This article is my contribution to the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III. Granted, I’m two days late, but I don’t have to be two dollars short. This year’s blogathon was designed to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation and help them get a running start on reaching the $15,000 they need to premiere The White Shadow, a recently discovered silent film which featured a young assistant director named Alfred J. Hitchcock. The NFPF aims to create a watchable digital print, attached a brand new score, and stream it online for all the world to see. I think this is a worthy cause for all the reasons I outline below. While the blogathon is officially over, it’s never ever too late to donate.
At the tender age of thirteen I timidly approached the checkout of a Walden Books in a mall, clutching a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and some hard won bucks saved from my meager weekly allowance. The clerk, another teenager but eons older it seemed, also happened to be a very cute boy. He picked up my purchase, looked at it for a moment, and then said, “Bradbury! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Yes, I liked the way this was going. Then he said, “Do you know what’s so great about Bradbury?” After replying that I thought there were many great things about Bradbuy, cute clerk said, “The best thing about him is that he’s still alive.”
That was a head scratcher, I have to admit. On my list of great things about Bradbuy, that one didn’t rank. But cute clerk explained that Bradbury was awesome because he was alive, well, and still writing. In short, it was possible (if unlikely) that Bradbury had another Farenheit 451 in him. At the time, this meant very little to me. I had yet to exhaust the works of Charles Dickens, Joseph Mitchell, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack Kerouac, The Beatles, Salvador Dali, et al. The sad fact of the finite supply of the work of great ones was years away for thirteen year old me, just like the sad fact of my own finite supply of life. Now, being a lot older and maybe a teensy bit wiser, the finiteness of everything is a painful fact of existence.
Much like Mr. Bradbury, the great thing about Alfred Hitchcock is a prolific list of work, much of which is as close to perfect as cinema ever gets. Unlike Mr. Bradbury though, Hitchcock is decidedly not alive. He is, as a wise man once said, not only merely dead, but really and sincerely dead. Alfred Hitchcock will never shout “Action!” again. The universe posses a finite supply of Hitchcock and once a cinema lover exhausts that supply, that’s it. The you’ll be reduced to cruising Netflix and Amazon recommendations for things “like” The 39 Steps. As if.
And then… hope is reborn. In 1989 Jack Murtagh of Hastings, New Zealand discovered some film cans labelled Two Sisters and Unidentified American Film in his garden shed. Those film cans were donated tot he National Film Preservation Foundation where they remained, mislabeled, for years. In the summer of 2010, the NFPF announced that uhm, those 3 reels were actually half of the 6 reel film The White Shadow, previously believed to be lost. The movie got itself restored, and had a few screenings, and made it’s permanent home in the New Zealand Film Archive. Has finite Hitchcock been transformed into infinite Hitchcock?
Of course not, silly. It’s half a movie, and one that isn’t really a Hitchcock film. Young Hitch (or as ostensible The White Shadow director Graham cuts probably called him, that uppity little f*ck) is credited with writing the scenario, designing the set, and serving as assistant director. However, the plot about twin sisters, one evil, one good, sounds tres Hitchcockian. Watching/reading/listening to an artist’s earliest work is often as instructive as Watching/reading/listening to his best work is. In other words, I WANT TO SEE THIS MOVIE. NOW.
Will I get to see it? That remains the question. As a silent film fan, I’m all too familiar with the label “presumed lost.” But while the word lost haunts my dreams, I see hope, if not infinite hope, in the word presumed. And as much as I’m plagued by all that remains lost, I remain committed to the idea that when we do find it, we owe to everyone to make it as public as possible. I think the NFPF’s goal of streaming The White Shadow is commendable – not only nice, but necessary. In a universe of finite Hitchcock, I’ll take every frame I can get.