The reputation of Anthony Asquith — and, in particular, his significance as a silent-era filmmaker — has very much been re-established in recent years. The reappraisal has come about, largely, due to the efforts of the BFI National Archive, whose restorations of Asquith’s superb thrillers Underground (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) have met with great acclaim. Both films have revealed Asquith to be a great craftsman, whose assimilation of contemporaneous influences — from Soviet montage and German Expressionism to Hollywood — is given a highly original and distinctive twist due to its British context.
Debuted in the Archive Gala at last year’s London Film Festival and now available in a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD Dual Format Edition, Shooting Stars satisfyingly completes BFI’s restoration of Asquith’s silent film work. Asquith actually shares the directing credit for this film with A.V. Bramble, but the essays that accompany the BFI release very much promote the picture as Asquith’s vision.
Co-writer of the film with John Orton, Asquith’s screenplay featured highly detailed scenarist notes that guided the approach and direction of the piece. The end results may not quite match Underground or A Cottage on Dartmoor for thrilling impact, but they prove highly enjoyable nonetheless, not least for the insight that the film offers into ’20s movie-making in Britain.
The focus of Shooting Stars is cinema itself. The context for the story is the British studio system of the period, in which a slapstick comedy and a Wild West romance might be being shot back-to-back in the same studio. The female protagonist of the latter is one Mae Feather (Annette Benson), whom we meet as she plays a Griffith-esque heroine. However, Mae’s apparent winsomeness and composure is soon punctured when she gets pecked by her avian co-star.
The character’s capriciousness is further revealed as the film progresses. Like Underground and A Cottage on Dartmoor, Shooting Stars also presents a love plot in which erotic obsession leads to violence. Unhappily married to her co-star Julian Gordon (played by Brian Aherne, the porter in Underground), Mae falls for the Chaplin-esque clown Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop). Her decision to get her husband out of the picture (in both senses) drives the film’s second half, as the wry double meaning of the title becomes clear.
Half-affectionate and half-critical in its perspective, Shooting Stars mines both comedy and drama from the workings of the studio (the film was shot at Cricklewood, North West London), and considerable historical interest from its presentation of the machinations of movie-making at this time. From dressing rooms to fawning celeb interviews to location shooting (with a chilly Norfolk beach standing in for the Riviera) the film builds a picture of the industry that’s as insightful as it is entertaining.
The filmmaking is elegant at all times, with well-orchestrated tracking shots taking us through the studio space. Titles are sparingly used: Asquith and Bramble rely instead on the actors’ expressions and gestures to convey plot and character. To that end, the restored version is helped along by John Altman’s vibrant new score, featuring a 12-piece orchestra, in which motifs turn from parodic to sincere (and back again) sometimes in the space of a single scene. A memorable, understated coda lends the film a surprisingly poignant undertow, giving depth to the piece and to the presentation of its anti-heroine’s fate. With its smart focus on the murderous underpinnings of movie-making, Shooting Stars should be considered The Player of its period.
A solid set of extras, including several contemporaneous short films and a downloadable PDF of the screenplay (on the DVD only), are a welcome addition to the package. Essays by Bryony Dixon, John Altman, Henry K Miller and Chris O’Rourke provide incisive information on the film’s production history and its restoration.