Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow”: A Chronicle of Genius Foretold

September 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Courtesy The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Last Thursday night’s long-awaited AMPAS screening of the previously lost and newly restored “The White Shadow” (1924) surpassed my expectations, which were very high. Though incomplete–only three of its reels were recovered–the film is impressive, so much so that it is still running in my head, days later.  Any serious filmgoer should jump at the chance to see it.

The earliest surviving film work of Alfred Hitchcock, who is credited as writer, editor and assistant director, “The White Shadow” provides ample evidence of an already sophisticated visual style. (Though Graham Cutts is the credited director, Hitchcock’s contribution is thought to have been far greater than his. Speaking of their five films together, Hitchcock said that he was  “running even the director.”) The fact that Hitchcock was only 24 years old at the time speaks volumes about his talent.

In an era where films were often shot on the fly, “The White Shadow” appears to have been carefully storyboarded. Shots are framed and lit beautifully, and actors are positioned in a manner more painterly than haphazard. My favorites include Betty Compson (excellent as twins, one good and one bad) playing poker, her eleborate hat wreathed in cigarette smoke, and the shot that introduces The Cat Who Laughs, the nightclub where she plays. Instead of opening with a shot of the club, Hitchcock shoots its logo, a cat’s face medallion on the grillwork of an interior balcony. In the background, we glimpse the stockinged legs of  the club’s female patrons–a sight that conveys more information than any conventional establishing shot.

Betty Compson in "The White Shadow"/Courtesy

In making the most of  a beautiful country estate and a Parisian nightclub, Hitchcock provides a fascinating preview of later films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Vertigo,” whose locations were of the utmost importance. Unlike many silent films, which seem set-bound, “The White Shadow” makes good use of the outdoors. Part of the missing section was shot in Switzerland, and would have been fascinating to see.

The audience at the screening was captivated, not only by the film but by the excellent musical accompaniment, composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by him and Nicole Garcia. So wrapped up were we that its abrupt ending, at a particularly dramatic juncture, was met with a collective groan–and huge regret that the rest of the film would never be seen (though it was described–by Eva Marie Saint, no less). Still, “The White Shadow” is amazing. See it if you have the chance.

Courtesy Mary Mallory

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Early Films, Now Restored, to Have New Premieres at AMPAS This Month

September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

From "A Trip to the Moon," by Georges Meliese

Several early films (including some from from the New Zealand Film Archive), freshly restored, will reach new audiences with special showings at the Academy this month.

On Tuesday, September 6th at 7:30pm, comes “A Trip to the Moon,” (1902), Georges Meliese’s hand-colored fantasy film. After a complete restoration at Technicolor in Los Angeles, a new soundtrack was composed for the film by Air, the French band. The film’s restoration was sponsored by Lobster Films, the Groupama Gan Froundation for Cinema and the Technicolor  Foundation for  Cinema Heritage. Also on the bill are “A Trip Down Market Street,” (1906) which depicts San Francisco just days before the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city, early 3D versions of Melies films and turn-of-the-century sound films.  For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to

On Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7:30pm, the Academy will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow,” whose restoration was sponsored by the Academy Film Archive, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA Film and Television Archive. Also on the bill are “Won in the Closet” (1914), Mabel Normand’s dirctorial debut, and “Oil’s Well” (1923), a Monty Banks comedy. For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to

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Lost and Found: An Inventory of Films from the New Zealand Film Archive

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ruth Roland (at the wheel) in "Walk-You Walk!", 1912/Courtesy National Film Preservation Foundation

The National Film Preservation Foundation website has published a list of rediscovered Silents and Talkies from the New Zealand Film Archive.

In addition to features and shorts, the inventory includes newsreels, industrials and cartoons. The sheer variety of films–including documentary footage of China circa 1917, a 1914 interracial romance, a 1916 Lois Weber feature and Mabel Normand’s 1914 directorial debut–no doubt will shed new light on film’s first two decades.

I was impressed by the two I’ve seen: “The Better Man,” and “Upstream,” both of which were well-conceived and technically sophisticated. If they are indicative of the collection’s quality, we can expect to be amazed.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Feature Film, Rediscovered in the New Zealand Film Archive

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Betty Compson in "The White Shadow"/Courtesy

The New Zealand Film Archive’s treasure trove of Silent and early Talkie films has yielded yet another happy surprise: three reels of the earliest surviving feature crediting Alfred Hitchcock. “The White Shadow,” (1924) stars Betty Compson in a dual role as twin sisters, one good and the other bad. The 24-year-old Hitchcock served as the film’s production designer as well as its writer, editor and assistant director.

Alfred Hitchcock in his Twenties

Hitchcock, who shot his films so economically they were said to be pre-edited, learned his craft in the English studio system, beginning as an apprentice in 1920, when he was 21. Working his way up the ladder at Islington Studios, he learned every aspect of filmmaking, from menial to technical, and was a skilled filmmaker by the time “The White Shadow” was made. (Contrast his apprenticeship with the path of today’s film students, who are channeled into directing, cinematography and screenwriting programs, with predictably narrow results.)

