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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The First Born (1928)

The above silent film was recently restored from an old nitrate print in the BFI's Archives fleshed out with missing footage from a George Eastman House 16mm print and it premiered at the last London Film Festival.  We thought about applying for tickets, but our experience with previous similar premieres put us off -- namely waiting for ages while all the invited so-called VIPs drifted in to take the best seats and then suffering through a plethora of self-congratulatory speeches before the film was actually screened.  So we waited for its first subsequent showing at the National Film Theatre.  Even so, the trio providing the music wandered in some many minutes late and we were then 'blessed' by some nearly inaudible remarks from one of the curators, which seemed to go on ad nauseum.  How one must suffer for one's pleasures -- ha! 

Anyhow, how was the film?  The answer is interesting but more than a little flawed despite the hoo-hah on its re-emergence.  The film was co-written and directed by Miles Mander, based on his own novel and play.  Mander was a colourful character who enjoyed a varied selection of careers, from sheepfarming in New Zealand in his twenties, then novelist, aviator, radio journalist, playwright, would-be politician, and actor.  He is probably best known as the latter when he relocated to Hollywood in the late 1930s and took on a number of showy roles often as a somewhat slimy villain. The other two leads in this movie also went on to Hollywood careers: Madeleine Carroll -- here dark-haired but best known as the blonde female lead in "The 39 Steps" (1935) -- and John Loder amongst the more wooden handsome leading men of his day.

The film's co-writer was Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchock, and a flawed case could be made that this movie is on a par with Hitchcock's own early films.  It isn't!  Mander's directing debut has occasional inventive touches in the telling with the odd effective use of the camera, but by and large it is statically lensed in the old theatrical style.  The story concerns wealthy cad Mander married to Carroll; he goes off to Africa in disgust because she has been unable to provide him with a yearned-for man-child and enjoys his liaisons with dusky maidens.  In his absence she begins a flirtation with Loder and is encouraged by a vampish friend to do whatever might be necessary to furnish an heir for Mander and re-win his affections.  As luck would have it, her manicurist is 'in trouble' having been left in the lurch by the fellow who claimed he would marry her and Carroll convinces her to let her pass off the newborn child as her own.  Mander is immediately enthralled with the news and rushes back to the family home. Even after the couple subsequently manage to produce a second son, he is only interested in 'his' first-born.

However he is far from a reformed character and soon begins an affair with their mutual vampy friend, who knowingly hints that he may not be the child's father. Despite his decision to stand for Parliament in the area's "safe" seat, he and Carroll become more estranged and things come to the breaking point just before the election.  His sudden death down an open elevator shaft after an argument with his mistress is just about the only jump-in-your seat moment in this fairly stodgy film.  Carroll still refuses Loder's overtures thinking that Mander did truly love her in his heart of hearts, until the final (not unexpected) twist drives her into his arms.

This was another film-going experience in the category of "glad to have seen it, but once is enough".  One major problem is that despite his many would-be talents, Mander was just too inexpressive an actor to rise to the role he had written for himself -- fine in support, but not good enough for a lead.  Carroll was adequate, if not exciting, in the skimpy role provided, while Loder was well just Loderish.  Stephen Horne who wrote and performed the new score for the film showed his usual talent for bringing the silent screen to life -- except in this instance it was all just a bit too fortissimo and distracting to make the perfect merger of sound and image.
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