Newly arrived on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber are three restored classics from the end of the silent era, all licensed from the British Film Institute. Shooting Stars and Underground belong to the confidently vigorous and expressive output of writer-director Anthony Asquith, while Arthur Robison’s The Informer is the first film version of a property later made famous by John Ford.
Shooting Stars, made in 1927 and released in England and the US the following year, was Asquith’s debut as a writer and director. His name appears nowhere on it, possibly because movies were a disreputable calling for the son of a former Prime Minister. The script is credited to John Orton and direction to A.V. Bramble, real people who must have worked on the film. Bramble directed many silents, including a 1920 Wuthering Heights and a 1922 film of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. His films, if they survive, don’t have the reputation of Asquith’s, while the technical majesty and visual intelligence of this project forms a seamless match with Asquith’s following films.
From the opening shot, the movie is commanding, teasing, lovely and humorous. We witness a corn-fed cliché about a sweet little darling in pigtails and calico (or is it gingham?), her lipstick applied in a pursed bow to the middle of her mouth, sitting in a leafy tree while mooning and spooning with a handsome cowboy in a ten-gallon hat and elaborate spats, presumably while seated on his horse. He rides away and she fetches a dove from a cage, conveniently hanging beside her, to preen with it and purse her lips for a kissy-poo upon the creature’s beak. The bird pecks her, whereupon she throws it aloft and starts swearing straight into the camera in a manner to make us wish we could read her snarling lips.
Now the tricks of the trade are revealed. The cowboy is on a sawhorse, the tree is equally phony, and the whole scene is a movie in production. The actors are a popular husband and wife team, Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne) and the cleverly named Mae Feather (Annette Benson), who will tell a reporter how she loves art and poetry and all furred and feathered things. We’ll certainly see her in plenty of furs. Her remarks, as scribbled on the reporter’s pad, will be undercut by a series of revealing cutaways to her fellow performers, including that unimpressed dove.
Before the interview, we get a dazzling tour of the studio from a magnificent, elaborate crane shot that begins by gliding past another crane or platform with a cameraman upon it. We look down upon the stars in a god’s-eye-view as they cross the space and climb stairs to a second open level, where another film is being shot as our camera dollies in. The other film is a slapstick comedy starring a Chaplin-esque Andy Wilkes, depicted as a hapless but horny soul chasing after indifferent bathing beauties and perhaps more correctly channeling his persona than the sweet heroine had revealed Mae’s. Andy is played by the versatile Donald Calthrop, later the blackmailer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).
The story quickly becomes a romantic triangle. Mae is a shallow, selfish conniver deceiving her clueless husband in an affair with the clown, perhaps because Andy is being wooed by Hollywood and she’ll soon follow him. The story progresses through a series of excellently conceived set pieces, from a slapstick shoot at the seaside, as spied upon through binoculars and culminating in a bit of montage worthy of Sergei Eisenstein, to the dual climax at the studio’s split-level stages.
One of Asquith’s storytelling devices involves associating his characters with recurring fetishized objects that acquire symbolic weight as they represent the persons or their desires. This film involves much business with a key and lipsticks that resemble bullets, a point made when Julian loads one into his long, gleaming, freshly polished shotgun and drops it into her hand through the barrel. Asquith’s silents are full of these eye-catching and brain-catching moments.
That scene warns us of or perhaps promises a murderous melodrama ahead — but first, we witness the gleeful absurdity of movie melodrama that makes Julian say “I wish life were more like the movies.” He goes to watch their current hit, the imaginary My Man, in which Mae gets chased around the room by a caddish count while Julian races his car to her rescue. The scene cuts between the straight-faced yet absurd onscreen antics and the excited responses of the audience.
