September 24, 2013


In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.

John Ford’s theatrical rooming house comedy Upstream (1927) is the centerpiece, an ingratiating charmer about the everyday performances of down at heel actors. As the film’s epigraph says, “If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” I already wrote about Upstream and The White Shadow (1924) in this space before, though, so today I’ll be focusing on the shorts and newsreels that fill out the package, and they contain multifarious charms of their own.

Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921) is a literal thrill ride, as the camera puts the viewer at the head of a train seemingly careening into oblivion. Paired with the film’s soundtrack disc of clanging clamor, which was fortuitously held by the Library of Congress, it still retains its adrenaline jolting power. When an inter-title instructs you to, “Hold on to your seats! The train is running away”, it is impossible to disobey.


Birth of a Hat (1920) is a promotional short which tracks the production of Stetson’s fine felt hats from scrambling hares to topping the hair on your head. The company’s honesty about its commodity chain is a far cry from today’s manufacturers, whose processes are only revealed today through investigative reporting or muckraking documentarians. No muck was raked in The Love Charm (1928) a one-reel exoticized Polynesian romance shot as an excuse to test two-strip Technicolor.


One of the recurring themes in the set is the increasing freedom of women. From the girl riding in an ostrich-drawn carriage in a tabloid Selznick Newsreel to serial heroine Dolly of the Dailies (1914) to writer-director-star Mabel Normand, women were flamboyantly asserting their strength. In addition to the ostrich ride, the newsreels include a “Co-operative Weekly Review” (1918) that features high-school girls learning war-time trades of carpentry and steel smelting, as well as a call for 25,000 Red Cross nurses. The set includes Episode #5 of the Edison Dolly series, entitled, ” The Chinese Fan”. The early silent period featured an explosion of plucky young female leads, from The Perils of Pauline to The Hazards of Helen. These cliffhanging crime-solvers are far more progressive figures than any of todays leading ladies (Milla Jovovich excepted). As embodied by Mary Fuller, Dolly is an ambitious young NYC reporter who gets caught up in dangerous scrapes. In this episode she infiltrates a Chinese gang (grim stereotype opium addicts), and rescues the kidnapped daughter of a local banker. Clearly shot on the fly, the short also acts as an inadvertent documentary of its making. In one revealing shot, a horse and carriage fire truck races out of a garage, but two men nearby are staring at the camera. As the horses race off, both tip their caps toward the lens, a friendly gesture that still warms the heart 100 years on.

Won in a Cupboard (1914) is the second film directed by Mabel Normand, and the earliest to survive. Only 21 at the time of its production, she had already become a Keystone comedy staple, the impish ingenue having starred in 100-something shorts for Mack Sennett. This manic 13 minute short is made even more nonsensical by some missing footage at the head. But it’s a farce of miscommunication. Mabel has found her “ideal” man, a goofball hick (Charles Avery), while she fends off some of the smoother operators in town. At the same time Mabel’s father, the constable, is in love with the hick’s mother. The mother and the constable get stuck in a closet, and fear the gossip that will occur if they are discovered. These two strands smash together in a wood splintering finale that leaves the entire town chopping up their closeted secret. It’s a burst of energy as pure as the huckster Runaway Train ride.



November 20, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 5.30.55 PM

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 UpstreamThe 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.