THE WHITE SHADOW C
aka: White Shadows
Great Britain (43 mi) 1924 d: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director, Screenwriter, Editor, and Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock
It may be said that there are no such things as white shadows, but just as the sun casts a dark shadow, so does the soul cast its shadow of white, reflecting a purity that influences the lives of those upon whom the white shadows fall.
—opening title card
This is something of a rarity in the film business, as its mere existence surprised the world when a long considered lost film was at least partially unearthed in 2011 in a Hastings, New Zealand garden shed. While only three reels or half the film was discovered, this was still a revelation considering it is the earliest surviving work of a film with such a significant contribution from Alfred Hitchcock. Left on the doorstep of the New Zealand Film Archive in 1989 by Tony Osborne, the grandson of film collector and projectionist Jack Murtagh, the highly volatile nitrate print had been safeguarded in the archives for over two decades. Because the archive only has funding to restore its own country’s vintage films, experts didn’t spend much time with what they thought were American releases. Nitrate expert Leslie Lewis initially started combing through the archives examining miscellaneous unidentified works and discovered the professional quality of the tinted images was striking on two reels that were erroneously labeled “Twin Sisters,” later identifying the same actors and sets on a third reel labeled “Unidentified American Film.” Both the New Zealand Film Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences worked on the film restoration, where there are initial signs of deterioration seen in the opening credits, but mostly, even though it’s an incomplete work, this is a unique window into early cinema, where Hitchcock actually broke into the British film business in 1920 as a title-card designer. Within three years he was writing scripts, designing sets, while trying his hand at various other production roles as well.
According to David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock:
This is one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work. At just twenty-four years old, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the film’s scenario, designed the sets, edited the footage, and served as assistant director to Graham Cutts, whose professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging….These first three reels of The White Shadow—more than half the film—offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.
While this is one of five films that the young Hitchcock worked as an apprentice to director Graham Cutts, apparently serving as assistant director, art director, uncredited writer, and editor of the film, it would be another few years before Hitchcock completed his first feature film, The Pleasure Garden (1925). In all likelihood after viewing the film, even Hitchcock scholars would be hard-pressed to identify this as a Hitchcock film, though it’s interesting, looking back at what we know about Hitchcock today, to extrapolate signs of what would become associated as familiar Hitchcock themes. What’s intriguing here is the same actress (Betty Compson) playing the dual role of twin sisters, one good and one evil (“without a soul”), where a man falls in love with the bad twin while unwittingly romanced by the other, becoming an early variation on the double identity Vertigo (1958) theme. According to the National Film Preservation Foundation: Lost Hitchcock Film ..., the film is “an atmospheric melodrama (of) mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls.” The wild and impetuous playgirl sister Nancy (blond) goes off to Paris spending time in the gambling dens while the more reserved sister Georgina (brunette) stays behind in their beautiful country estate in Devon, England to care for their elderly parents. The home is filled with elaborate Gothic interior sets designed by Hitchcock. On the return trip home, Nancy meets a young American, Robin (Clive Brook), promising to meet again. Upon her return, however, her newly discovered rebellious streak continually clashes with her father, seeing her as the polar opposite of her more saintly twin sister. When Robin unexpectedly arrives at their door, Georgina decides to play a trick on the young man by impersonating her sister, which only aggravates their father who refuses to allow Nancy to ever see this young man again, driving her out of the house as she flees to Paris. Her mother literally dies when she hears the news, her body slouched over a chair with light streaming in from the window, which is such an exaggerated reaction that it has a comical effect.
While the film is wildly melodramatic, it’s not without its comical moments, such as watching Nancy say goodbye to her horse before running away from home, or seeing the wealthy father turn into an alcoholic street bum roaming the streets for his missing daughter. Initially Nancy was the favored daughter, considered Daddy’s little girl, where the display of overt affection was enough to make the other sister look away, but this may account for his emotional freefall when he loses his daughter. Georgina moves to London where she happens upon a chance meeting with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor), where she reverts to impersonating her sister, as that’s who Robin thinks he sees, but they fall for each other and move in together, apparently living together happily for years. All this changes when Louis insists he’s seen Georgina in Paris gambling, drinking, and (perish the thought) smoking in an underground bohemian establishment known as The Cat Who Laughs, which features a giant mask-like face of a cat, rushing back to London to warn his friend that the woman he intends to marry is not who she claims to be. Separately, both Robin and Georgina travel to Paris in search of this mystery identity, each seeking something altogether different, where there’s a wonderful shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of a Parisian nightclub, sort of a moment of a woman in all her glory, just moments before Robin denounces Nancy after seeing her, causing a fight to break out, where Nancy slips away in the ensuing mayhem. Georgina follows her, however, happy to have found her after thinking she had disappeared, but becomes so distraught over the circumstances that she’s forced to enter a sanitarium in Switzerland for her deteriorating health. Robin follows her there, still thinking she is Nancy, and begs forgiveness. Knowing her end is near, Georgina sends for her sister, urging her to marry Robin in her place, where at the time of her death her “white shadow” passes to her twin sister, now finally possessing a soul. This kind of Victorian mysticism is a bizarre story element that never resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work, where the supernatural restoration of one’s soul plays out more as a corrective for conduct unbecoming of a lady. This altogether prudish view of women may be more reflective of the times than Hitchcock, but either way, the most distinguishing looking image from this film is that creepy looking cat that perhaps has the final laugh in The Cat Who Laughs.