November 20, 2012
The 2012 holiday season is also Alfred Hitchcock season, as studios have been looking for various ways to earn your master of suspense dollar. Universal released a brick of new Blu-rays, HBO aired The Girl, a drama about the Hitch-Tippi Hedren relationship, and Hitchcock, the dubious-looking fiction about the production of Psycho, opens in a limited theatrical release this Friday. The most exciting Hitch development won’t cost you a thing, however, as the three extant reels of The White Shadow (1924) are now free to stream on the National Film Preservation Foundation website. Part of the cache of rarities discovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 2010, along with John Ford’s Upstream, The White Shadow is the earliest surviving film that Hitchcock worked on. He was assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director, the second of five films on which he was the jack of all trades for director Graham Cutts. The White Shadow was a critical and box office failure, even leading to the dissolution of its production company, but what remains is an essential document of Hitchcock’s artistic maturation, containing themes of doubling and mistaken identity that would re-emerge and deepen throughout his career. Along with The National Film Preservation Foundation, great thanks are also due to David Sterritt for his informative film notes and Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath, whose For The Love Of Film Blogathon funded the recording of the fine score by Michael Mortilla.
Alfred Hitchcock started his career in movies when Famous Players-BeLasky opened up an office in Islington, London in October 1919. He applied to become an illustrator for silent film intertitles, telling Francois Truffaut, “For instance, if the line read: ‘George was leading a very fast life by this time,’ I would draw a candle, with a flame at each end, just below the sentence. Very naive.” He was hired in 1921 and quickly rose up the ranks, from head of the title department into the editorial department, where he would re-write scripts. After Famous Players shuddered the studio, an enterprising production company, Balcon-Saville-Freedman, moved in. They hired Hitchcock as an assistant director, and it was on his first film with director Graham Cutts, Woman to Woman (1923), that he met his future wife and collaborator, Alma Reville. The melodramatic WW1 romance was adapted from a hit play by Michael Morton, and with the casting of popular Hollywood star Betty Compson, the movie version was a success as well. The Daily Express called it the “best American picture made in England”, which was a high compliment considering the popularity of Hollywood films at the time.
Rushing to capitalize on the film’s success, The White Shadow was fast-tracked into production, with the same team in place. Betty Compson would again star, and another Michael Morton work was used, but instead of a hit play, they adapted an unpublished novel titled Children of Chance. It was distributed in the United States by Lewis J. Selznick, whose son David would later bring Hitchcock to Hollywood. The “white shadow” refers to the human soul, which Nancy Brent (Compson) is definitively missing. She is a hard partier, taking after her alcoholic father Maurice (A.B. Imeson) instead of her delicate mother Elizabeth (Daisy Cambell) or kind twin sister Georgina (also Compson). Nancy catches the eye of the dashing American traveler Robin (Clive Brook), but she slips both his and her family’s grasp and disappears into the smoky underworld of London. Maurice searches for her – and never returns. Desperate to hide the truth, Georgina pretends to be Nancy in the presence of Robin, and they both fall deeply in love. When Nancy and her father are found in a dissolute nightclub, lies are unraveled and souls are bestowed.
It is the first half of the film that survives, which contains some fine sun dappled outdoors scenes outside of the Brent estate, as well as the high-vaulted ceiling interiors, which makes the estate seem more like a mausoleum than a home. It is nothing more than a well-photographed Victorian melodrama though, until the riveting nightclub scene, which roils with anxiety as identities are on the cusp of being revealed. Nancy is a habitue at The Cat Who Laughs Cabaret, a two-tiered dive presided over by a statue of grinning feline with satanic horns, a playfully devilish image likely designed (or procured) by art director Hitchcock. It’s a self-aware logo, mocking the do-gooders’ stereotype of their lifestyle, and thus does so for the rest of the film’s Manichean view of good (Georgina) and evil (Nancy). The club is filled with hot-stepping revelers, who stop and yell “Get out!” to any newcomer. If they ignore the request, then they are welcomed with open arms filled with booze. It’s a strange and hilarious bit of business, again displaying The Cat Who Laughs denizens to be an ironic, intellectual lot who are far more fun than the banal world of proper society that the story is navigating Nancy back towards.
Compson is shown at the club in a seductive close-up at a poker table full of men, wearing a rakishly tilted flowered hat and smoking her cigarette in a long, stylish holder. Her sly smile shows a sense of comfort and control with her environs not seen in proper society. Graham Cutts’ camera is frustratingly static, but it’s a sequence where Hitchcock’s art design and screenplay displays his subversive humor, revealing the freedom with which emotions are expressed in the demonized zone outside of polite society. When Georgina finally locates the cabaret, she demurely sits alone in her long skirts, trembling with anxiety. She doesn’t recognize her father, now a filthy beggar, while Robin (whom she is to marry while still pretending to be Nancy), is sitting across the room. Everyone in the room has either hidden their identity, forgotten it, or been deceived by it. Then the real Nancy makes her entrance, strutting down the main staircase with the brazen erotic energy of Mae West. It is at this point where the film cuts off. And this is probably for the best, for, instead of leading the room in a orgiastic party rejecting her former life, the plot description says she returns to a life of traditional morality, in which Nancy must be punished and Georgina martyred for their sins of being women. But in the room of The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the sexual violence that animates Marnie and the misshapen identities and obsessions of Vertigo. Inside The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the future of the medium.