The White Shadow – when a Hitchcock film isn’t a Hitchcock film

The White Shadow (1924)
The White Shadow (1924)

Celebrity sells, and newspapers, news websites and trade journals alike all know that the likelihood of a story being read increases if a big name is attached to it. Woe betide you if you want to write about the silent era without mentioning Chaplin, Hitchcock or DW Griffith – preferably in the first paragraph.

So reports of the discovery of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Surviving Film” need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To recap, a few reels of The White Shadow (1923) have been discovered in a film archive in New Zealand. And this is how the BBC opens its online news story:

Footage from Alfred Hitchcock’s first film has been uncovered in New Zealand.

The British director was 24 when he made the 1923 silent film, The White Shadow.

The piece goes on to mention the film’s stars Clive Brook (Shanghai Express) and Betty Compson (The Docks of New York) – but there is no word of the film’s director. Because yes, Hitchcock worked on The White Shadow, as assistant director, art director, editor and writer, but the film was directed by someone else – Graham Cutts. While we’re always interested in early work by Hitchcock, whatever his job title, particularly with the forthcoming 2012 silent Hitchcock extravaganza on the horizon, we should also be happy to find out more about Cutts.

In the 1920s, Graham Cutts was ticket-office gold. He was called “a sure-fire maker of box-office attractions” by Kinematograph Weekly, and his Rat trilogy, starring Ivor Novello as an absurdly attractive Parisian jewel thief, is still celebrated and enjoyed today. Cutts’s films are sophisticated, sexual and employ any number of tracking shots, dramatic lighting and off-kilter camera angles to ramp up the tension – and the cinematic pleasure. Yes he worked with Hitchcock as a young man, but also Novello, Noël Coward and Basil Dean. He even made a successful transition to sound – with a career behind the camera that ran into the 40s.

The White Shadow looks like a fascinating find, with Compson playing twin sisters, one good and one evil, and plenty of opportunity for Cutt’s dynamic style to come into play. But please don’t take the credit away from a name that has almost been forgotten and give it to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

And if you have a copy of The Mountain Eagle in your loft at home, that really is a lost Hitchcock silent – so please call the British Film Institute right away, and tell them I sent you.

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11 thoughts on “The White Shadow – when a Hitchcock film isn’t a Hitchcock film”

  1. Great article and clearing up some confusion. I wrote about it and referenced this site. Following you on twitter. Thanks for the great work!

  2. I am really miffed that the yankees have ‘claimed’ the surviving reels and are giving it a ‘first’ screening in LA in September. I hope the BFI kick up a fuss, after all it was a BRITISH film and ought to be screened here first! LOL —- I hope it comes here too…

    1. It’s playing at Pordenone too. This looks like just the sort of thing that the British Silent Film Festival would want to show next spring. Then again, the BFI could put it on as part of their silent HItchcock season, right?

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