Couples leer with excitement as the count locks the door, and an old woman bristles with offense. Two boys sitting behind Julian applaud wildly at his heroism, and he can’t help clapping along, as elated as a child himself. It’s a charming scene and a valentine to cinematic nonsense that Asquith would revisit in a darker mode in his masterpiece, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), with its tour-de-force sequence of an audience watching a film of Othello without ever showing us any scenes from the film. We follow every point vividly from the audience’s rapt reactions. That scene is a masterpiece of meta-cinema the like of which wouldn’t be seen again until Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008).
A Cottage on Dartmoor is also about murderous jealousy, as is Asquith’s second film, Underground (1928). In each case, the film’s initial tone is completely different. A Cottage on Dartmoor is full-blown dark melodrama, while Shooting Stars, the irony of whose title becomes apparent, is a satirical lark. Underground adopts the tone of the era’s “city films” about the lives of ordinary urban denizens, such as King Vidor’s The Crowd, which came out the same year.
The drama doesn’t entirely take place in the London Underground, although a good portion does. The film opens with a train’s-eye-view pulling into the station where crowds wait on the platform. The first sequence, set in the crowded train, has many bits of character comedy centering on a potentially sinister playlet that illustrates the threats faced by single young women amid a crowd of men who evaluate them. Harried shopgirl Nell (Elissa Landi) must divert the attentions of “bloomin’ lady-killer” Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a pushy bloke who will dog Nell’s steps at work and in the streets. Nell pleases a stout, sour-faced matron with her stratagem of throwing Bert’s cap into the crowd.
Conductor Bill (Brian Aherne) intercedes for Nell, as it turns out that all the working-class, subway-riding citizens of London seem to know each other by name and hang out in the same pub. The romance between Bill and Nell blossoms quickly, since’s he so much more handsome and nice than Bert, although not afraid to kiss her when she wants it. The film implies that having a husband is a girl’s best protection while riding the Underground, a lair where people allow their submerged impulses to peek through the anonymous crowd of rubbed elbows and stepped-upon toes.
Bert broods and, after a violent bout with Bill, hatches a scheme to manipulate his own pathetic seamstress girlfriend Kate (Norah Baring), who lives at the top of highly shadowy and Expressionist stairs in his building. The self-abasing Kate is persuaded to accuse Bill of the sort of thing of which Bert would be guilty, which does no favors for women whose charges are habitually doubted.
The climax occurs with many flashes of darkness and light at the power station where Bert works with high voltage (“high tension” as a sign warns), and indeed his character is all about power in its most brutish form. The looming silhouettes of machinery that echo the subway train’s wheels may be a nod to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
Asquith’s style reaches its own “highly charged” apogee of externalizing the characters’ emotions. Kate is standing just outside the station, yet her dash inside somehow becomes an epic quest over hostile terrain, as though storming a dragon’s castle. Asquith chooses to avoid displaying a final battle in favor of having it observed by horrified onlookers and heard by a blind man who becomes, perhaps, a symbol of justice.
As in the previous film, Aherne is by far the most beautiful actor on screen, putting his female co-stars in the shade. Benson hadn’t been playing a likable character in Shooting Stars; she’d been the same kind of calculating strumpet she’d played in Hitchcock’s excellent Downhill (1927), ruining the life of that equally beautiful hero (Ivor Novello). In Underground, Landi has too distinctive, changeable and interesting a face to be called merely pretty; she’s shopworn, apprehensive, determined, vulnerable and sometimes harsh. Baring, more conventionally beautiful, would star in A Cottage on Dartmoor and Hitchcock’s Murder (1930).
Cyril McLaglen, who represented the dark force of the city in Underground, is the lesser-known younger brother of Victor McLaglen. Both worked frequently with director John Ford, and Victor won an Academy Award for Ford’s Hollywood production of The Informer (1935). That film is so famous that many film buffs may be unaware of the 1929 British version, which was released in both silent and part-sound forms. We trust this Blu-ray, which includes both variants of the 1929 film, will allow audiences to complete their education.
At the risk of a digression, let us emphasize that Ford’s film, which was drafted into the National Film Registry last year, is a masterpiece. It was widely recognized as such upon its release and picked up a spate of Oscars. In recent decades, the pendulum has swung so that revisionists seriously underrate it; an example is David Thomson’s entry on the film in Have You Seen…? (Knopf, 2008).
