Shooting Stars Review
It's the late 1920s, and Mae Feather (Annette Benson) is a film star, acting opposite her real-life husband Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne). She's secretly carrying on an affair with comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop)...
For many years there was a prevailing impression that, other than Alfred Hitchcock's output, British silent cinema was largely unimaginative, especially compared to the work coming out of the USA and Europe at the time. As ever, availability is the thing, and the restoration and reissue of Anthony Asquith's silent films has shown that Britain had a director whose work rivalled Hitchcock for inventiveness: A Cottage on Dartmoor, Underground and now Shooting Stars.
In fact that view of then-contemporary British cinema is one that Asquith, born 1902 so three years younger than Hitchcock, himself shared, dismissing the large part of its output in an article for New Statesman as telling "a much more than twice-told tale in a procession of overladen sub-titles sparsely illustrated by an occasional photograph". British cinema could, and should, do better. As a Prime Minister's son, no doubt Asquith had access that others might not have had so readily, but even so he had made use of it. He had visited Hollywood and spent time with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin and had watched them at work, and had clearly learned a few good lessons. Asquith gets a "by" credit under the title, and doesn't get further credits for either the script or the direction, which go to John Orton and A.V. Bramble, respectively. It was recognised as very much Asquith's work from the outset. Bramble, who directed thirty-three films between 1914 and 1933 and continued to work as an actor until 1951, was completely overshadowed.
One of the pleasures of Shooting Stars is, like Underground's shots of the contemporary London underground, we get to see behind the scenes of film production of its day. No doubt some comic exaggeration is taking place, but at a time of countless behind-the-camera pieces in print and as disc extras, this was something newer for the audiences of 1928, who gained much of their information about the film industry via magazines like Picturegoer, which we see being read on screen. There clearly was an appetite for such inside information, as the extras on this disc demonstrate. This does run the risk of bad faith, of mocking the audiences which lined up for second-rate romances, comedies and westerns, which Asquith does manage to avoid: if there's sending up involved, it's affectionate sending up. There's a double perspective right from the start, with what looks like the closing scene of a love story, with Mae and her screen lover sitting in a tree with Mae dressed Mary Pickford style...and then a dove bites Mae on the finger and she lets loose a few choice phrases (which I'm not a skilled enough lipreader to follow) and the take – for we are in a studio – is abandoned. As we follow the filmmaking process from shooting (in studio and on a beach location), the film's actual plot – the love triangle between Mae, Julian and Andy, which takes some darker turns – seems more incidental.
Shooting Stars is the work of a young man out to prove what he could do with this then-new medium. Like Hitchcock, Asquith had taken note of how European directors – F.W. Murnau most notably – had pared down the number of intertitles in an effort to tell his stories visually as much as possible. Some of that is conveyed via text on screen – and a couple of radio announcements appearing as onscreen subtitles – and the sheer fluency of visual language, with Asquith and Bramble often often staging action on several planes at once, and coming close to the kind of deep focus Orson Welles became famous for fourteen years later.
By the time Asquith began directing – in a film released when talking pictures were just around the corner – silent film had reached a high level of sophistication which he was able both to draw upon and to add to. Of his silent films, only The Runaway Princess from 1929 is not currently available. Given that some of his later films – in a thirty-six year directing career – have given him a reputation for somewhat stodgy stage-bound fare, it's good to be reminded how vital a director he was starting out.
The BFI's release of Shooting Stars is dual format, with the Blu-ray (a checkdisc of which was supplied for review) and the DVD both encoded for all regions. Both discs are identical, resolution apart, except for the downloadable PDF of the shooting script which is only on the DVD.
The film is presented in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. This restoration was made at 2K resolution from the one surviving reel of negative, two nitrate prints and a nitrate master positive. The frame rate has been adjusted from the original. Given that this is a late silent, 20 frames per second is the most likely original speed, though the length of the film according to the registration card at the start is 7202 feet, which suggests 19fps. (The Blu-ray transfer runs 101:14, including captions and credits for the restoration and music score, that registration card and the original BBFC A certificate.) Given the circumstances and the apparent damage of some of the source materials, this looks marvellous, sharp when it needs to be (some scenes are quite soft, but that's no doubt true to the original) and grain looks natural.
The music score was specially composed by John Altman, drawing on jazz and dance-band music contemporary to the film, and recorded with a twelve-piece orchestra. It's available on the disc in either DTS-HD MA 5./1 or LPCM 2.0 (which plays in surround). The former is mixed louder than the latter.
The extras on the disc are several short films and footage from the 1920s, with a Play All option, totalling 42:51. These continue the feature's theme of looking behind the scenes at filmmaking. So we get "Search for a Star" featurettes: Pathe's Screen Beauty Competition (2:00), and The Lovely Hundred (0:25), in which visiting Hollywood stars Norma and Constance Talmadge oversee a competition to find a British actress to costar with Norma in her new film. Starlings of the Screen (15:29), the longest extra, develops this further, in which the three contestants make short films opposite character actor Moore Marriott, which we see. Elsewhere, we go on a tour of Gaumont Studios in Shepherd's Bush (British Film Stars and Studios, an edition of the film magazine Around the Town, 2:29), watch the Opening of British Instructional Film Studio in Welwyn Garden City (3:44) and see the work of the processing laboratory (Secrets of a World Industry – The Making of Cinematograph Film, 7:59). Finally, child star Jackie Coogan visits Stoll Studios in Cricklewood (where Shooting Stars would be filmed) in Meet Jackie Coogan... (10:41). These have all been scanned at 2K from 35mm duplicating materials (negatives or positives) and some of them are in a noticeably poor state of repair, which only highlights the quality of the restoration of the main feature.
Also on the disc, and not included in the Play All, is a self-navigating stills gallery (6:22), including publicity stills and the original press book. As mentioned above, the DVD but not the Blu-ray has a copy of the screenplay, downloadable as a PDF.
The booklet runs to thirty-six pages and begins with Bryony Dixon's essay "Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith's Love Letter to the Process of Filmmaking. After this overview of Asquith and the film, we have a two-page essay by John Altman on producing the score, Henry K. Miller's "What Price Cricklewood?", which does overlap with Dixon's piece somewhat, and Chris O'Rourke's "So This is Cricklewood! Behind the Scenes in Britain's Silent Films", which takes a closer look at the British film industry of the time. The booklet also includes film and music score credits, notes and credits for the extras, notes on the restorations and transfers.