THE FIRST BORN (Mander Production Syndicate, per/for Gainsborough Pictures, GB 1928)
Regia/dir: Miles Mander; prod: Miles Mander, Michael Balcon; scen: Miles Mander, Alma Reville, dalla pièce/from the play Common People e dal romanzo/and the novel Oasis di/by Miles Mander; f./ph: Walter Blakeley; mo./ed: Arthur Tavares; scg./des: Wilfred Arnold; didascalie/titles: Ian Dalrymple; cast: Miles Mander (Sir Hugo Boycott), Madeleine Carroll (Lady Madeleine Boycott), John Loder (David, Lord Harborough), Margot Armand (Sylvia Findlay), Ella Atherton (Nina de Landé), Ivo Dawson (Derek Findlay), Margaret Roach (Phoebe Chivers), John St. John (Dickie), Naomi Jacob (Dot), Bernard Vaughan (maggiordomo/butler), Walter Wichelow (Mr. Impitt), Beryl Egerton (domestica/maid), Theodore Mander (Stephen, il primogenito/the first born).
Didalscalie in inglese / English intertitles.
As an actor in British and Hollywood films, Miles Mander (1888-1946) was renowned for playing cads. He was the bigamous villain in Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden who drowned his wife in a scene where the camera teased us into expecting only a fond aquatic embrace. He played Honourables, Lords, Sirs, and Captains – characters socially acceptable on the surface, though his sharp, thin nose, rakish moustache, and watchful eyes generally indicated that he was never to be trusted with women. Yet there was much more to Mander than this. His horizons were broad. He’d been a motor racer and pioneer aviator; he’d farmed sheep in New Zealand; he wrote plays and novels; and his concern for Britain’s body politic led him to stand, unsuccessfully, as a Labour Party parliamentary candidate in the 1935 General Election. And in 1928, with The First Born, made independently for producer Michael Balcon, he presented himself as one of Britain’s most promising film directors.
Before The First Born, Mander had only directed several DeForest Phonofilm sound shorts. Like Welles with Citizen Kane, he gave himself no place to hide: he directed, took one of the lead roles, and with Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville crafted the script from his own material, previously presented as a play (Common People) and a novel (Oasis). He also cast his two-year-old son, Theodore, as the “first born” of the title. As Sir Hugo Boycott – aristocrat, parliamentary candidate, seriously unfaithful husband to the lovely Madeleine Carroll (this is her first major role) – Mander gave himself the kind of upper-class blackguard role contemporary audiences would have expected. Eyebrows wouldn’t have been raised, either, at the melodrama coursing through the plot, though its complex tangle of love, lust, fate, and amorality did lie a little outside the British norm.
What no-one could have expected was the film’s visual wit and sophistication. Mander and his technical team group and light characters, props, and settings with an intelligent eye for telling design and emotional resonance. The characters are introduced at the dinner table, isolated by the surrounding dark, pierced by the glare of two lamps. Walter Blakelely’s camera embarks on subjective prowls. Dissolves, insets, and ingenious editing give visual dynamism to dialogue exchanges that could easily have become a clutter of intertitles. Though a theatrical residue remains, Mander keeps thinking cinematically: still a rarity in British features in 1928, despite progress by the young sparks Hitchcock and Asquith.
Another of the film’s pleasures is the shading Mander gives his characters. Boycott the blackguard isn’t all black: Mander makes his public charm entirely credible. Alongside, Carroll’s Madeleine may appear foolish in her wifely devotion, but, warm and humane, she never comes across as a fool. Among the principals, only John Loder, tackling his first British part as the handsome admirer-in-waiting, seems a cardboard figure treading a narrow path.
Writing enthusiastically after the London trade show in December 1928, the New York Times reviewer perceived no obstacle for British audiences in the film’s lack of talk. Nonetheless, during 1929 The First Born was shunted aside, assisted no doubt by trade reviews that complimented Carroll’s acting and the technical side but queried its value as mass entertainment. “Leaves a nasty taste in the mouth,” thundered the Kinematograph Weekly; “Mander…cannot be very conversant with the average kinema-going public’s taste.” The Bioscope praised its “originality of outlook without eccentricity”, but when exhibitors read that it was “well suited to Continental trade”, they knew implicitly that it was not for them. It took Paul Rotha in his once-influential book The Film Till Now (1930) to pull The First Born out of oblivion for discerning audiences. Had it not been for editorial interference, he wrote, the film “would have been a unique instance of an English domestic tragic-comedy in the cinema”.
What editorial interference? No precise details are now known. But whatever its post-production travails, The First Born still displays abundant evidence of Mander’s talent as an inventive filmmaker. Five other lesser, more commercial features as director followed, concluding in 1936 with The Flying Doctor, filmed in Australia. After that, acting in Hollywood – and a career denied its full potential. – Geoff Brown