Miles Mander was a film actor and director in interwar Britain, whose legacy was somewhat forgotten until the BFI restored his directorial debut feature The First Born (1928) in 2011. Anyone who has seen Mander on screen is unlikely to forget it; his features – which have earned him the description of a ‘character actor’ on his Wikipedia page – are not those of the square-jawed, chiselled romantic hero. Instead there is usually a hint of untrustworthiness to his performances, a slyness that gives the viewer pause. Directors used this ambiguity when casting Mander in roles as the emotionally manipulative antagonist.
Mander was born in Wolverhampton in 1888 to a prominent local family. His brother Geoffrey became a Liberal MP for Wolverhampton in 1929. As an MP, Geoffrey played a prominent role in film censorship debates in the 1930s, passionately arguing against the implementation of a strict, state-run censorship body on the premise that that would unduly infringe on the right to freedom of expression. The potential conflict of interest of an MP influencing legislation that would directly impact his brother’s career appears not to have been a concern.
Miles Mander attended the prestigious public school in Harrow in line with the family tradition, but in his twenties he decided to take a different path. He spent some time in New Zealand as a sheep farmer and learnt how to fly planes – during the Great War he served in the Air Auxiliary Corps. He was first married to the daughter of a Maharaja; in 1923 he married a second time to an Australian woman, Kathleen French. In 1925 she starred alongside him in an Adrian Brunel-directed comedy short where she was billed as ‘Mrs Miles Mander’ – but this appears to have been the extent of her acting career. Kathleen and Miles had a son, Theodore, who starred as the son of Mander’s character in The First Born.
Mander started his acting career in the 1920s, and he was able to use his colourful life experience up until that point in his work. As noted above, early on in his career he collaborated with fellow old Harrovian, director Adrian Brunel – Mander produced Brunel’s first feature film The Man Without Desire (1923). In 1925, Mander was cast in a lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, The Pleasure Garden.
In this role, Mander could draw on the experiences he had in his twenties, living abroad. His character, Levet, becomes romantically involved with a British woman, Patsy, in London and convinces her to marry him. Shortly after the marriage, Levet has to move to Africa for work. After a while, Patsy hears that Levet has been very ill, so she decides to travel to Africa to look after him. When she arrives, however, she finds out that Levet has entered into a relationship with a local woman, who was unaware that he was married. The local woman (who is only known as ‘Native Girl’ and who does not appear on the film’s credits) becomes understandably upset with Levet; the argument culminates with Levet drowning the woman in the sea. Levet becomes wrecked with guilt and paranoia and becomes convinced that he must murder Patsy, too, in order to find peace. Before he can follow through with it, he himself is shot dead. Levet’s overall part in The Pleasure Garden is actually relatively minor; the scenes in Africa all take place in the final five minutes of the film. For most of the film’s running time Mander is not on screen, but this early role sets the tone of his later parts.
After The Pleasure Garden Mander took on some more acting roles, playing the part of upper-class British gentlemen. He also spent some time in Germany where he acted in about half a dozen films in 1927 and 1928. In 1928 however, he tried his hand at directing himself, for the first time. The result was The First Born, in which Mander also played the protagonist, Sir Hugo Boycott. The world of The First Born is one which Mander was familiar with through his family’s background: Sir Hugo is an aspiring MP and the film’s climax takes place on election night.
The First Born is a melodrama: Sir Hugo is married to Madeleine, but the couple are unable to conceive a son and heir. Madeleine becomes increasingly desperate and considers having an affair with a friend in order to get pregnant, and pass the baby off as Hugo’s. Eventually Madeleine has a son; the audience is kept in the dark as to his parentage. Hugo, in the meantime, is having an extramarital affair. On election night, Hugo and his mistress have an argument in the corridor of her apartment building; in the midst of it, Hugo stumbles and falls to his death down the lift shaft. In an ironic twist, is revealed to the audience that Madeleine’s son was Hugo’s, after all.
In The First Born Mander cast himself in the role of an unpleasant, privileged man; the audience’s sympathies are squarely with Madeleine. Mander apparently had no desire to present himself as the romantic hero, instead opting for a role with complexity. After The First Born Mander directed another five features, but he never cast himself in them again. He did continue to act in others’ films, for example playing an older, wealthy man who attempts to break up a young romance in Bitter Sweet (1933); taking the part of the sly private secretary Wriothesley in Korda’s Private Life of Henry VIII (1933); playing the rival race driver to the hero in Death Drives Through (1935); and portraying King Louie XIII in The Three Musketeers (1935).
Mander directed his last feature, The Flying Doctor, in 1936, after which he made the move to Hollywood. In his first American film, Lloyds of London, he acted alongside Madeleine Carroll, who he had given her big break in The First Born (and also cast in his third feature, Fascination). He continued to find opportunity to play British roles in American films, such as playing Benjamin Disraeli in Suez (1938) and acting alongside Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in a US production of Wuthering Heights (1939). The Three Musketeers story also continued to give him employment; he appeared as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1939) and as Aramis in The Man in the Iron Mask later that same year. Mander continued to act in films until his unexpected death in 1946.
On the one hand, Miles Mander’s career is unusual; particularly in his early career he had a wide range of interests and seemed reluctant to follow a set career path. On the other hand, his family background and education ensured he had access to great connections; aside from Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock, he also worked closely with Leslie Howard, A.A. Milne, Ivor Novello, and other familiar names. Ultimately, Mander’s career shows that even in an industry as new and dynamic as the film industry in the 1920s, coming from an established family background did have its advantages.
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 92-96
 ‘The First Born (1928) dir. Miles Mander: Rediscovery of a stunning late 1920s melodrama’, British Film Institute. Accessed 20 February 2021.