It could have been lost forever, buried under layers of grime and rust with the nondescript title Twin Sisters. Instead, Leslie Anne Lewis of the National Film Preservation Foundation (described as a “nitrate sleuth”—whatever that is!) took note of two remarkable stills as they passed over her light table: a close-up of a hand of cards, and a portrait-like shot of a woman framed by smoke. Struck by the artistry of the two frames, Lewis began an investigation into the remaining reels. Knowing the names of the two stars, Betty Compson and Clive Brook, and Selznick, the American distributor, was enough information to deduce what she had: 1924’s The White Shadow—one of the first films bearing the name of Alfred Hitchcock.
So he wasn’t director, but Hitchcock’s name is all over the thing: assistant director, editor, art director, and scenarist (the story was adapted from Children of Chance by Michael Morton). It’s an amazing find and resource for any film scholar or snobbish hipster cinephile.
The film opens on a boat to England, where Nancy Brent (Betty Compson), a student returning home from Paris, and Robin Field (Clive Brook), an American touring Europe, meet and start flirting. Nancy returns home to her twin sister (also played by Betty Compson) and parents; Robin follows her there. Then the title cards inform the viewer that the sisters are completely unlike each other and that Nancy lacks a soul. This is confirmed, I suppose, when Nancy and Robin kiss, but then Nancy sends her sister Georgina to meet him in town in her place, thus orchestrating the first instance of mistaken identity. Ultimately, through several twists and turns, Georgina falls in love with Robin after taking on her sister’s identity, and Robin intends to propose, but his friend stops him after seeing Nancy, now called “Cherry,” in a Parisian cabaret—gasp!—gambling. “That’s a lie!” Robin exclaims in a title card.
Although only three reels survive, the film-archivists tracked down the plot description filled for copyright purposes and wrote up an epilogue of sorts so viewers wouldn’t be left hanging. The last three reels sound like they were as convoluted and melodramatic as the first three, with a saccharine-sweet ending.
The film was a huge flop. The storyline was just too implausible, even for audiences in 1924. Critics still praised the performances, the style and the look of production, the elements Hitchcock valued most even at this early stage in his career.
For two months the film will be available free of charge on the National Film Preservation Foundation website. Michael D. Mortilla wrote a beautiful new score to accompany the piece, although the premature ending is a bit of a disappointment. But that means it’s only 42 minutes, so if you generally have a short attention span, this is one silent film you might be able to sit through.