Thirty minutes of Hitchcock’s lost first film found

The first half hour of the 1923 film “The White Shadow,” the first feature film to credit a 24-year-old Albert Hitchcock, has been discovered in a collection at the New Zealand Film Archive. The unstable and dangerously flammable nitrate prints had been kept in the archive since 1989, when they were donated by Tony Osborne, the grandson of Jack Murtagh, a former projectionist and cinephile who was from New Zealand. Since the archive only had limited funds to spend on inventorying and restoring New Zealand’s films, nobody realized that The White Shadow, a British production that was first released in the US, was even in the collection.

They knew there were American films in the mix, however, and last year the non-profit National Film Preservation Foundation got a $21,200 grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to send a film archivist to New Zealand to see what exactly was in the collection. The archivist uncovered 75 pieces of film, including whole features, shorts, newsreels and large fragments. The most famous find was John Ford’s 1927 film Upstream.

The focus of that project was to find complete pieces of American film. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the NFPF another $22,000 grant this year to send an archivist to New Zealand to discover what else was to be found among the partials and fragments.

Nitrate expert Leslie Lewis is NFPF’s Sherlock Holmes. She was the lead sleuth last year and also went through the material this time around with the help of the staff at the New Zealand archive. “We pulled a bunch of reels from the nitrate vaults and I just started going through them,” Lewis said. “‘White Shadow’ was initially labeled ‘Twin Sisters.'”

Inspecting the footage on the light table, she knew that this was a quality production because the tinted images were striking. “I went home and started poking around, did a lot of research and narrowed down the possibilities,” Lewis said. “I realized that this was more like a film that Hitchcock worked on. I went to their archives the next day and used their research to pull out some contemporary reviews and summaries and confirmed it was ‘White Shadow.'”

Initially, she only had two reels of the film. “But I was inspecting another reel that was just identified as ‘Unidentified American film.’ I put it on the table and I recognized the actors and the sets. I took dozens of photographs of each reel and then compared them [to the other two reels] and they belonged together.”

Hitchcock isn’t credited as the director of this film, but he has pretty much every other major credit — writer, assistant director, editor, production designer — and the film’s director, Graham Cutts, didn’t exactly set the world alight with his filmmaking talent. Hitch had only begun working in the film industry three years earlier in 1920 as a title-card designer. His meteoric rise from maker of title-card swirlies to writer, assistant director, editor and production designer of a feature film in three years makes this film a crucial missing link in the development of Hitchcock’s artistry and career.

David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, notes:

This is one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work. At just twenty-four years old, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the film’s scenario, designed the sets, edited the footage, and served as assistant director to Graham Cutts, whose professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging….These first three reels of The White Shadow—more than half the film—offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.

Contemporary reviews didn’t think much of the latter — the movie was a melodramatic carnival of good vs. evil twin — but the acting, especially Betty Compson’s dual role as the good twin Georgina and the evil twin “without a soul” Nancy, and the production itself did receive praise.

The White Shadow will be show for the first time in decades, a “re-premiere,” if you will, on September 22 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The print will then be added to the Academy’s Hitchcock collection.