on the killer in Rear Window (1954) and the extended sequence showing Marion’s fatal shower and Norman’s obsessive clean-up in Psycho (1960). These are only a few examples from a career that produced as many heart-pounding, soul-stirring visual sequences as any in the history of film.
Reviewers found the story of The White Shadow far-fetched, and they had a point. The plot synopsis filed for copyright purposes is amusingly hard to untangle, and shamelessly melodramatic to boot. But this didn’t stop critics from applauding the acting, the style, and the look of the production — precisely the elements that meant most to Hitchcock even at this early period. The outdoor scenes at Nancy’s home are spaciously composed and gracefully staged; the jazzy atmosphere of The Cat Who Laughs café is introduced with a striking — and startling — close-up of the eponymous statuette, then fleshed out with elaborately detailed long shots of the bohemian dive in full swing; the scene of misrecognition between father and daughter unfolds in close-ups that evince strong emotion with marvelous restraint. These and other sequences are exemplary of their kind.
Watching the surviving reels of The White Shadow with an audience vividly illustrates the natural gifts of the young Hitchcock as well as the enduring power of silent cinema. When the film comes to a halt in the middle of a bravura staircase shot, you’re likely to hear an audible sigh of disappointment from those around you, and from yourself as well. I began by evoking the richness of the film’s individual images, and I’ll close by praising the rhythmic vitality and superbly choreographed movement of these moving pictures when the projector brings them alive. “Just as the sun casts a dark shadow,” the opening intertitle tells us, “so does the soul throw its shadow of white, reflecting a purity that influences the lives of those upon whom the white shadow falls.” The spirited whites, somber darks, and intriguing shades of grey created and orchestrated by Cutts, Hitchcock, and their talented crew will be enjoyed by cinephiles for years to come. The return of The White Shadow is a triumph of film preservation, a bonanza for scholars, and a thrill for movie buffs, showing both Hitchcock and his chosen medium on the threshold of their fullest powers. We are in a better position than ever to study and assess his monumental creativity when it was first crystallizing in his imagination.
—Contributed by David Sterritt
Chairman, National Society of Film Critics
About the Preservation
The White Shadow was preserved under the direction of the New Zealand Film Archive and the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from a tinted nitrate print identified by NFPF consultant Leslie Lewis. The preservation work was completed in 2011 by Park Road Post Production in New Zealand and funded by the Academy Film Archive and the NFPF. The preservation master and print were added to the collection of the AFA and complement the Alfred Hitchcock Papers, held by the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. New prints were also made for the NZFA and the British Film Institute. Thank you all!
About the Music
For this web screening, composer-pianist Michael D. Mortilla and violinist Nicole Garcia reprise the music originally created for the gala premiere of The White Shadow at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011. Thanks to funds donated through the 2012 “For the Love of Film” Blogathon, the NFPF recorded their performance at Big City Recording Studios in September 2012. The music was mixed under Michael’s direction at Chace Audio by Deluxe. Thank you!
About the New Zealand Film Archive
The New Zealand Film Archive / Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua collects and protects thousands of moving images documenting New Zealand, from its first movies to contemporary television and cutting-edge avant-garde. Its wide-ranging collection also embraces production records, posters, photographs, props, and costumes illuminating this heritage.
An independent charitable trust committed to access, the NZFA provides a year round program of screenings and events at its own cinema in Wellington. Working with partner organizations nationwide, the NZFA also presents screenings across the country as well as supporting a network of medianet sites based in museums, libraries and selected tertiary institutions. The NZFA maintains an international presence through the loan of films from its collection to festivals, galleries and museums.
For decades the NZFA has safeguarded a number of silent-era nitrate prints that were abandoned by their international distributors. In 2009, the archive began a multi-year project with the NFPF to preserve and make available some 176 American titles from its vaults. Already 25 of the preserved films are available for viewing on the NFPF website. Three are presented on Treasures 5: The West, 1899-1939.
About the Academy Film Archive
Over the years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has developed an important film collection relating to the history of the Hollywood industry and the documentary film. Its 146,000 items include filmed interviews with industry leaders, technical tests and visual effects demonstrations, trailers, outtakes, the International Documentary Association archive, films winning or nominated for Oscars, and the Academy Award shows themselves. The archive has an active preservation program and has restored eight Academy Award–winning Best Pictures, numerous other Academy Award–nominated and –winning films, and a broad selection of avant-garde and documentary films. To accommodate its growing film collection, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences renovated a historic building in downtown Hollywood. The storage, exhibition, and research facility opened in 2002.
The archive generously contributes technical leadership to special preservation and public access projects, including the NFPF's Treasures from American Film Archives DVD anthologies and the American archival community’s collaboration with the New Zealand Film Archive.
About the Collector
The White Shadow was among the many silent-era movies salvaged by New Zealand collector Jack Murtagh, a projectionist at the State Theatre in Hastings on the North Island and a sales representative for Dominion Films. Over thirty years he accumulated what was thought to be one of the largest privately held film collections in New Zealand. After Murtagh's death in 1989, the highly flammable nitrate prints were sent to the New Zealand Film Archive for safekeeping by his grandson Tony Osborne. Among the other treasures were John Ford’s Upstream (1927), which like The White Shadow, survives only through the copy saved by Jack Murtagh.
A special thanks to Fandor for hosting this film