Exciting news of a new silent Bluray release from the BFI, with Anthony Asquith’s smashing Shooting Stars finally getting the treatment it deserves. Little known outside the circles of British silent film fandom, this is a release not to be missed. For guidance we turn to the the capable Asquith fan Mark Fuller to tell us all about this fine new edition!
Mae Feather sits in a cherry tree, her adoring cowboy lover at her side, mounted on a horse, whispering sweet nothings. The horse spooks away; Mae laughs, she takes her pet dove and kisses it. It pecks her in return, and flies off. Off into the rafters of the Cricklewood film studios.
Thus starts Shooting Stars, the latest (and long-awaited) British silent film release from the BFI. Usually billed as the directorial debut of British cinema’s long serving Anthony Asquith, the truth is a bit more complicated. Asquith, the son of former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, was a young man in a hurry. He was, or wanted to be a defining member of the second generation of British filmmakers. Asquith came after the generation of pioneers like Cecil Hepworth, George Pearson, and Maurice Elvey who as they were heading into middle age were being surpassed by a more cynical younger generation, led by Alfred Hitchcock, and eventually Michael Powell. Hitchcock had already made his mark; Powell would not debut his first feature until 1930, but meanwhile Asquith had already been touting his script around London for some time.
No doubt having a famous surname and an expensive education helped open a few doors, as it had done a year or two earlier, when he had been touring Hollywood studios and talking film with the star names of the day. But it would be his enthusiasm, knowledge and, in the end, talent that would keep the doors open until H. Bruce Woolfe of British Instructional Films took a punt. He agreed to take on Asquith, and his film script, but he would get J.O.C. Orton to iron out the kinks in the screenplay. The ‘safe-pair-of-hands’ A.V. Bramble was taken onboard to supervise things, and was to be credited as director but as the title card makes plain, this would be Shooting Stars by Anthony Asquith.
The opening sequence then is a satirical stab at the state of play in British film production and the facilities and personnel working within it. Two films are being made simultaneously in this British low-rent dream factory. On the one side we have a romantic western drama, Prairie Love, that stars our two lead characters, Mae Feather (Annette Benson) and the cowboy lover, played by her husband Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne). On the other side we have the distinctly second division slapstick comedy starring Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop), who also happens to be Mae’s secret lover! Hints are made as to why Mae would prefer the unprepossessing Wilks over handsome but bland Gordon; is it the hints that Wilks might be on his way to Hollywood? Is it that Gordon seems to struggle to match his onscreen persona, preferring to watch himself in the local cinema (a wonderful sequence echoed in Asquith’s later film A Cottage On Dartmoor). Or even that he prefers to sit at home assiduously polishing his weapon while his wife is being courted by Wilks at the theatre? What is a girl to do?
The film is cherishable on so many levels, and does succeed in having its cake in eating it. The film deftly satirizes the British silent film era while displaying exactly what it was capable of! The films we see being made are pretty awful, helmed naturally by rather dull middle-aged men but with a grizzled technical crew capable of turning sow’s ears into purses, if not necessarily silk ones. Furthermore the filming process of the time is laid bare, the dodgy props, the casual attitude to health and safety, the musicians on-set creating the right ambience for the players, as well as the gallows humour which absolutely rings true. In one comic scene the hardened technicians decorate that dove for its bravery.
I’m not saying it’s a factual film, details of real life behind the scenes are to be found in the generous extras package of this BFI release. Instead there are details for the observant that you don’t read about in books. Plus there is the roll-call of supporting actors, quietly going about their business of stealing scenes as they would for many years. Among these ranks we find Calthrop himself, of course, whose own career came to a sticky, scandalous end, the craggy Judd Green, seldom credited but often popping up in small roles, Wally Patch, who must have worked with everyone over his career, and whose 250+ roles in his IMDb listing runs from the silents to 1970’s TV sitcoms. Making her debut in this film is the lovely Chili Bouchier as a Clara Bow-esque actress. But there are others, even less well known screen stars making their mark, such as Ella Daincourt as the ludicrous studio columnist for Flicker magazine.
This is a truly remarkable film. The title alone is a triple-pun; there is the shooting of the filmstars, there is that gun, and what do shooting stars do but burn brightly before plunging to Earth? The love-triangle plot does not proceed as you might suspect, and the ending is surprising, even possibly a little shocking in its callousness, but absolutely stunning in its own right. Asquith was an avid cineaste, a regular screenings of The Film Society (and eventually a key figure there) and had thus had absorbed all sorts of lessons in filming angles, editing techniques and lighting from the best of cinema, worldwide. And if it’s your debut you have to use every trick you’ve ever seen. Dr Luke McKernan, quoted in the accompanying booklet, has placed this film, as an outstanding directorial debut, alongside Citizen Kane. A bold claim, but it certainly made a huge splash on release; Asquith would not, after all, have to worry about whether he would ever make a second film, his career was assured for a while at least, as he instantly became a hot property in the British industry. Indeed a long career would follow, with many highlights over the decades, but never really recapturing the verve and excitement of his work up to and including his first sound film, Tell England, itself overdue a reappraisal, a restoration and release.
But let’s not quibble, we have now the three most canonical Asquith silents available for our delectation and delight from the BFI: Shooting Stars, Underground and A Cottage On Dartmoor. The restoration of this title is just stunning. Those of us who had seen prior presentations of the film adored it despite its little flaws, the scratches, the missing frames, the various signs of an elderly film. Those are for the most part, gone in this new release. There is a little hint, no more, of where the decay was beginning to affect the picture, but for 99% of the time the beautiful cinematography, and gorgeous lighting, are shown at their very best. The score, a jazz-inflected one for a small band led by John Altman is excellent, matching the mood of the film very well. It is subtle and never becomes over-prominent. This from myself, an avowed non-jazz fan, is high praise! The package as a whole is exemplary, with a fine booklet crammed with essays on the film, its context, and the score, all fully illustrated. The on disc extras comprise rare newsreel shorts depicting life behind the cameras at British studios of the time (in Standard Definition, and unrestored, a telling contrast with the main film). Alongside this is “Become a Film Star” -type publicity footage featuring George Pearson directing a screen test for a young hopeful, with the assistance from the youthful actress Moyna MacGill (Angela Lansbury’s mother). Another shows Sybil Rhoda, who would later work with Hitchcock in Downhill, testing opposite Moore Marriott. If that wasn’t enough we also get a pdf of the original shooting script of Shooting Stars, and a gallery of stills and publicity material!
To sum up, this is the best BFI release of a British silent yet; they just keep getting better! It helps that the film is a copper-bottomed yet overlooked masterpiece, but the BFI, under the leadership of Upekha Bandaranayake and Bryony Dixon, have really pulled out all the stops to make sure the package matches the film. Congratulations to them, now go out and buy it! You will not be disappointed.
A fine release, and those interested should of course take themselves over to the BFI shop to preorder their copy of Shooting Stars today!