I believe that, by a strange algebra, The Informer has fallen victim to the auteur theory. It’s clearly Fordian in its Irish theme and use of McLaglen, but the movie’s self-consciously beautiful Expressionist aesthetic and unashamed theatricality, encompassing McLaglen’s in-your-face performance as a man whose tragedy is that he’s a bare, forked lummox who can’t understand himself or his world, someone with whom we don’t wish to identify but can’t help recognizing as all too human, make it look and sound different from the films we think of as properly Fordian with their heroic emphasis. Well, that’s too damn bad, because it’s one of Ford’s best films and among the finest achievements of Hollywood’s studio era.
Audiences familiar with Ford’s film will be very surprised by the British version of the story. Ford’s movie, scripted by Dudley Nichols, is surprisingly faithful to Liam O’Flaherty’s novel about Gypo Nolan, a simple-minded hulk who betrays his friend to the police for the reward money and spends the next 24 hours committing one blunder after another to give himself away in a growing state of terror. German director Robison and his English producers must have felt this story too unsympathetic, for they’ve twisted the plot and characterizations into a coil of mitigating circumstances and ironies before finally arriving at the same conclusion.
Maybe this is what happens when star billing goes to Lya de Putti, famous for her German films. The character she plays, Gypo’s girlfriend Katie Fox, has not only been transformed from a semi-prostitute to a respectable milliner, but her beefed-up role contrives to blame her for Gypo’s actions, which are now the result of a goaded, misunderstood jealousy that’s got nothing to do with money. Indeed, the events become her fault twice over, giving her plenty of dramatic meat to emote over as the title becomes as ironic as that of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947).
Gypo, as played by Swedish star Lars Hanson, has been reconfigured as a much more intelligent and noble figure than the Gypo of O’Flaherty and Ford. There’s also a vague equivalent of the novel’s version of Katie in a barmaid (Janice Adair) whom Gypo helps. We can’t help wondering what O’Flaherty made of these distortions, which turn his highly flawed protagonist into something of a martyr. How ironic that the Hollywood studio version is by far the most faithful to his vision, while the British version feels more “Hollywood” in its far-fetched twists and determination to ingratiate its characters.
Robison’s film is superbly made and continually fascinating. Its greatest moment of visual bravura is the scene where Gypo implements his impulsive decision to “blab” to the police. The camera follows behind him as the shot evolves from his lone figure in the dark to the center of a bustling crowd, even though he’s now in the act of alienating himself permanently from that crowd.
Another irony is that this film’s vision of the crowd, of humanity in general, is almost completely merciless, so that perhaps those belonging firmly to it are the most lost while those culled from it achieve grace. It feels too much to suggest that this movie, on which several German artists worked, might have influenced Fritz Lang’s much darker M (1931), but you know, it might have.
The sound version, several minutes shorter, begins as merely the silent version with music and sound effects added. Halfway through, it begins dubbing dialogue. Some scenes are the same footage and a few moments are slightly different. It’s clear that other actors have dubbed de Putti and Hanson, since their European accents are absent. The antagonist played by Warwick Ward seems sometimes in his own voice and sometimes dubbed as a toff. This version is too compromised to be as effective.
Shooting Stars is the 2015 BFI restoration with a score by John Altman. Underground is a 2009 BFI restoration with Neil Brand’s score, plus an alternate score by Chris Watson. The Informer comes with Chris Knox’s score of Irish-flavored idioms. While Asquith’s films look excellent as a result of their digital restoration, with the greatest miracles wreaked on Underground, The Informer looks most spectacular thanks to working from the original negative and a tinted nitrate print. The sound version, by contrast, is very ragged and seems to have been left unrestored.
Aside from a couple of brief extras on the restorations, the discs offer no significant bonus material. The films, though silent, speak for themselves effectively enough.