Preserving the Fragments: The White Shadow

[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work The White Shadow will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event, to support the National Film Preservation Foundation’s desire to stream the film online for free. Be sure to donate so you can see this very-nearly lost film yourself!]

[Note: I suppose I spoil The White Shadow a bit in here, but it’s an incomplete film, and in terms of film preservation, that’s part of its power. I wanted to get across the sense of what it was like to be in the Academy screening when we came to the end of the portion that exists. But if you particularly don’t want to know anything about the film until you can see it streaming thanks to the NFPF and this blogathon’s fundraising efforts, skim lightly especially in two paragraphs before and after the image of Hitchcock directing.]

We excitedly gathered on the sidewalk, anticipating being let into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ own screening room, the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. VIPs slipped by, headed toward the bar or lounge in their finery, while the rest of us waited, patient but anxious to begin the evening’s entertainment. Any screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre is a treat, a step into a more opulent past presented by the self-appointed guardians of Hollywood history, but this was no ordinary screening. This was the very first appearance of an early, long-thought-lost Hitchcock film pretty much since its original release in 1924. Well, technically Hitchcock was the Assistant Director on the film (and he tended to get in on every part of production he could in those early days, so likely he was doing much more), the second of two collaborations with director Graham Cutts and actress Betty Compson, apparently rushed into production to capitalize on the popularity of the first, Woman to Woman. According to producer Michael Balcon, “it was as big a flop as Woman to Woman had been a success.” But Woman to Woman remains a lost film, and in any case, The White Shadow could’ve been a terrible movie and we still would’ve been ecstatic to see it.

Our excitement was first of all out of curiosity to see if we could see any glimpses of Hitchcock in the film’s style, but also simply because here’s a film that has been thought lost for decades, turned up (partially at least) in an archive in New Zealand, along with a bunch of other long-lost films. If we can still locate treasure troves like this in 2011, what else might still be out there, waiting for intrepid archivists to find it, figure out what it is, and restore it so the world can rediscover it?

Archivists are kind of like detectives. Films may sit in archives for years, preserved so they don’t deteriorate, but often lacking reels or credits that would help identify what the film even is. That’s the case with several films in the New Zealand Archive, which has been the source of a lot of publicity in the silent film archiving world over the past couple of years as they, along with researchers from American archives, realized they had fragments of John Ford films, Clara Bow films, and other American films that they’d been holding on to for years but hadn’t had the resources to go through and identify. The same is probably true of many archives around the world, not to mention what private collectors or grandpa’s attic may still hold. But I think it’s important to realize that finding these films is often not simply a matter or serendipity, like finding a bunch of film reels in a relative’s home that nobody knew were there, or digging up a bunch from an underground bunker or whatever romantic flights of fancy one can come up with. A lot of times they’re actually already in archives, having been donated as part of a large collection at one time or another, and the issue is that film preservation and restoration is woefully underfunded to the point that all archivists can do is keep the films safe until they have the resources to do the sometimes daunting work that goes into just finding out what the films are, much less the often laborious process of restoring them to a watchable state.

The finding of The White Shadow is a combination of both the romantic and the mundane, having been part of a donation to the New Zealand Archive in 1989 after being found in a garden shed. It remained on the shelf mis-identified until 2011, when an archivist with the Academy who was working at the New Zealand Archive figured out that this film, labeled “Two Sisters” and “Unidentified American Film,” was actually the first few reels of The White Shadow, a British film that’s now the earliest known surviving film worked on by Alfred Hitchcock. The film world went abuzz, with many media outlets often forgetting to mention that he was AD on the film instead of full director, but really, for me, the exciting thing was the rediscovery of even part of this film, whether Hitchcock had been director or coffee-boy.

You see, fragments fascinate me and sadden me in fairly equal proportions. With some 80% of all silent films lost, the fragments that remain are heartbreaking reminders of what was and what will never be again. They have a special kind of beauty, almost ghostly and ethereal, the remnants joyous and yet constant signs of what has been lost. Some fragments are mere minutes or seconds long, as with the glorious two-color Technicolor opening of Clara Bow’s Red Hair, the first few minutes of which were discovered and restored only this year and shown at the 2012 TCM Film Festival. Who knows if the rest of the film was any good or not? Maybe seeing the rest of it would yield disappointment. Maybe someday the rest of it will be discovered and we can find out for ourselves. Until then, the fragmentary opening stands apart in time.

