PPH @ LFF: The First Born and the Last of the Silent Era

I was lucky enough this week to attend the London Film Festival’s Archive Gala, which presented us with the latest in line of the BFI’s fine restorations of neglected British films, Miles Mander’s directorial debut The First Born.

The reappearance of this fascinating 1928 silent drama is timely, as the LFF audience has been treated to Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant new homage to the dying days of silent film, The Artist. While Hazanavicius focuses on Hollywood, The First Born is a very British film which consciously reflects its era’s societal changes, while unconsciously finding itself in the midst of a vast sea change in the history of cinema itself.

Mander stars as the caddish Sir Hugo Boycott opposite a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll, who plays his wife Maddie. With Maddie unable to produce an heir, and the couple quarrelling, Boycott leaves the country to travel to Africa. Retreating into London society, Maddie discovers a rather perilous solution to her problem, along with the attention of an admirer, and the film goes on to explore what were surely considered to be somewhat scandalous issues at the time with sensitivity and sophistication.

At the time that filming on the The First Born began, it would have been at the cutting edge of silent cinema. By the time of the film’s release, however, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, shot the previous year, had opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre and the age of the talkie had begun.  Just as The Artist covers a brief period when an established art form was about to be hit by the tidal wave of modernity, Mander’s film marks the end of an era in British cinema, while reminding us just how valuable much silent era British film was and is.

The issue of our attitudes to these films is reflected in the BFI’s excellent current campaign to “Rescue the Hitchcock 9”; the silent works of perhaps Britain’s greatest director, which have been much neglected and require substantial restoration. However, as Pamela Hutchison has observed in The Guardian (while previewing The First Born), the recent discovery of film reels by British director Graham Cutts in New Zealand was barely reported, and what coverage there was tended to concentrate on the footage’s Hitchcockian connections, rather than the reputation of Cutts himself. As Hutchison says, “by overstating [Hitchcock’s] influence we risk casting his peers into oblivion”. This new version of The First Born is certainly a step towards redressing that balance.

The shadow of Alfred the Great does fall across this film all the same. Mander appeared in films including Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden and Murder!, and his filmmaking style is clearly influenced by the director, while Carroll made perhaps her most famous appearance in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The most important link to Hitchcock comes with Mander’s choice of co-writer, Alma Reville. Reville was married to Hitchcock, but she was also a long-established screenwriter in her own right and her work on The First Born showcases the thematic influence she would later bring to her husband’s films. Furthermore, one particularly memorable scene features a voyeuristically Hitchcockian handheld camera shot, as Sir Hugo searches for his wife through the marital bedroom; a cinematographic device which seems well ahead of its time.

The BFI’s restoration of The First Born, aided by the loan of a 16mm print of the film from George Eastham House in the United States, features expertly restored lost scenes and repaired damage, and returns the beautiful amber, pink and lavender tints which would have decorated 1920s showings. This makes for a compelling and good looking film, but one of the real stars of this new screening was not part of the original. A brand new score by composer Stephen Horne was performed for the first time as part of the Gala screening and provided a rich, unusual compliment to the film’s many moments of romance and suspense.

Performed by a three piece, including Horne himself on piano and various other instruments, Maddie’s melancholy and despair are reflected by a mournful oboe motif, while the trio manage to work up an edge-of-seat racket during moments of suspense and even segue into World Music-style percussion during the Africa sequence. The score also weaves in elements of well-known melodies, with the use of ‘Rule Britannia’ during a scene in which budding politician Sir Hugo unleashes his rhetoric on a crowd both effective and amusing.

The First Born’s denouement delivers a couple of delicious, unexpected twists regarding the fate of Sir Hugo and Maddie’s initial attempt to win back his love, and despite its vintage, it’s a surprisingly modern film, not least its refusal to cast judgement upon its female protagonist. This restored version offers a ringing endorsement of the BFI’s work, as well as confirmation that the era of British silent cinema deserves more of our attention, both as a record of a time of cultural and technological change and for the relevance and power it can still offer today.

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