Early & Silent Film

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The First Born UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

first-born

This British silent film from 1928 was re-discovered and restored by the British Film Institute. The film is a subtle and witty parable on married life and the bourgeois mores of the period. It adds to the re-evaluation of British silent film in recent years, joining a growing list of productions that are both intelligently scripted and made with a distinctive style and noticeable technical quality.

The film is also interesting because it benefits from the talents of a number of extremely able filmmakers. The film was produced for Gainsborough under the auspices of Michael Balcon. He is a producer whose impact over decades on British film is equal too or greater than many of the valued auteurs who usually garner the most attention. The film was designed by W. C. Arnold, whose distinctive sets gave such impact to an earlier Gainsborough film, The Rat (1925). And the film stars Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll.

The film was directed also by Miles Mander, less well known for directing than for acting. He was a character actor whose typical role was as ‘a moustachioed cad’: he plays a bigamist in Hitchcock’s early silent The Pleasure Garden (1925). However, Mander had some experience in theatre, as an actor-director. He had also worked with the Swedish film director Gustaf Molander. Both The First Born and later directorial outings show a continental influence in the use of the camera and in editing practices.

Mander adapted the film from his own stage play ‘Those Common People’. In some ways his fellow-scenarist in the adaptation is the most interesting, Alma Reville, usually listed as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally regarded as the auteur par excellence. In fact, as with many other noted filmmakers, his work relies to a great degree on the talent of his collaborators. His British films benefited from the scriptwriting talent of Charles Bennett. He worked with notable cameramen, designers, editors and gifted actors like Peter Lorre, Robert Donat and indeed Madeleine Carroll. Michael Balcon was his mentor. Quite possibly though Alma was his most important muse. She was already established in the industry when Hitchcock entered it as young man. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter, but her career was subordinated to that of her husband: very much the norm in the industry of that time. Hitchcock always acknowledged that he discussed his films daily with his wife. So there is a tantalising question mark over the status of Alma Reville.

Intriguingly the film features a triangle, Miles Mander as Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll as Lady Madeleine Boycott and John Loder as Lord David Harborough. Sir Hugo is a philanderer and abuses his wife. This partly motivates the romantic but chase affair between Madeleine and David. At a crucial point in the film Hugo physically attacks his wife. But David is away in London, the ‘absent lover’. This is a not uncommon motif but one that appears regularly throughout the career of Hitchcock. Whose motif?

Some light was shed on this by the introductory talk before a screening of the film at the National Media Museum. The talk was by Nathalie Morris from the British Film Institute. She has written on ‘The Early Career of Alma Reville’ (in the Hitchcock Annuals, 1 to 15, 2009). This bought an added dimension to the film, as did the live music performed by Darius Battiwalla. He had already established a high standard of accompaniment at earlier Bradford screenings such as The Rat (1925) and Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). The film was screened as part of the Bradford International Film Festival.

Originally posted as a preview.

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One Response to “The First Born UK 1928”

  1. Paula Rhodes said

    I’m trying to trace my husband’s grandmother who, according to family legend, was a silent film star in the UK – her name was Agnes Grace Potter also known as Peggy – she was born in 1900 and died in 1944…does this name ring a bell with you at all? Thanks

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