Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Early Alfred Hitchcock film discovered (mostly)

Who among us can visualize Alfred Hitchcock at the age of 24? I know, right? In our cultural memory he has always been and always will be a portly 50ish, as if that's how he sprang fully formed from Zeus' film canister.

That's how old he was when his first significant credit hit the screen in 1923. One of his two films from that year, The White Shadow, is thought to be the earliest surviving Hitchcock feature. The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki entry on it is brief:
Directed by Graham Cutts and produced by Michael Balcon, and based on the novel "Children of Chance" by Michael Morton. Alfred Hitchcock handled the writing, editing, and art direction, as well as being the assistant director.  The film starred Betty Compson, Clive Brook, Henry Victor, A.B. Imeson, Olaf Hytten, and Daisy Campbell.

This melodrama about a pair of twins — one snow white pure, the other "without a soul," both played by Betty Compson  — has been lost for nearly ninety years. The first three of its original six reels, or about 30 minutes of it, have just been found in New Zealand.

The L.A. Times is where I found the story, which has by now been picked up all over the web:
"White Shadow's" director, Graham Cutts, is described by Sterritt as a "hack" who didn't take too kindly to Hitchcock to the point that his "professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging."

"White Shadow" was discovered in a collection of unidentified American nitrate prints that had been safeguarded at the New Zealand archive since 1989. That's when Tony Osborne, the grandson of New Zealand projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh, brought the highly unstable nitrate material to the archive. Because the archive only has the funding to restore its country's vintage films, experts couldn't spend much time with the American releases (though "White Shadow" was a British film it was released in the U.S. in 1924 by Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises).

There's plenty more at National Film Preservation Foundation, which spearheaded the research to identify early American films at the New Zealand Film Archive.
With mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls, the wild plot crams a lot into six reels. Critics faulted the improbable story but praised the acting and 'cleverness of the production.'
Here's hoping the remaining three reels turn up before the Shawn Levy remake gets green-lighted.

Reports that The White Shadow was Hitch's first credit are not strictly accurate. Four films in 1922 credited him as "title designer," and earlier in 1923 he worked with director Cutts as assistant director and screenplay co-writer on Woman to Woman.

If you're in Beverly Hills Sept. 22, you can catch a restored print of The White Shadow at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The program also will feature two recently rediscovered short films, including one directed by and starring silent-era superstar Mabel Normand. 

The Master of Suspense's 112th birthday arrives next week, Aug. 13.

And now I bid you "Good evening."