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First Born, The (1928)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of First Born, The (1928)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7,786 feet
DirectorMiles Mander
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ProducersM. Woolf
 Michael Balcon
ScenarioMiles Mander
 Alma Reville
Original playMiles Mander
PhotographyWalter Blakeley

Cast: Miles Mander (Sir Hugo Boycott, Bt.); Madeleine Carroll (Madeleine, his wife); John Loder (David, Lord Harborough); Margot Armand (Sylvia Finlay); Ella Atherton (Mme. Nina de Landé); Ivo Dawson (Derek Finlay)

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Society drama about a philandering husband with families in England and Africa.

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The First Born, adapted by Miles Mander from his own novel and play, deals with difficult subjects - the double standards of the upper classes, jealousy and secrecy, miscegenation, and the tension between conformity and a more modern morality. Sewn into the plot are also references to the world of politics, of which Mander had much experience, as the younger brother of Sir Geoffrey Mander, the eminent Liberal radical.

The story concerns the relationship between Sir Hugh Boycott (Mander) and his young bride Madeleine, sensitively played by a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll. Their relationship is intense and passionate but founders when she fails to produce an heir. He immediately reverts to type and leaves for North Africa where he has an African mistress and child. Meanwhile, she is persuaded by her decadent friend to pass off an illegitimate child as her in order to bring him back. (The story is strangely reflected in reality - the first born is played by Mander's own son Theodore and it was fairly well known that Mander and Carroll were involved romantically, well enough to bring his wife to the set to demand an explanation).

In the story the patched-up relationship, built on dishonesty, begins to fracture. The treatment is unusually 'adult' and made with skill and a degree of invention. The most striking example is a point of view shot with handheld camera as Boycott stalks through the marital bedroom to tease and torment his wife as she is in the bath. The film is masterly in its construction and continuity. There are moments very reminiscent of early Hitchcock - perhaps unsurprisingly, as Alma Reville was heavily involved with the preparation of the scenario. Could it be that the famous 'Hitchcock touch' is as much to do with Mrs as with Mr? Perhaps that would be to overstate the case but I was bemused by Paul Rotha's acerbic contention in The Film Till Now that the film, a very promising one in his view, had been ruined by a professional cutter brought in by the studio. As a professional cutter herself, what did Alma think of the result? We shall never know, but whatever the balance of contribution between Miles Mander as director and Alma Reville's scripting skills the film is a tour de force of late silent filmmaking.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. Trouble in the bedroom department (5:05)
2. The Longest Day in History (7:29)
Carroll, Madeleine (1906-1987)
Reville, Alma (1899-1982)
British African Stories
Silent Lovers