For the Love of Film: Supporting ‘The White Shadow’

17 May
2012

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Alfred Hitchcock‘s earliest surviving film (as Assistant Director, still working his way up to director) has only been ranked by one person on Flickchart. That person is me, because I happened to live in the right city to see the only screening the film has had probably since its original release in 1923. The film is The White Shadow, and it was considered a completely lost film, as are some 50-80% of all silent films, until three reels of it (roughly half) were identified among the New Zealand Archive’s “American Collection.”

The film had lost its titled sequence and was labeled “Two Sisters” and “Unidentified American Film” and no one knew precisely what it was until an archivist from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started doing detective work on the film and realize that this wasn’t an American film at all, but a British one – in fact, one of the two films that Alfred Hitchcock assistant directed under Graham Cutts, both of which starred popular American actress Betty Compson. The first, Woman to Woman, is still lost, as are just about every other film Hitchcock worked on (as AD, title designer, art director, set decorator, etc.) before taking the helm himself with 1925′s The Pleasure Garden.

Amazingly, and unusually for the time period, all but one of the silent-era features Hitchcock directed are still extant. Directors like John Ford or D.W. Griffith can’t claim anything like that survival percentage. And clearly cinema history is not done with early Hitchcock yet, as one never knows what treasures may turn up in an archive somewhere, just waiting for some intrepid archivist to find, identify, and restore them to us.

But wait, you say – if that one screening in Los Angeles is the only time it’s been shown since rediscovery, how am I supposed to see it and rank it? I’m glad you asked. The National Film Preservation Foundation streams a rotating selection of films they’ve helped preserve on their website, including a number of shorts and fragments found in the New Zealand Archive over the past few years. But they need funding to do it, especially to do it right, with a fully-recorded score. That’s where the For the Love of Film Blogathon comes in. Now in its third year, the For the Love of Film Blogathon (spear-headed by The Self-Styled Siren, aka Farran Smith Neame, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and Roderick Heath of This Island Rod) supports the NFPF in their film preservation efforts, picking a film or two each year to support with blog posts about specific topics and about film preservation itself.

This year, they’re supporting the NFPF’s efforts to record a full score for The White Shadow, convert it to a digital format, and host and stream it from their website for three months. All that will cost around $15,000, but will allow a much wider audience to see The White Shadow than could fit in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills last year. The blogathon continues until Friday the 18th, and there have already been a great number of excellent posts about Hitchcock, silent cinema, and film preservation submitted – which you can read at Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod.

So if you’ve got a few spare dollars and an interest in our cinematic heritage (and want to know just what signs of the master of suspense you can find yourself in a film he assistant directed two years before his own directorial debut), stop by the NFPF donation page and drop them a little love. They’ll know what it’s for. Then when the film is streaming online, you can watch it and rank it yourself, and then I won’t be the only person to have ranked it on Flickchart.

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