The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) showed its affection for British silent films with its presentation of “The First Born,” a 1928 film directed by and starring Miles Mander. After screening 9 Alfred Hitchcock (mostly British) films in June at the Castro, the SFSFF presented The First Born as the first feature of the second day (July 19).
In The First Born, Mander plays Sir Hugo Boycott, a philandering nobleman married to Lady Madeleine Boycott (Madeleine Carroll). Although Madeleine is beautiful and extremely devoted to Hugo, he constantly cheats on her. The film, written by Mander and Alma Reville, begins with an title card announcing the separation of Hugo and Madeleine. The crestfallen Madeleine mopes around her social circle while Hugo goes to Africa to run around with a mistress. We learn that Hugo wants a child, which Madeleine cannot give him as the film commences. However, when a manicurist reveals her pregnancy and asks Madeleine to adopt her child, Madeleine sees it as a good play to get Hugo back. She sets off to the Italian lake district with the manicurist and comes back with baby Stephen.
Hugo, meanwhile, is having a whale of a time in Africa cavorting with his mistress. However, he does rush back to meet the new child who he thinks is his offspring. Hugo and Madeleine now have a chance for happiness, except that Hugo now notices that the handsome and very likable Lord David Harborough adores Madeleine. He soon questions the progeny of Stephen. Not that this deters Hugo from having trysts with other women. He still could care less about Madeleine’s feelings but he needs her by his side as he runs for the British Parliament.
Mander, playing Hugo, makes himself thoroughly detestable, but he somehow remains respectable in his noble circle. I found it odd that so many of Hugo and Madeleine’s high-class neighbors hang out at their house, considering the couple’s obvious problems. On his return, Hugo flirts with a female house guest while Madeleine awaits him in their bed. A later scene in which Hugo interrupts Madeleine while she takes a bath not only introduces a major plot point but it expertly shows the wide chasm of emotion between Hugo and Madeleine. The scenario also leaves room for Hugo’s redemption.
The producers of “Silent Britain (2006),” a documentary about the British silent era, mentioned The First Son as being notable for its daring depiction of sexuality and infidelity. The documentary laments the fact that British critics during the silent era tended the downplay the artistry of British films. Actually, British filmmakers provided many innovations and produced lots of quality films, including The First Son.