Did you guess this one? I must confess I had an inkling. After the BFI’s rightly acclaimed restorations of Anthony Asquith’s other silent features A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground, his directorial debut Shooting Stars (1928) is about to take its turn in the key light, at the London Film Festival Archive Gala. On 16 October 2015, in the Odeon Leicester Square, a sparkling new print of this important British silent will screen with a new jazzy score by John Altman. We’ve waited a long time to hear this good news, so now all we have to do is enjoy the anticipation, book some tickets, and cross our fingers that, following previous form, Shooting Stars will also make its way to a theatrical and Blu-ray release before long.
Shooting Stars, which Asquith wrote and officially co-directed with AV Bramble, is, much like his two other silents, a romantic drama in which a love triangle precipitates violence. But this is far more glamorous than the others: it’s a peek behind the scenes of the film biz. That’s a hint of how audacious young Asquith was – his first time in the director’s chair and he was already turning the camera around in the opposite direction. It’s also a clue to how experienced he already was – he had spent time in Hollywood, as a guest of the Pickford-Fairbanks household no less, and toured German film studios as well. He was a leading light of the London Film Society, and had been working at British Instructional Films since the early 1920s. When the infamous “quota” was brought in with the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, BIF turned to fiction film-making – Asquith, and Shooting Stars, were up first.
The film’s director isn’t the only name worth noting. Shooting Stars’ cast includes some notable talent from the British silent cinema: Brian Aherne (High Treason, Underground), Annette Benson (Downhill) and Donald Calthrop (Blackmail) for starters. And if you have never had a chance to see slinky Chili Bouchier do her thing, well aren’t you in for a treat?
Here’s what the BFI has to say about it:
Shooting Stars is a dazzling debut which boasts a boldly expressionist shooting style, dramatic lighting and great performances from its leads. Annette Benson (Mae Feather) and Brian Aherne (Julian Gordon) play two mis-matched, married stars and Donald Calthrop (Andy Wilkes) a Chaplin-esque star at the same studio, with whom Mae becomes romantically involved. Chili Bouchier, Britain’s first sex symbol of the silent era, plays a key role as an actress/bathing beauty, an attractive foil to the comic antics of the comedian. The film manages to operate as a sophisticated, modern morality tale, while it’s also both an affectionate critique of the film industry and a celebration of its possibilities. It teases the audience with its revelations of how the illusions of the world of film-making conceal ironic and hidden truths
Despite the director credit going to veteran director A.V. Bramble, this is demonstrably the original work of rising talent Anthony Asquith, exhibiting all the attention-grabbing bravado of a young filmmaker with everything to prove. His original story offers sardonic insight into the shallowness of film stardom and Hollywood formulas by use of ironic counterpoint. He flaunts his dynamic cinematographic style and upgrades design and lighting by bringing in professionals.
There’s a little information about the score too. John Altman says that his score is “inspired by dance band sounds and Duke Ellington in 1927”, taking its cue from a piece of music that features in the film itself – the popular song ‘Ain’t She Sweet’.
“It’s not a slavish period recreation,” says Altman, “but I have tried to find an appropriate way of reflecting some of the plot twists and ironic deceptions through a series of interlinked musical themes. The score will be played by a very versatile group of musicians and we will end up using almost as many instruments as a complete orchestra through the whole film. I hope that the music will carry audiences effortlessly through the emotional highs and lows of this brilliant film.”
If there’s still a little part of you that is not excited by this news, bear this truthbomb in mind: Rachael Low actually liked this film. She called it: “A spectacularly brilliant film, it was an immediate success and in one move established Asquith as one of the most interesting people working in British production at the time.” Which is all very well and good, and actually many of the contemporary reviews were on the cool side.
Famously, Variety published two reviews of Shooting Stars at the time: a thumbs-up from a US critic and a thumbs-down from one of our own (“it travels the camera till the looker-on becomes dizzy”). Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times was less enthusiastic than his countryman, and evidently didn’t get the memo about Asquith’s involvement behind the camera:
While the story of this presentation is not devoid of forced ideas, Mr. Asquith, who was bitten by the producing bug while in Hollywood a year or so ago, deserves credit, as the author, for a certain ingenuity, originality and courage. As the supervisor of this production, however, his imagination has not exerted much influence over the director or the players, for they have evidently decided to go about the making of the picture in their own sweet way—one that betokens a decided lack of experience.
It is therefore the story that carries the interest in this triangle love affair in a motion picture studio, a photoplay in which there are quite a number of flashes that will provoke beneficent smiles from Hollywood veterans.
I dug around in the Guardian archive for more contemporary views from these shores. C A Lejeune ‘s review for the Manchester Guardian is a classic, balancing her fervent admiration for this particular film, with her more general, and frequently cited, criticisms of the British film scene.
“Those of us who have spent the last two years calling out strenuously for new blood in the British film industry will feel more than a little bit pleased with ourselves when “Shooting Stars,” Anthony Asquith’s first film, goes into the programme at the Plaza next week … His story has all the fascination of a lighted window in the dusk, and there are very few people who will not have the curiosity and interest to want to stop and look in. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the pictures is that here, for the first time, the British film industry has been persuaded to stop for a moment and laugh at itself, that an outside judgment has stripped off the absurdly solemn plumes and shown, as the Americans are so frank to show, the “boost” and buzz and blatancy in it all, strengthening the beliefs of experience with the grit of judgment, and flavouring the humour of observation with the salt of truth.”
You can read the full review here. Lejeune’s counterpart in the Observer, “MWD” was equally smitten, writing:
In technical achievement, Shooting Stars is a comet. No one who visits the Plaza this week will be able to repeat old gibes about the dullness of British films. [Asquith and Bramble] are able to tell an old tale in a way that increases in interest every minute.
Was Shooting Stars the saviour of the British film industry? It seems that bashing our native product is a hobby that never goes out of style, but in October we can see for ourselves whether Shooting Stars really does put its peers in the shade – either in 1928, or 2015.
Shooting Stars screens at the Odeon Leicester Square on 16 October 2015, as part of the London Film Festival.