Friday, August 5, 2011

The White Shadow (1924) Half of a Lost Hitchcock Film, or...?

Hitch auditions for the lead in Home Alone.
It's being hailed as one of the greatest finds of the century (so far, anyway) - the first three of the six reels of "Alfred Hitchcock's first film", The White Shadow. The reels were found among a number of unidentified American nitrate prints that were donated to the New Zealand Film Archive in 1989 after the death of projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh. The Archive has been slowly going through these prints and has already identified and begun restoration of a number of significant films, many of them, like The White Shadow, thought to have been lost forever. (For more on this discovery/restoration project, please check out my previous article on the subject and the website of the film archive itself.)

So what exactly is The White Shadow about? Well, according to an article released by the National Film Preservation Foundation,
The film is... an atmospheric melodrama starring Betty Compson, in a dual role as twin sisters—one angelic and the other “without a soul.” 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.”

Now, this is, without a doubt, a very significant discovery. The BBC News website, for instance, quotes David Sterritt, the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics as saying it's "one of the most significant developments in memory", and going on to state that "These first three reels offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape." And while this may be true, it also understates a very important fact, and even worse, completely ignores the possibly more major contributions of another person involved in the production - the actual director of the film.

Graham Cutts - cut from history?
Graham Cutts was born in 1885, and according to, was "Britain’s most prestigious director of the mid-1920s". He helped to found the Gainsborough studio, and was "associated with some of the most prominent figures in the industry at the time, notably Victor Saville, Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Wilcox, Adrian Brunel and Michael Balcon. His work with the photogenic and delicately talented American actress, Mae Marsh, in three films, Flames of Passion (1922), Paddy – the Next Best Thing (1923) and The Rat (1925), led to a revival of her popularity in Britain, where she stayed for some years." Cutts also directed such popular features as 1922s Cocaine, and the 1932 version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four starring Arthur Wotner as the great detective. (The Sign of Four is actually available for viewing or download here courtesy of the good folk at the Internet Archive, and you can read my own take of Wotner's interpretation of Holmes here.) Obviously, then, Cutts was not a man without not only some considerable skill as a director, nor some prestige within the industry. So why, then, is The White Shadow being touted as a Hitchcock film?

Well, there can be no doubt that Hitch's fingerprints are all over this film. He is credited as having written the scenario (though, again, this is the same plot described as "improbable" by critics of the time), along with being an assistant director, art director, and editor, so certainly he had considerable input into the production. However, do those jobs outweigh that of the film's actual director? And if so, then how do we judge some of Hitch's own films such as Suspicion on which he only served as director? Is it truly a Hitckcock film, or should credit also be shared by those under him such as editor William Hamilton? And if he does get full credit, then why is that not the case for Cutts and White Shadow?

Perhaps it would be at least somewhat enlightening to look at the source of the statement quoted above (and the statement that seems to be the most quoted in articles about the discovery) concerning the significance of the film and it being "a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape." While it's true that David Sterritt is the chairman of the National Society of Film Critic, he is also the author of the book The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, a credit often left out of most reportage of his statement. Also, often left out of the articles on the find is the statement made by Sterritt right before that in which he says “At just 24 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.  Hitchcock’s own directorial debut came only two years later."

Cutts professional jealousy made Hitch's job more challenging? Perhaps. Or is it possible that "the gifted upstart" made his director's job more difficult? In either case, it's obvious that whatever behind the scenes friction may have existed on the set of The White Shadow, it was not enough to keep the two from continuing to work together, as those two years between the films and Hitchcock's "own directorial debut" (on 1925's The Pleasure Garden) saw the Cutts-as-director / Hitchcock-as-assistant relationship continue on three more films. Moreover, Hitchcock's first two feature film releases as the credited director were considered failures, and it wasn't until 1927's The Lodger that Hitchcock had his first real hit. So perhaps rather than seeing in The White Shadow a master's first faltering footsteps, what we're seeing is more of a mentor/student relationship, and not only should it be called a lost Graham Cutts film instead of a lost Hitchcock film, but should be considered an opportunity to study "the visual and narrative ideas" of someone who would be a strong early influence on the burgeoning filmmaker.

Nonetheless, the truth behind the reporting of this discovery is fairly simple, actually. History is written by the winners, and whatever the breakdown of creative influence on this particular film, it is Hitchcock who learned, if nothing else, how to market not only his films but himself, and has gone on to have the greater reputation, whereas Cutts, as a Hollywood "name" has fallen by the wayside, meaning it's sexier and more attention grabbing for the headlines to say (as does the BBC) "Rare Alfred Hitchcock film footage found" than "Rare Graham Cutts film footage found", whether or not it furthers one man's reputation at the expense of another's. And there's no doubt that when the eventual DVD release undoubtedly comes, the same imbalance will be reflected not only in the reporting, but the packaging and advertising of the disk.

After all, which is really more important in the end: the truth, or selling more product?

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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