Young Alfred Hitchcock Film Found: 'The White Shadow' with Betty Compson

Young Alfred Hitchcock Betty Compson The White Shadow
Young Alfred Hitchcock movie? Betty Compson in The White Shadow, which was actually directed by Graham Cutts. Among other duties, Hitchcock wrote and edited the 1923 film.

About thirty minutes from the long thought-lost The White Shadow / White Shadows (1923), believed to be the earliest surviving feature with an Alfred Hitchcock credit, has been unearthed at the New Zealand Film Archive. Directed by Graham Cutts, and starring Betty Compson and Clive Brook, The White Shadow was found among a number of unidentified American nitrate prints safeguarded for more than two decades at the archive.

Based on Michael Morton's novel Children of Chance, The White Shadow was written and edited by Hitchcock, who also served as assistant director and production designer. The future director of Blackmail, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, was 24 years old at the time.

Three out of The White Shadow's six reels have been found. In the words of National Society of Film Critics Chairman David Sterritt, who wrote The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, “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.” Sterritt adds that The White Shadow was a difficult job for Hitchcock because of director Graham Cutts' “professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart.”

Made in Britain, the “wild, atmospheric melodrama” stars Betty Compson as twin sisters, “one angelic and the other 'without a soul.'” The White Shadow was released in the United States (as White Shadows) by Lewis J. Selznick, father of Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, who would bring Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1939.

According to the New Zealand Film Archive's website, the surviving reels of The White Shadow will be preserved at Park Road Post Production in Wellington. The site adds that “black and white duplicate negatives will be struck from the original nitrate material and color prints made which will replicate the tints used in the original print.” It was also at Park Road that John Ford's long-thought lost 1927 silent Upstream was restored.

Among other titles recently identified for preservation are Muriel Ostriche and Alice Guy's early Technicolor short The Love Charm (1928), a 1920 dance demonstration by ballerina-choreographer Albertina Rasch, and a fragment from the Keystone Kops' slapstick comedy In the Clutches of the Gang (1914).

Those films will be preserved over the next three years in partnership with the US National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA Film & Television Archive. They'll eventually be made available in the United States, and some of those will be viewable on the NFPF website. An additional print of The White Shadow will be presented to the British Film Institute in honor of its Hitchcock rescue project.

The New Zealand Film Archive houses more than 150,000 titles, from features to documentaries, short films, home movies, newsreels, TV programs and advertisements.

Photo: New Zealand Film Archive.

Betty Compson, Clive Brook, Woman to Woman
Betty Compson, Clive Brook, Woman to Woman

Found Film NOT Alfred Hitchcock's First

Jan. 3 update: Despite some confusion in various reports, the 1923 melodrama The White Shadow, half of which was recently found at the New Zealand Film Archive, is not Alfred Hitchcock's directorial debut. It isn't Hitchcock's first ever credited effort, either. That honor apparently belongs to Woman to Woman, which came out earlier that same year.

The White Shadow, in fact, was a Woman to Woman afterthought. Both movies were directed by Graham Cutts, both were produced by future British film industry stalwarts Victor Saville and Michael Balcon, both were based on works by Michael Morton (the earlier film was taken from a Morton play; the later one from a Morton novel), and both starred Clive Brook and Hollywood import Betty Compson. (Compson plays two parts in both films as well; but whereas in The White Shadow she plays two actual characters, in Woman to Woman she plays only one – a professional dancer – with an alias.)

Now, there was at least one major difference between the two films. As Michael Balcon would recall more than four decades later, “engrossed in our first production, 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.”

Woman to Woman, which actually premiered in New York thanks to U.S. distributor Lewis J. Selznick, remains lost. In fact, it's one of the British Film Institute's 75 Most Wanted Films. Hitchcock worked as assistant director and – without screen credit – did the art direction and co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with director Cutts. Alma Reville, Hitchcock's future wife, edited the film.

In his conversations with François Truffaut in the 1960s, Hitchcock remarked that “Woman to Woman was the best of the lot [his early film efforts], and the most successful.” He wasn't alone in his praise for Woman to Woman. Top Hollywood filmmaker Rex Ingram (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Prisoner of Zenda, Scaramouche), said that this melodrama about romance, war, amnesia, out-of-wedlock sex, illegitimacy, mother love, dancing, and death was “one of the best and most sincere films I ever saw in my life,” while Variety enthused that Woman to Woman “is unquestionably equal to a vast majority of the releases viewed in the first run houses over here and vastly superior to those witnessed in our daily change theatres.”

Much of Woman to Woman's commercial success can surely be attributed to the casting of Betty Compson, an American star whose career went through a lull in the mid-'20s. Like a number of other fading and/or faded Hollywood performers, she went to Britain to work for local producers trying to break into the U.S. market. For her efforts, Compson was reportedly paid a cool £1,000 per week and, as per the bfi website, demanded a “musical trio on set to bring her to tears when required.”

Compson's career would briefly recover in the late '20s, when she was “considered” for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as a carnival dancer in George Fitzmaurice's silent-talkie hybrid The Barker. (No official nominations were announced for the 1928-29 period.)

Clive Brook, one of the top British film stars of the '20s, would star in Frank Lloyd's 1932-33 Best Picture Oscar winner Cavalcade. His last film appearance was in John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger. Both Brook and Compson died in 1974.

Graham Cutts continued making movies until 1940. By then, most of his productions were B fare. His best-known effort is the silent crime drama The Rat (1926), starring Hollywood's Mae Marsh (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) and stage star Ivor Novello. Cutts died in 1958.

Alfred Hitchcock's “official” first feature film as a director was the 1925 melodrama The Pleasure Garden, starring two other Hollywood imports, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty. Hitchcock would be nominated for five Oscars: Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho (1960). He was given the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. He died in 1980.

Photo, quotes: British Film Institute

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