The White Shadow (1924)
Part of a two-picture deal starring the American actress Betty Compson, The White Shadow (1924) was the second picture from British director Graham Cutts, following in the footsteps of the highly successful Woman to Woman (1923).
Betty Compson had accepted the role in Woman to Woman through the newly formed Balcon-Savile-Freedman team on condition that her contract should be for two films. She arrived in London 10th May 1923 and filming on Woman to Woman was complete within 3 months. The two picture deal proved to be a costly mistake because seemingly Graham Cutts and his team were so engrossed in the first production they had made few preparations for the second picture and had no other property ready to exploit for their expensive American star. As a result, shortly after completing Woman to Woman in the summer of 1923, they rushed into production with what must have been, a rather hasty adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock of another Michael Morton novel called Children of Chance.
The White Shadow, which had originally been called The Awakening and then The Eternal Survivor, was billed as the same star and same production team as Woman to Woman. Thus, besides being directed by Graham Cutts (assisted by C.N. Russell), the photography was by Claude McDonnell, scenario by Alfred Hitchcock and Dolly Tree designed the gowns.
The plot was extremely convoluted and was built around the tale of twin sisters (Nancy and Georgina Brent played by Betty Compson) who differed in temperament, character and disposition and suffer tragedy. Georgina was wistfully charming and self-sacrificing while the unrestrained Nancy was the devilishly fascinating idol of the Paris underworld. The story followed a man who falls in love with a girl who is then deceived by her twin sister into loving her so that her sister’s reputation may not suffer and then sacrifices the love she feels so that her now repentant twin may be happy. The implausible storyline featured mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls.
Robin Field (Clive Brook) falls in love with Nancy Brent coming over on the boat from Paris. She is strong willed and intemperate, like her father, but she has a twin., Georgina who is entirely opposite. The existence of the sister is unknown to Field. One day Nancy runs away from home to Paris before her love from Robin matures, where she leads a wild life in the Paris. Her drunken father (A.B. Imeson) beside himself with grief at the disappearance of his daughter follows her to Paris. No news comes through of either of them and the mother (Daisy Campbell) prostrated with grief dies. Georgina inherits the estate, moves to London and presumably at this point has dealings with Herbert Barnes
(Olaf Hytton) who plays a lawyer in a conventional stage villain manner. To save her sister’s reputation she pretends to Robin that she is Nancy and finally falls in love with him.
One of Robin’s friends, Paris Art student Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) sees Nancy in Paris and Robin begins to believe that Georgina is leading a double life. Georgina hearing of this goes to Paris and finds Nancy in a Paris cabaret and explains what has happened to her family. After this, thinking she has taken Robin’s love under false pretences, Georgina breaks down and goes to a sanatorium in Switzerland. Finally, she persuades Nancy to take her place there and so when Robin follows he finds the woman he first loved. Georgina dies and her soul passes into the body of her twin, this altering Nancy’s entire nature. Eventually, all ends happily after the deception is explained and Nancy’s father is rediscovered and restored to sanity.
Cutts started work on the preliminaries of The White Shadow in late June 1923 and by July was filming exterior scenes in rural Devon, London, Paris and Switzerland, before the bulk of the film was shot once again in the old Famous Players Lasky Studio at Poole Street, Islington.
In mid August, with Michael Morton as an absorbed spectator, filming of the Montmartre cabaret scene took place that was described as a big part of the picture. The set was apparently impressive and striking but far from gorgeous, implying that the cabaret was not meant to be one of the more salubrious Parisian venues but most definitely one that was off the beaten track.
It was a long gallery, opening onto a boulevards, with plain stairs descending to the main floor with a couple of refreshments bars in big alcoves beneath the gallery, unadorned boards on the floor and very ordinary furniture and fittings and mirrors, plate glass and marble featuring in the décor.
Crowds of various types (including Tom Waters as an ultra old bohemian artist, Harry Ashton in the guise of corpulent Frenchman and Dorine Beresford in a piquant dancing dress pirouetted by the piano for the delectation of the clients) occupied chairs around many small tables. The entire atmosphere was carefree and reckless with everyone chatting and sipping various drinks. It presented a wonderful picture ‘the Gallic irresponsible happy-go-lucky atmosphere had been wonderful caught’ and the scene was regarded as being more Parisian than anything seen in Paris!
