New Light Cast on The White Shadow

By Caylin Smith


Images: NFPF/Leslie Anne Lewis

Forget “a little bit naughty, a little bit nice.” In The White Shadow, Betty Compson, one of America’s best-known silent-film actresses in the 1920s, was both much more than naughty, and much more than nice. She played two sisters at the extreme ends of the pleasantness scale: one angelic, the other “without a soul.”

Soon after the movie’s release, however, it went missing, and its disappearance into the ranks of lost silent films became all the more vexing for film buffs given that it was one of the first films that a young Alfred Hitchcock worked on.

Now The White Shadow has re-emerged with a small number of showings, including one at the 2011 Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Giornate del cinema muto – in the scenic, medieval, northeast Italian river port.

The annual Pordenone gathering provides an opportunity for film scholars, archivists, and enthusiasts to view and discuss the latest discoveries and restorations of cinema’s silent era from all around the world. The highlights of this year’s festival (October 1-8) included Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), both of which featured live orchestral accompaniment, a rare color print of Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902), a selection of Walt Disney’s early animated films, early Japanese animation, and Michael Kertész’s European films.

The festival also boasted one of the first showings in over 80 years of The White Shadow. At least, 39 minutes – three of six reels – of Graham Cutts’s sensational 1924 melodrama were screened, thanks to a discovery last year at the New Zealand Film Archive.

The discovery of extensive footage of the film is notable for many reasons. The White Shadow not only showcases the work of Cutts, a prominent British director of the 1920s, but also allows audiences to view early work by Hitchcock, the film’s then-24-year-old assistant director who arguably went on to become the most influential filmmaker of them all. Hitchcock greatly affected the creative direction of The White Shadow, and is credited as the film’s set designer, production designer, editor, and writer.

On a formal level, the expressive mise-en-scène demonstrates techniques that Hitchcock would continue to craft throughout his career. The film’s narrative themes – madness, doubling, mistaken identity, obsession – also recur often in Hitchcock’s later films. And while he was still two years away from The Pleasure Garden, his first feature film, The White Shadow is one of the earliest surviving examples of the Master of Suspense at work. The film also allows scholars and enthusiasts to situate this earlier film within Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre: viewers not only recognize techniques that he would later employ, but can also deduce what he learned while evolving as a filmmaker.

In The White Shadow, Clive Brook‘s character is drawn to the two sisters whom Betty Compson portrays – first to the evil one, who rejects him, then to the angelic one, who falls in love with him and wins him by leading him to believe she is her naughty sibling. The White Shadow was Compson’s second film with Cutts. Michael Balcon, a British producer, had lured her to England by promising her a two-picture deal, as well as $1,000 a week, an impressive amount of money at the time. The first of the two films was Woman to Woman, based on The Yellow Ticket by Michael Morton, a popular British dramatist who would continue to be involved in Cutts’s films.

Whereas Woman to Woman was based on an actual publication by Morton, it is unclear whether this was the case for The White Shadow. Some have posited that The White Shadow is based on a play by Morton called Children of Chance. However, the film may have been based only on Morton’s ideas, which is likely since he worked closely with Cutts and Hitchcock, and was even present on set. The fact that The White Shadow was a rushed production that aimed to capitalize on the success of Woman to Woman makes this scenario even more plausible. Unfortunately, audiences did not respond well to the film’s sensational narrative. Their sentiments were reflected in poor box office numbers, which contributed to the bankruptcy of Balcon, Freedman & Saville and Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises, the film’s distributors.

The White Shadow was released in the United States in 1924 and then made its way to other countries, including New Zealand in 1925. Tony Osborne, the grandson of Jack Murtaugh, a New Zealand film enthusiast and projectionist, donated a nitrate print of the film to the New Zealand Film Archive after Murtaugh passed away in 1989. The print was in poor condition due to being stored in Murtaugh’s backyard: fluctuating temperatures had caused the film to become brittle and decomposition had also started to occur.

