In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.
When you’re watching a silent film and the whole audience gasps in horror and surprise at the same time, you know it’s not a museum piece you’re looking at. The First Born was released in 1928, just as Britain was first being seduced by those new-fangled “talkies”, but it has more than enough tricks up its sleeve to tempt moviegoers in any decade.
Chosen as this year’s Archive Gala for the London Film Festival, The First Born is a disarmingly frank story of sex and love among the aristo set, shot with precocious flair. Actor Miles Mander directs, and also plays the lead: a scoundrel of a baronet named Hugo Boycott, whose marriage is inevitably in crisis. Hugo and Maddie’s relationship runs hot and cold. One day they’re falling into each other’s arms, the next they’re having one of their rows – and real shoe-flinging, bag-packing, door-slamming humdingers they are too. Maddie (Madeleine Carroll) blames the arguments on her own jealousy, which is to say her pain at Hugo’s philandering. But there is another reason for the couple’s unhappiness: their childlessness. Whether this is anything more than the baronet’s old-fashioned desire for an heir is open to question, but Maddie certainly believes a baby will solve her marital woes. Hugo’s behaviour is fairly abominable at every turn, but his wife’s decision to deceive him in order to save their marriage provides the drama’s fatal twist.
And this is a complex story, with the truth about the Boycotts’ marriage and the outward appearance of it constantly at odds – a conflict that comes to the fore horribly when Hugo runs for parliament and a distraught Maddie is forced to stump for him at a public meeting. We can’t hear what Maddie is saying, and there are no intertitles to help us, just her pained expression, and superimposed cheers of encouragement from the crowd: “Good old missus!” They think she’s a sweetheart, Hugo thinks she’s a monster. Fans of The Graduate (1967) will note the speed with which their faces fall in the cab journey home. It’s delicately done, but it’s a heartbreaking moment.
The First Born is a wonderfully well directed film, in fact, eliciting a tremendous, anguished central performance from Carroll, and a sizzling one from her irresistibly dashing “noble admirer”, David (John Loder). Both actors, like Mander himself, went on to further success – Carroll most notably in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Secret Agent (1936), and Loder in another Hitchcock film, Sabotage (1936). Mander’s only venal directorial sin is vanity: he gives himself far too many lip-curling closeups, and risks turning Boycott into a pantomime villain. Mander’s performance is enjoyable, but it is not a tenth as sophisticated as his co-star’s. His virtue on the other hand, is his audacious use of camera movement, dissolves and overhead angles to disorient and excite the narrative. There’s one prowling handheld tracking shot that plunges the audience straight into the psyche of a suspicious husband, running his hands over ruffled bedsheets. Elsewhere, a sequence of dissolving closeups of Carroll and her manicurist Phoebe shows the transferral of one idea between two minds: a folie à deux in the making. We’re in the latter stages of the silent era here – Mander had made short sound films before but this was his debut feature – and The First Born is the work of a confident director on top of his material and with creativity to spare.
That’s not to say that he was not ably assisted. The screenplay for The First Born was co-written by Alma Reville, a woman with many years’ experience in the film business, but yes, better known to us now as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s tempting to credit her with some of the film’s sophisticated touches – from its elegant structure, to its sparse use of intertitles and the sensitive portrayal of Maddie as far more than just a wronged wife. The First Born is never afraid of emotional complexity, from the ambiguities of Maddie’s friendship with David, and her betrayal by a close friend, to a brisk montage of painfully contradictory telegrams.
The quality of the film should stand for itself, and those who have seen it at festivals over the years have long championed The First Born as a lost British classic. Critics at the time of its release thought it was a bit “sordid”, but they said pretty much the same thing about Pandora’s Box (1929), so there’s no reason that a film this accomplished, and entertaining, shouldn’t be embraced by a wider audience in the 21st century. And that is why the BFI has showered so much love on it. We see it now in a more complete state than before – frames from a 16mm print found in the George Eastman House in New York have been spliced in where there were gaps in the BFI’s 35mm copy, reinstating an expression here, an exit there, to make the film a more smoothly satisfying experience. Cue marks, scratches and holes have been erased and the original, delicate tints restored. The film also now benefits from a fresh score – composed by Stephen Horne and performed live at the gala screening. It’s melodic, and elegant, but fantastically adept at ramping up the tension in the crucial moments. There’s a haunting theme, played on the oboe and underscored by percussion and piano, that seems to appear when Hugo’s own jealousy gets out of control; there’s a humorous use of the accordion when Maddie’s friend Nina raises a sardonic eyebrow; and a thunderous combination of piano keys and strings during an unexpected violent catastrophe.
The exquisite new score is the finishing touch in the rebirth of The First Born – a fascinating film, ripe for rediscovery.
Miles Mander’s edgy, sophisticated silent drama The First Born is one of the most exciting recent rediscoveries of British silent cinema – and it will be presented in style at this year’s London Film Festival.
A philandering politician, the double standards of the upper classes, jealousy, miscegenation and a generation torn between centuries of tradition and a more modern morality… the plot of The First Born feels not unlike a lost episode of Downton Abbey. Sir Hugo Boycott (Miles Mander) and his young bride (a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll) have a passionate relationship, but it founders when she fails to produce an heir. This is a surprisingly ‘adult’ film and made with both elegance and invention. Particularly surprising among Mander’s sometimes Hitchcockian box of visual tricks is a handheld camera sequence that allows the audience to become voyeur as Boycott stalks the marital bedroom to find his wife in the bath. The story is oddly reflected in reality: the ‘first born’ is played by Mander’s own son and it was well known that the leads were involved romantically – well enough known to bring Mander’s wife to the set to demand an explanation. This major new restoration by the BFI National Archive includes reinstated missing footage and the reintroduction of a beautiful range of tints.
This very special film will be screened at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank, with a new score by Stephen Horne, performed by three musicians. You can find out more about the film, and the score, here. The music you can hear on the extract above is not an extract from the new score, but a piece that Horne wrote especially for the clip. I think you’ll agree it sounds marvellous.
So, do you fancy a free pair of tickets to this special Archive Gala performance? To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to see The First Born at the London Film Festival, just answer this simple question:
The First Born was co-written by Alma Reville. Which famous film director was she married to?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Monday 10 October. The winner will be picked at random from the correct entries and emailed with the good news. Best of luck!
The London Film Festival‘s archive gala is rapidly becoming a highlight of London’s silent film calendar. This year continues the theme, presenting Miles Mander’s edgy melodrama The First Born in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank, with a new score by Stephen Horne. I spoke to Horne about his composition, and to Bryony Dixon of the BFI about the film, and wrote this short piece for the Guardian film blog.
The full lineup for the 55th London Film Festival has now been announced and I am pleased to say that this year’s Archive Gala film will be Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928) with a new score by Stephen Horne. The film will be screened with its new score at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre on 20 October 2011.
I’ll be writing more about the film in coming weeks, but for now I can tell you that The First Born is a sophisticated drama, adapted by Mander from his own novel and play, about a philandering politician and his wife. Mander plays the politician, Sir Hugh Boycott, and Madeleine Carroll is his unhappy wife. The couple are unable to have a child, which puts a further strain on their marriage and so Boycott’s wife attempts to dupe him into believing that someone else’s baby is his own…
The First Born … 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 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.
Dixon goes on to speculate whether the influence of Alma Reville, who co-wrote the film, might be due credit for some of the film’s Hitchcockian flourishes. In October, we will be able to judge for ourselves.
And of course, the other big news for silent film fans is that Michel Hazanavicius’s modern silent The Artist will be screening at the festival as well. Wonderful news.