Shooting Stars (Cert PG)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray combo (Distributor: BFI) Running Time: 101 minutes approx.
Meta-cinema has been a rich tool for satire in films since the early days of cinema and in 1928 British director Anthony Asquith delivered the first sardonic but affectionate expose of the film industry on this side on the pond.
The story centres on husband and wife acting duo Mae Feathers (Annette Benson) and Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne), who are currently filming a western entitled Prairie Love. Filming elsewhere in the studio is Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop), a slapstick comedian with whom Mae is having an affair right under the nose of her husband.
When Wilkes gets an opportunity to try his luck in Hollywood he wants Mae to go with him, under the pretence of a holiday and possibly later a career but Julian innocently stands in the way. When the affair is uncovered Mae takes drastic measures to fix the problem, involving a live bullet in a prop gun.
Directorial credit was originally given to AV Bramble but Asquith – son of former British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – was the man behind this project. Drawing on his experience in the business, including a stint overseas with such luminaries as Chaplin and Lubitsch, Asquith is not just taking us behind the scenes with this bold debut but also delivers a passionate love letter to the medium of film itself.
The illusion of film is shattered almost immediately in the opening gambit showing the star couple mid scene before the camera pulls back to reveal Mae in a prop tree and Julian riding on a wooden frame for a horse. Then a superb aerial tracking shot takes us on a tour of the sound stage, introducing us to cameramen, lighting operators, wardrobe staff and extras, then up to the rafters to show the full expanse of the set.
We then follow Mae up a flight of stairs to an upper level with Wilkes is filming his latest slapstick affair, revealing a different type of production altogether. This isn’t just a revelation for the uninitiated about a working film set but also a superb piece of camerawork, smoothly navigating the complex structure whilst maintaining the lighting across the multiple stages.
Asquith’s screenplay, co-written with John Orton, superficially appears to be a run-of-the-mill melodrama, especially to modern eyes who have seen it all before, but the more astute viewer will be able to look beyond this and focus on the sly cinematic references and allusions of the period. Mae and Julian seem posited as the British Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, while Wilkes’s slapstick character is a fifth rate Chaplin rip off.
Elsewhere Mae meets a studio boss who physically I am sure was a thinly veiled riff on the legendary Louis B. Mayer, my inference supported by the “no scandal” clause in Mae’s contract – the irony of which should be clear to learned film buffs. The most cynical moment comes during an interview Mae gives to journalist Asphodel Smythe (Ella Daincourt), spewing out empty platitudes to make herself sound personable.
While the film begins as lighthearted comedy the love triangle development brings with it a more serious tone, embracing a darker veneer with a reliance on minimal lighting and shadows to reflect the mischief of Mae’s infidelity and Julian’s parallel loneliness. Conversely when the affair is exposed, the mood is originally a lively moment accompanied by a jazz soundtrack in contrast to the bombshell about to be dropped.
Asquith however doesn’t just resort to typical tricks of the trade, employing many different styles and approaches in depicting the various moods and narratives contained within this film. A clear European influence reveals itself, with Murnau’s use of shadows and extreme close-ups, rubbing shoulders with a French surrealist eye using mirrors and exploiting intimate space to create distance.
For true connoisseurs it will be the Eisenstein influenced quick cut montages used just twice that will be seen as the most prominent homage to filmmaking technique. In the first instance, Asquith uses this to create a sense of unbalance and terror when a bicycle stunt goes wrong; the second time it plays a huge part in the tense build during a pivotal tragic scene, a masterclass in creating nail biting tension and manipulation of our fears through a series of simple images.
The film closes with a tragic and stinging coda that arguably leaves the deepest scar in its wry and often brutal depiction of the movie industry, yet is somehow truly apposite as a conclusion. It can be read a pious warning, a cautious allegory, or a plain fact of life but it is one which lingers in the mind long after the screen fades to black.
Driving the film along with the revelatory look behind the scenes, are the three central performances who deftly slip between their multiple roles and required personalities. Annette Benson is simply magnificent in traversing the various sides of Mae – from the sweet heroine of her films to the deceitful wife who has to save her best performance for off the set.
Brian Aherne provides the dignity and sympathy figure as Julian, evoking pure concern and care about him through a quietly sensitive essaying of essentially the straight guy of the tale. Donald Calthrop also works double duty as the unscrupulous Wilkes and his comic alter ego, inhabiting both roles with astute credibility.
This restored HD release uses a number of surviving sources and film formats for the reconstruction, which under the circumstances means occasional variance in quality, with some scratches and dulled images present, but overall the picture is superb and complaints are churlish in light of being able to watch this much-overlooked film.
Forgotten no longer, Shooting Stars is not just the film which launched Asquith’s storied career but is a milestone release in British cinema as both a homage and a technical achievement in its own right. This is unequivocally essential viewing for both film fans and filmmakers alike to appreciate and learn from.
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
2.0 PCM Stereo
Pathé’s Screen Beauty Competition
Around The town: British Film Stars And Studios
Topical Budget: The Lovely Hundred
Secrets Of A World Industry – The Making Of A Cinematograph Film
Meet Jackie Coogan
Starlings Of The Screen
Opening Of British Instructional Film Studio
Stills And Special Collections Gallery
38 Page Booklet
Downloadable Screenplay (DVD Only)
Rating – ****
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