The White Shadow currently has the first three of six reels intact, so it’s a much longer fragment, but a fragment it remains. It tells the story of two sisters (both played by Betty Compson), one “good” and one “bad.” The “white shadow” of the title refers to the sweet and demure soul of the good sister. They both have their eye on the same man, who is initially attracted to the wild sister, but when she runs away from home and their overbearing father, the sweet sister marries him instead – but here’s the kicker: he never knew there were two of them, so he assumes he’s marrying the one he initially fell for. Mistaken identity follows mistaken identity, the now-repentant father embarks on a life-long quest to find the wild sister, and the mismatched couple struggle with their marriage. It all comes to a climax when they fatefully end up in the same nightclub. The wild sister enters the club dramatically from the top of a long, imposing stairway and…the film cuts out.

The entire sold-out audience at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre erupted into a sigh and a groan – a resigned sigh that we may never get to see the rest (though Eva Marie Saint did read us the very brief and somewhat bizarre plot description filed with the film’s copyright materials), and a groan of frustration. Frustration that neglect has let this, and so many other films disappear. In a way, the film couldn’t have ended better in terms of raising awareness for the great need to preserve the films we have left and work to find and identify more. Though some parts of the film fall a bit too far into melodrama, the final image is one of tension and excitement, a real edge of your seat cliffhanger – as if the gods of Cinema had planned it that way so the film, as it remains today, would have the maximum impact a fragment can have, a tangible symbol of the phantom reels. The cliffhanger has no resolution, but it carries with it the hope that if this fragment could be found and recovered, perhaps more can be also.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind heading into the screening was, would we be able to tell the influence of Hitchcock on this very early film? Would we be able to see the seeds of the great master of suspense? To be honest, I’m not sure. There is suspense in the plot, thanks to the Compson’s double role and the way mistaken identity is played for suspense and tragedy rather than comedy (most of the time), but the tension is relatively innocuous and the film spends more time, at least in this first half, on the father’s anguished search for his daughter. You can see the idea of shadow selves and people torn between good and evil as an idea basic to much of Hitchcock’s later work, but at the same time, a lot of that feels like reading into the film because of what we know about Hitchcock.

The purpose of this blogathon is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to record a brand-new score and put the existing reels of The White Shadow on their website for anyone to stream for free. I can’t promise you that watching The White Shadow will be a totally satisfying experience – how can it be, when the conclusion of it is still lost? But I can promise you that it will be worthwhile, if only to see part of a landmark director’s origin, if only to be reminded of the necessity of caring for the films we have, and if only to remain hopeful that more films (even perhaps the rest of this one!) will continue to be found and preserved for us to see. And maybe you’ll have a better idea of how it relates to Hitchcock’s later work than I do. So join me and my fellow bloggers – donate if you can, spread the word, and when the film is posted online by the NFPF (as I have no doubt it will be), watch it!

Many thanks to Farran Smith Neame, Marilyn Ferdinand, and Roderick Heath for putting this blogathon together. And thanks also to Ed Howard, whose blogathon intro I stole and modified for my own!


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  1. Tinky

    Sadly, of course, not just ANYONE will be able to stream it for free; I won’t be able to since I live in a place where high-speed internet doesn’t exist, and even if (when, I hope) I get high-speed internet, it certainly won’t be free. Nevertheless, I am contributing to the cause. And if your description here is all I end up seeing of it, that will be just fine; you did a great job of describing and arguing……

    • True, the streaming revolution definitely leaves more people out in the cold than we often think about. Still, having it online, even for a short period of time, is better than it remaining locked away in an archive, available only to accredited scholars and archivists. And with the score recorded, it’s closer to being ready for some other, more widespread kind of release, which hopefully will come at some point.

  2. Grand Old Movies

    Really great post on this film and the overall importance of preservation. Your description whets my appetite to see it. How aptly symbolic that it ends on a cliffhanger! 

    • Yeah, when it ended, there was a sudden rush of disappointment that I didn’t get to see the rest of it (just when it was getting really good!), but at the same time, if it’s gonna go out before it ends, it’s much better and more impactful that it went out with a bang, and it certainly did that. It ensures you won’t soon forget it!

  3. Marilyn Ferdinand

    A truly brilliant post on why we do these film preservation blogathons. It’s so difficult to convey the sense of urgency about trying to preserve and hopefully restore our film heritage to a larger population, but you made the idea live and breathe. Thanks so much, Jandy!

    • Thanks so much, Marilyn! This means a lot coming from someone I respect as much as you!

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