Sail Away Sweet Sister: Early Alfred Hitchcock Rediscovered in Graham Cutts’s The White Shadow

'Home sweet home,' or so it seems: Mr. Brent (A.B. Imeson, left) and his twin daughters Nancy (center) and Georgina (right, both played by Betty Compson).

Now that we’ve survived the apocalypse and the end of 2012, let’s kick off the new year with a piece of early cinema long considered lost forever. Most of us know Alfred Hitchcock as a director of thrillers and, occasionally, bizarre comedies, who frequently adapted novels, short stories, and plays for the screen. Yet few are aware of the fact that the English ‘Master of Suspense’ was initially responsible for the scripts, intertitles, set design, and editing of silent movies by British filmmaker Graham Cutts. The White Shadow is one of their five collaborations that was released almost nine decades ago but only resurfaced recently.

On a trip to Paris, the English country girl Nancy Brent (Betty Compson) becomes attached to the young American Robin Field (Clive Brook). She’s daddy’s favorite daughter. Much to the chagrin of her father (A.B. Imeson) and mother (Daisy Campbell), however, she turns into a rebellious and mischievous tomboy after her return home. The new Nancy provokes her father and constantly argues with him. In this regard, she couldn’t be any more different from her twin sister, the pretty and saintly Georgina Brent (also played by Betty Compson). The boiling point is reached when her father wants to bar her from seeing Robin Field again. As a consequence, Nancy runs away from the country estate and flees to Paris.

Soon thereafter, the grieving Mr. Brent tails after her, and when his wife dies, Georgina moves to London, where she chances upon Robin. Pretending to be Nancy, she and the American fall for each other and move in together. Yet everything changes the moment his good friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) embarks on a trip to Paris and spots Nancy gambling and drinking in a bohemian rendezvous called ‘The Cat Who Laughs.’ Left in the dark about the twin sisters, he naturally mistakes her for Georgina and goes to tell Robin. Unbeknownst to one another, both lovers travel to the French capital to look for Nancy. The family reunion is complete when a deluded Mr. Brent appears as a bum in front of his former favorite daughter, but neither of them recognizes the other one.

The White Shadow ends at this point, or at least the roughly 42 minutes of it that have reappeared. Nobody seems to be familiar with the whereabouts of the final three reels. The consensus is that they’ve been destroyed. All we’re left with is the official synopsis, according to which the film adds a few more twists and turns before coming to a conclusion. Robin bitterly denounces Nancy after seeing her at the bohemian nightclub. When a fight breaks out, she slips away in the chaos. Georgina follows her and tells her all about the disappearance of their father and death of their mother. Nancy weeps, but ultimately refused to come back home. Her twin sister goes to Switzerland to recuperate because her health is broken from worry. There, Robin meets her and begs forgiveness, still assuming she is Nancy.

Georgina knows her time is short, sends for her sibling, and convinces her to take her place in the sanitarium and marry the American. Then she leaves for Paris to await the end. After her return to England with Robin, Nancy is summoned to her dying sister in Paris and arrives just in time to say goodbye. Upon Georgina’s death, her ‘white shadow’ passes to her twin, who finally possesses a soul. Her father also resurfaces and manages to get back to England. As he walks down a London street, a car carrying his surviving daughter hits him. Nancy takes him to the hospital, where he regains his sanity and returns to their country estate with his child. Robin asks Nancy to marry him. Even though she years to accept his proposal, her saintly sister’s ‘white shadow’ stops her from doing so. At last, Robin learns the truth regarding the two sisters, and Nancy begs him forgiveness. He responds by taking her in his arms and telling her: ‘Since you have been brave enough to tell me, I will be brave enough to forget it.’

The White Shadow is unlike any of the numerous Alfred Hitchcock movies we’ve come across and have fallen in love with over the years. Granted, partially, this has to do with the fact that we’re dealing with a silent film here, whereas the apex of the director’s long and storied career consists of ‘talkies’ exclusively. Yet the plot of The White Shadow can be extremely and, to a degree, amusingly hard to untangle, and more so when taking the full synopsis into account.

The movie is also shamelessly melodramatic to boot, which also distinguishes it from the latter works of the ‘Master of Suspense.’ In all likelihood, screenwriting has never really been Alfred Hitchcock’s forte. Even during his heyday, he almost always resorted to outside authors to come up with scripts based on material by others for his films. John Michael Hayes comes to mind, who penned the screenplay for four consecutive Hitchcock movies including Rear Window and To Catch A Thief in the 1950s.

The director’s biggest strength was visual storytelling. You only need to think of key sequences from his masterpieces, such as the famous shower scene in Psycho, James Stewart’s private investigator Scottie Ferguson shadowing Madeleine in Vertigo, or the crop-dusting scene in North By Northwest. Although he wasn’t at the helm of The White Shadow, this early work already foreshadows the greater things to come. Holding multiple important positions including assistant director, Alfred Hitchcock could both learn important lessons on the job and significantly influence the project in several areas.

As is the case in his later works of a more considerable magnitude, The White Shadow stands out in terms of acting, style, and look. Betty Compson’s performance in two key roles deserves recognition in particular, but all the other thespians excel as well. Contemporary audiences may treat what they see on the screen as overacting, because the energetic, almost theatrical performance of the cast with many facial expressions and gestures is very different from the stoic efforts we’re used to from classic and more recent Hollywood movies.

Likewise, the production design and spatial construction of the key locations in The White Shadow are simply marvelous. A special mention goes to the outdoor sequences at Nancy’s countryside home so spaciously composed and the wicked jazzy atmosphere at the Parisian ‘The Cat Who Laughs’ joint. The new score that composer and pianist Michael D. Mortilla came up with for the version made available to the public recently adds to the movie’s overall vibe. This holds especially true in the scenes taking place in the bohemian nightclub, where the soundtrack more than aptly brings out what it must have felt like to be at a jazz place during the ‘Golden Twenties.’

On a visual level, Graham Cutts and Alfred Hitchcock use differently tinted film stripes for the daytime and nocturnal sequences in The White Shadow, similarly to what F.W. Murnau does in his German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. That way, it’s easy to distinguish, for instance, between the scenes in which the two lovers Nancy and Robin hide their blossoming relationship from her father and those at ‘The Cat Who Laughs.’ The latter are also set at night, but in a brightly lit establishment. The bright and the dark, incidentally, are the two most important visual components of The White Shadow, and not just because it’s a monochrome picture. They epitomize the contrast between the two sisters, who may be identical twins, yet are so completely different in terms of their character and temperament.

All in all, The White Shadow can’t compete with later works by Alfred Hitchcock, such as his final silent movie Blackmail from 1929. Neither is it up to par with his ‘talkies,’ when the English ‘Master of Suspense’ had already perfected his craft. It shouldn’t be matched against them, either; that would be, more or less, like comparing apples to oranges. What The White Shadow does, however, is demonstrate why Alfred Hitchcock quickly became such a hot commodity in the film industry not much later, when he directed his first silent feature The Pleasure Garden in 1925, created a number of noteworthy British spy movies and thrillers in the 1930s, and conquered America by storm with his Hollywood debut Rebecca after he went stateside in 1940. It’s a shame that the final parts of The White Shadow remain lost. The pieces that are available already reveal the drama to be a real gem in its own right, an artifact of a great artist starting to discover his special gift.

You can watch the film online here.

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