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It's insane to imagine now, in the era of Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs and being able to record movies off your DVR while you're on vacation, but a huge, huge percentage of the earliest films made are completely lost to history. This website estimates that only 10 or 15% of the movies made in the silent era-- that is, before synchronized sound came around in 1929-- exist to this day, and that includes movies from legends like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Eric von Stroheim. Even much more recently there are huge gaps in cinema history, including the intended ending for Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and Jackie Chan's feature film debut, Big and Little Wong.
When a complete version of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi landmark Metropolis was unearthed in 2008, it was one of the biggest cinematic re-discoveries in decades. Today's news isn't quite so monumental, but obsessive fans of Alfred Hitchcock-- and there are many-- can finally get closer to seeing the master's full work. Radio New Zealand News reports that three reels of The White Shadow, credited as Hitchcock's first ever film, have been discovered among some unidentified prints at the New Zealand Film Archive. Hitchcock didn't direct the movie, but is credited as writer, assistant director, editor and production designer, which was technically directed by Graham Cutts.
Only three of the original six reels of film have been unearthed, though, and as the Film Archive's CEO Frank Stark explained, they don't know which three they have-- it's "a real cliff-hanger," he said, hopefully while struggling to keep a straight face. It's unlikely this is going to be some kind of lost Hitchcock masterpiece to rival Vertigo or Psycho-- he spent a lot of times paying his dues in the English film system before stepping up as director on genuine classics like The 39 Steps and (the original) The Man Who Knew Too Much, and this was one of the earliest films with his name attached. Maybe the real hunt should be on for The Mountain Eagle, a lost Hitchcock film that came out right before his first hit The Lodger, and according to this article believed to be the superior film by those lucky enough to see it at the time. Hitchcock didn't agree, and claimed to be glad the movie was lost. I wonder what he'd think about us all assigning his name to The White Shadow, a movie he worked on when he was just 24?
If you live in New Zealand, hang tight to see if the Film Archive will hold a public screening of what are likely some scratchy reels of film. You know you're curious.