Cutts with the energetic assistance of C.N. Russell directed some full-length shots. A harmless stranger – played by Bert Darley – entered from the street and descended the stairs, he shook off a woman sat on the stairs who gripped his foot, then a man stood up and noticed him, soon all the crowd rose and yelled ‘get out’. The intruder fled and then another visitor Louis Chadwick (played by Henry Victor) arrived and the same thing happened except this character treated everything as a joke and shouted back something rude and was welcomed by the throng. This was a precursor for several close up shots of Betty Compson in the cabaret.
When the film was given its trade show preview in February 1924, the three main reviews were all in accord criticising the story and the lack of continuity but praising the productions values.
Motion Picture Studio thought that although the central idea was a good one, there was a lack of excellence, an unconvincing theme without any real plausibility and that haste had something to do with the picture’s shortcomings in terms of the essential qualities of story and sincerity. As a whole the treatment was careless to the extent that the interest in the story practically ceased after the first two reels.
‘When a production is made in this country with the pick of British stars and the added commercial and artistic presence of a pretty and clever American screen actress of great box office repute one is entitled to expect a better result than The White Shadow…. If the picture had been the first effort of a modest little firm one could understand more readily some of the shortcomings and their causes’.
Further, they thought that the picture had been indifferently edited and titled with stilted sentimentality and bad phraseology. However, they also observed that there was plenty of evidence in the picture of expenditure and Claude McDonnell’s photography was deemed to be even better than in Woman to Woman and the technique of double photography splendidly done.
Kine Weekly thought that opportunities had been missed and the action instead of bringing character into play was mechanical and jerky. ‘There is a complete lack of conviction in the way in which the sisters are mistaken for each other, and no attempt at a coherent and well-proportioned sequence of events. Everything happened in a haphazard sort of way as though the plot had been evolved as the production progressed’.
They believed that although Cutts started the story well as soon as Nancy ran away to Paris the action proceeded in a disjointed way by being transported in rapid succession to Paris, back to England, to Paris again, then to Switzerland and finally back to England. There was no attempt to lead gradually to these changes – the changes in scene were too abrupt and happened too fast. They also thought that Betty Compson suffered from the lack of dramatic unity and since she was hardly allowed off the screen for a minute this gave little chance to develop the other characters.
Kine Weekly also took issue with the credibility of certain themes. They did not like the idea of the twins being mistaken for each other by Robin Field since so many characters had seen them together and they are so frequently in the same place, that his ignorance becomes unconvincing. The father’s madness was also affected in this quick-change manner. He disappears for the major part of the story and reappears by being knocked down by a car driven by his daughter and Robin; this occurs in a back slum so that the long arm of coincidence is palpably made to over reach itself.
However, they thought that the technical qualities were excellent and the scenic backgrounds both in England and Switzerland very picturesque and artistically used. To conclude Kine Weekly added ‘owing to the star’s popularity, the producers former successes and the excellence of the technical qualities, this picture will prove a stronger attraction than the story and construction warrant’.
Bioscope thought that no expense has been spared to make the production an entertainment on a lavish scale but also took issue with the story. Instead of taking advantage of the possibilities for realism and making an attempt at convincing characterisation the plot was ‘so confusing as to be at times bewildering’. As a result they thought that Cutts was happier when dealing with effective scenic backgrounds rather than in the handling of his artists.
They thought that the perpetual double photography depicting the twin sisters was ingeniously contrived but created a situation where it became tiresome trying to distinguish between the two characters and as a consequence there was in fact too much of Betty Compson on the screen. They also thought that this monopoly by one artist gave the other actors little chance to shine. For example, Clive Brook as Robin Field has little to do except shake hands. Equally, they found the rapid transition of the father (A.B. Imeson) from proud country squire to street scavenger far too swift and melodramatic to allow the actor an opportunity to make the character convincing.
In conclusion Bioscope thought that ‘the best part of the production is the magnificent settings, photography and lighting which are worthy of a better plot. As a whole the White Shadow makes fair entertainment as a conventional melodrama, admirably staged (both in the lavish interiors and unusual continental exteriors) and featuring a well-known American star.’
Seemingly The White Shadow was released in America as White Shadows via Selznick in May 1924 but it did not come out in the UK until October 1924. Although there was plenty of evidence of expenditure in the picture as it was staged effectively with first class sets and costumes which included a big Montmarte cabaret scene it was regarded as a rather ordinary production which fell drastically short of the essential qualities of good story, sincerity and continuity and had a rather unconvincing theme which was indifferently edited and confusing to follow. The White Shadow became a box office disaster and wiped out the profit from Woman to Woman, which basically spelt the end of Balcon, Freedman and Savile.
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View the digital sampler
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Motion Picture Studio, Bioscope, Kineweekly