By the time he directed “The Lodger,” (1927), Hitchcock was, at 28, a filmmaking veteran–and his work showed it. A steady stream of hits, including “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “The 39 Steps” (1935), and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), established him as a star writer/director. From there, the leap to Hollywood was inevitable: he and his wife, Alma Reville (a film editor who was her husband’s greatest collaborator), moved to Los Angeles in 1939. Hitchcock’s first American film, “Rebecca” (1940), was not only an instant classic, but the first in a line of critical and financial successes that stretched into the 1970s.

As for “The White Shadow,” it has been restored in New Zealand with the help of the [American] National Film Preservation Foundation. A new master and exhibition print will be sent to the United States, and a “re-premiere” screening will be announced later this week. For more information, please go to

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John Ford’s “Upstream”–A Gem of a Silent Film

September 3, 2010 § 3 Comments

Nancy Nash and Grant Withers in "Upstream"/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Wednesday night’s premiere of the newly rediscovered “Upstream” at the Academy surpassed my greatest expectations. While I went (cursing rush hour traffic all the way to Beverly Hills, where I found parking just in time) hoping for the best, I was unprepared for what I saw: not only a beautifully preserved silent film but a droll comedy,  expertly shot and directed, by a director who later would make his mark in dramas and westerns.

The story is set in an actors’ boarding house, where John “Juan Rodriguez” Rogers and Gertie Ryan  (pictured above) and their acting partner/rival love interest Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox)  live with (among others) an over-the-hill Shakespearean star, a “sister team” consisting of a mother and daughter, and a hilarious tap-dancing duo called the Callahan Brothers, who are most certainly not brothers.  Ford renders this group of struggling, mismatched entertainers with a light touch, neither trivializing nor sentimentalizing their hand-to-mouth existence.

When Brashingham gets a huge break–a contract to play Hamlet on the London stage–all the housemates rejoice at his good fortune. Since his luck is derived solely from his name–he’s the least talented member of a famous acting family–Brashingham even gets a crash course in “Hamlet,” courtesy of the Shakespearean actor, that results in his triumph. Months later, Brashingham–having abandoned his actor friends–returns to the boarding house to pose for publicity pictures, only to walk in on the wedding of Gertie and John.

Many silent films are tedious to contemporary audiences, not only because the stories are dated but because the lack of dialogue makes them seem overly long. Not “Upstream,” with its riveting and unpredictable plot, clever titles and terrific sight gags. I would have gladly watched it again immediately. With any luck, I’ll have another chance to see it, as will you: “Upstream” is going to be shown in various cities, after which it likely will be available on DVD.

“Upstream” Premieres at the Academy Wednesday, Sept. 1: John Ford’s Lost Silent Film, Restored

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the 75 rediscovered films from the New Zealand Film Archive, “Upstream,” makes its first appearance in 80 years tomorrow night at the Academy. (For more on these films, see my post

A love triangle from 1927, the film shows the influence of F. W. Murnau, the great German director (“Sunrise”) who at the time was also directing at Fox. There will be live musical accompaniment as well as the trailer of Ford’s 1929 “Strong Boy,” the only surviving footage from that film.

Tickets are only $5 and still available at

A Treasure Trove of Silent Film Resurfaces in New Zealand

June 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Lois Weber/Courtesy

Today’s news–that 75 films from the Silent Era are being returned from the national film archive of New Zealand to the United States, their country of origin–is a bright spot in a depressing time. Not only were these films presumed lost, along with 80% of the fragile nitrate films of the period, but none have been viewed publicly in 80 years. Among the highlights of the collection are John Ford’s “Upstream” (1927), which is said to have been influenced by F. W. Murnau’s techniques. (Murnau was the German director of “Sunrise,” [1927] which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929.) Also eagerly anticipated is “Won in a Cupboard,” (1914) the earliest surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, the great Mack Sennett comedy star.  In “Maytime” (1923), another huge star of the era, Clara Bow, plays an atypical costume role.

Among the less familiar names in the collection are Al Christie and Lois Weber, who in their day were famous both as directors and producers. Christie was one of the most prolific directors of the Silent Era, while Weber, who directed over 40 films, had her own studio and was the highest-paid woman director of her time. (For more on Weber, see my post “Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th Century Hollywood [March 8, 2010].)

Why New Zealand? Apparently it was the end of the distribution line, so films stayed there after their commercial run. The studios apparently didn’t want their prints back; at any rate, they wouldn’t pay the shipping costs. So projectionists and other film buffs kept the reels; eventually, through heirs, the films made their way to the New Zealand Film Archive.

It wasn’t until last year that an American film preservationist, Brian Meacham of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), visited colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive while on vacation and saw a list of American films in the collection. One thing led to another, and arrangements were made for the return of 75 titles.

Amazingly, given the fragility of nitrate stock, three-quarters of the films have good image quality, though all are in need of restoration. Twentieth Century Fox, whose predecessor made John Ford’s “Upstream,” is restoring that film. It will have its first showing in eight decades at the Academy this fall and is certain to be a sensation.

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