|The First Born (1928) – Silent
Run time: Approved | Drama
Director: Miles Mander
Writers: Miles Mander, Alma Reville
Stars: Miles Mander, Madeleine Carroll, John Loder
Directed by and starring Miles Mander, this is considered to be one of the finest British films of the late-silent period. The film is a “topical tale of a hypocritical, philandering politician who exploits his wife to mop up the woman’s vote.” (Though the film was made in 1928, it was not released until 1929, the year in which women under 30 were given the vote in Britain for the first time.)
English character actor Miles Mander is one of the countless film figures whose careers never quite lived up to early promise. Mander is (slightly) remembered today for his long stint in small roles in Hollywood films of the 1930s and '40s. "The First Born" was Mander's shining moment as a writer/director/leading man, but his moment doesn't quite shine brightly enough. "The First Born" was originally a novel written by Mander, which he then adapted as a drawing-room drama that was staged in London, in a brief West End production directed by Mander with himself in the lead role. This film version, again directed by and starring Mander, features a screenplay co-written by Mander and Alma Reville, better known as Mrs Alfred Hitchcock and the primary influence on her husband's long successful career.
My wife and I attended the last-ever screening of the last known print of "The First Born". This was in the private collection of film historian William K. Everson. In 1988, Everson projected his print of "The First Born" for a one-off screening at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The nitrate print was seriously degraded, and the projection of this movie was interrupted several times because the film kept breaking or bubbling. I felt acutely aware that the simple act of screening this film was literally abetting its destruction, right before my eyes.
The lead role in "The First Born" is Lady Boycott, sensitively played by the spectacularly beautiful Madeleine Carroll. She's trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy but cruel husband (very well-played by Mander, whose sharp features typecast him in unsympathetic roles). Lady Boycott uses her husband's wealth to help other people … such as her manicurist, who is unmarried but has suddenly found herself pregnant.
When Lady Boycott learns that her husband is a chronic philanderer who doesn't love her, she decides to adopt the manicurist's child so as to have somebody who loves her and needs her. SPOILERS: You'll probably never see this movie, so I'll tell you the ending. The climax of this film is impressively photographed and framed, and shows real talent on Mander's part as a director. Boycott (Mander) and his wife are in their penthouse flat, arguing about something just as Boycott is about to go out for the day and leave his wife home alone yet again. He strides out to the hall, presses the button for the lift, then turns back to snarl one final insult at his wife. (This is a silent film, but the dialogue is well-paced through clever editing of the intertitles.) While Boycott is facing his wife, we see the lift door opening behind him. But Boycott tarries too long, and the lift departs without him … just as Boycott turns and steps into the empty lift shaft. Going down, sir?
During the 1988 screening of this movie at the New School, the frequent interruptions in the projection booth (every time the film broke) gave plenty of opportunities for audience members to discuss the soap-opera plot of this drama. "Wouldn't it be ironic," I said to my wife, "if Lady Boycott's manicurist was also her husband's mistress, and the child she adopted is actually her husband's love-child?" Sure enough, this is exactly what happens … although Lady Boycott doesn't learn the truth until after her husband's death. She inherits his money, so there's a semi-happy ending.
UPDATE: After I posted the above review, I learnt that the British Film Institute possess an excellent print of 'The First Born'. This demonstrates that major archivists (William K Everson and BFI) don't always apprise each other of their holdings. Many films which are supposedly 'lost' eventually prove to have been held in an established archive without the knowledge of other archivists. Never call a film 'lost' unless you've looked in all the proper places first.
I must disagree with the reviewer who says that the major flaw in the film is Sir Hugo's death. Of course lift doors are not supposed to open when no lift is there, but look what happened to Sterling Moss only recently, who accidentally fell down a lift shaft because the lift was not there!
Silent films allowed film makers to push censorship boundaries without appearing to do so, since no words are actually spoken. Thus the fact that the manicurist is pregnant only becomes apparent as she and Lady Boycott soundlessly talk to each other. The confirmation is in the inter-title, "He said he would look after me" (or words to that effect).
The clip with the Rolls Royce knocking over the bicycle indicated precisely in a couple of frames the characters of the people in the film. Other very effective clips were the overhead shot of the dining table, and the scenes at the hustings, though I was not quite sure exactly what Lady Boycott was saying (though it didn't affect the result of the election).
It is actually quite interesting the number of films made in the twenties and thirties centred around illegitimate children. Hindle Wakes (the silent 1927 version in particular) is a particular classic of the genre.
The previous comment gives a full summary of the film, so except for one error- which is a massive spoiler, so I'll leave it to the end- I won't summarise the plot. Mander's astonishing film is almost a masterpiece, even in the truncated version that is left; if there is a problem, it is that he puts too much into it: infidelity, the 'double standard', illegitimacy, 'passing off', miscegenation, politics…all human life is there, and very well conveyed too. Well-photographed, with every scene relevant to the plot- for example, the way Nina's car disregardingly knocks over a bicycle as it leaves the kerb shows her personality perfectly, well-acted- one of the worst effects of sound on British cinema, I think, was the effect of accents; people were comic or grotesque or were required to use Received Pronunciation, no matter how inappropriate; with appropriate settings and scenes- a dinner party looks very much as though it is lit only by the four lamps on the table- an unrealistic scene, but astonishingly effective.
It isn't after a quarrel with his wife but with Nina, who has become his mistress, that Boycott dies- there's an effective scene, on the night of his unexpected return from Africa, showing their mutual seduction; the big flaw in the film, in fact, is that even in the 1920s, lifts can't possibly have been as hazardous as they are shown here and there's nothing in the film to make his death likely. There's no reason why Boycott shouldn't become an M.P. with many more mistresses and a miserable wife who pretends to be devoted to him. The only death I know that is more preposterous and arbitrary is that of Savaranola Brown.