Friday, 21 October 2011

The sounds of silents... The First Born (1928)

Musical accompaniment has always played a major part in the most successful viewing of films from the silent era. Silent movies were never actually that silent and now there is so much new music.

2011 has been a great year for watching silent film with new and innovative musical performances. I have seen The Dodge Brothers trad Americana help bring Louise Brooks' Beggars of Life back to life at the BFI, Pola Negri's rediscovered Mania embellished with a vibrant new Jerzy Maksymiuk score performed by the Wrocław Leopoldinum chamber orchestra and twice witnessed Goldfrapp's Will Gregory and Portishead's Adrian Utley perform their amazing new score for Joan of Arc.

All have been musically excellent and have brought audiences closer to the films; helping us to reconnect and fully appreciate the depth of art in the older work. There's also something magical in the combination of the live performances with the images sealed on the celluloid. The spirit of the films is re-animated by the sound especially when it's live and without a safety net.

To the above list must be added the name of Stephen Horne whose musical support of The First Born at last night's London Film Festival Archive Gala performance was nothing short of exhilarating. Accompanied by Janey Miller on oboe and Martin Pyne on percussion, Mr Horne produced a totally sympathetic score that underpinned the story and contributed to an extraordinary level of engagement from the audience.

The music was soulful and melodically inventive with Janey Miller's mournful oboe particularly prominent. Elements from Gershwin's The Man I Love were woven into this story of the well-heeled selfish classes of whom only one truly follows her heart, patriotic themes drummed alongside another character's drive to become an MP whilst Stephen picked up a flute for the rhythmic change of pace of this character's time in the Dark Continent.

The audience response was synchronised by the music, we laughed along with and not at the film and some even gasped out loud during moments of peril! How can a jaded modern audience be wooed into the pace of such a film? It's so much about the music.

None of this takes away from what is an exceptional restoration by the BFI National Archive of a pretty smart movie! The First Born joins A Cottage on Dartmoor (also with accompaniment from Mr Horne) and Blackmail as amongst the best British late period silent films. It's directed with some panache by Miles Mander from a scenario he co-scripted with Alma Reville (Mrs Hitch no less) and features inventive cinematography throughout, including one startling sequence of hand-held work.

There are shots from acute angles, characters addressing each other via mirrors, dollies backing off to reveal and explain... and Gance-styled "flashbacks" showing inner lives.

Miles Mander stars as the weasel Sir Hugo Boycott a man with ill-fitting suits and a twisted moustache. He is doted on by his wife, Madeleine, played by the divine Madeleine Carroll, but she has not given him the child he wanted. So Hugo strops off to Africa to punish her and to pretty much do as he pleases. Loving and faithful throughout, Madeleine conceives of a plan that will lure him back. And, whilst Hugo makes merry with the local dancers she politely rebuts the advances of the handsome (very), well groomed and perfectly-attired David, Lord Harborough (John Loder).

Hugo returns following the arrival of their apparent first born child and they settle down as he pursues a career in politics as well as continuing his interest in other women, including one of Madeleine’s best friends. He is, as she later exclaims, "an utter cad!"

But Madeleine’s love is constant, they have a second child and Hugo is on course for Parliament: will the truth and love win out?

The restoration is simply amazing and rich in texture. Some sections looked almost pristine even on the Queen Elizabeth Hall's large screen from four rows out. There was a moment, staring at the fabric on Madeleine Carroll's sleeve that I felt lost in the image... unselfconsciously drawn into the heart of the film.

That was the image but it was also the sound.

Both worked together to give us an evening of uncomplicated pleasure. At the end the film and the musicians were applauded of the stage sent to the dressing room with cheers and beaming smiles... when was the last time I saw an audience so lifted by a film in this way?

Top notch entertainment and I'll be watching the whole thing again first chance I get.

Tip of the hat to Stephen Horne who played it and also to Pamela Silent London who recommended it in the first place!

There's a tantalising clip here: DVD next year BFI?!


  1. Hi Paul

    I can only say how lucky you've had, to participate in these events ... I live in a small town, and that sounds to me like a dream.
    jealous, that i feel....:-))))


  2. Londres tiene un montón de buenas oportunidades culturales, pero cuando estoy atrapado en un tren lleno de gente tratando de llegar al trabajo ... no es tan agradable!

    Sin embargo, el balance que hacemos bien!

    Gracias Roy!