Damage to the print, especially at the beginnings and ends of the three reels, made it impossible to identify the title without conducting further research. The labels on the cans did not provide any answers, either: the first two discovered cans were titled “Two Sisters,” and the third was called “Unidentified American Drama.” Osborne was also unable to provide any additional information on the film. Archivists were initially unaware of the gem they had on their hands.

It was not until December 2010 that the film was identified by Leslie Anne Lewis, an archivist working for the National Film Preservation Foundation, the San Francisco-based non-profit created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. Lewis is taking part in a collaborative project that involves the recovery of American films in foreign archives. The institutions involved include the New Zealand Film Archive and the United States’ five major nitrate holders: the Museum of Modern Art, the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and George Eastman House. The project, which is funded by the National Film Preservation Fund, has led to the recovery of 170 films, which were divided amongst the five institutions. The institution in question receives the original nitrate print, as well as one for screenings.

However, research on each film has to be conducted first. Identifying the actual titles of the films demonstrates an aspect of film preservation that does not involve the actual material. Lewis began her research on The White Shadow by taking digital images of anything that caught her attention – actors, intertitle designs, interesting objects, and anything else that might lead to the film’s identification. This endeavor entailed working with some 3,500 images.

The film’s stars, the Selznick logo on the intertitles, and the edge code, which helps to date the film, narrowed Lewis’s search. She also employed Internet databases, such as the Complete Index to World Film, the British Film Institute, and The Internet Archive, to confirm her belief that she had found The White Shadow.

Lewis read press reviews, as well as the synopsis of the film that the Library of Congress had in its holdings. At the time The White Shadow was made, American production companies and distributors were required to send a print and a one-to-two page synopsis of each of their films to the Library of Congress. However, a studio or distributor sometimes requested that a print be returned. Filmmaking was expensive and efforts to save money were made wherever possible, including burning old prints in order to recover the silver, as well as shipping already screened prints to other countries.

The print that was discovered at the New Zealand Film Archive, however, was never screened in the United States, a detail that was confirmed by the film’s tinted stock: partway through the film, the film goes from pink, to black and white, and then back to pink. This was not a deliberate formal choice, but most likely happened because of a temporary shortage of pink tinted stock. The decision was then made to ship the print abroad, where its American distributor would never notice this error.

The film was restored this past summer at Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand. The images of the film are a direct copy, but the intertitles were stretched, an extra title card was added at the end of the second reel, and credits were added. Since there are only three frames at the end of the reel, the last frame is frozen so that audiences can actually see it. A coda, which is taken from the synopsis that was found at the Library of Congress, then appears and explains the rest of the narrative.

One can only hypothesize about what happened to the rest of the The White Shadow, and the film culture of the 1920s provokes many guesses. For example, nitrate prints were often destroyed after they were screened. If a print was not destroyed immediately, it may have been stored in spaces that encouraged deterioration, used as leader for new films, or sold to a private collector.

The White Shadow’s cliffhanger ending, a product of missing footage, may leave viewers unsatisfied; but it does provoke an audience to ponder the film’s curious history. This was especially the case in Pordenone when the coda appeared onscreen: a collective sigh was heard throughout the theater.

Recent discoveries of lost films and footage – Metropolis, Upstream, and now The White Shadow –call attention not only to gaps in cinema’s history, but also to the ongoing writing of that history. The media attention that rediscovered films and footage have received make the concerns of film preservations, archivists, and scholars less esoteric, thus allowing the preservation of a country’s cultural heritage to become a concern to everyone and not just a select few. Annette Melville, the director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, best expressed this sentiment when she accepted the Pordenone Silent Film Festival’s Jean Mitry Award, which was also awarded to the New Zealand Film Archive. She said: “Preservationists allow films to live on, but it is audiences that make them live.”

While The White Shadow may not have received a positive reaction from viewers and critics when it was first shown during the 1920s, its mysterious past generates excitement now.


Caylin Smith completed her bachelor’s degree in English (Cultural Studies) at McGill University last year, and is pursuing a master’s degree in moving image archival studies at the University of Amsterdam. She thanks Leslie Anne Lewis for discussing The White Shadow with her in Pordenone, as well as Alessandra Luciano and Professor Ned Schantz for their helpful feedback.

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