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April 23, 2019

Shooting Stars


Anthony Asquith and A.V. Bramble - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Maybe it was impact of The Jazz Singer the year before, but 1928 saw the release of some films that looked at what would be the last year of silent films in Hollywood and Britain. Hollywood had King Vidor's Show People and Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command. From Britain, we have the fully restored Shooting Stars, about a love triangle in a fictional studio, that also provided a "behind the scenes" look at how films were produced.

As was pointed out by Pamela Hutchinson in her review for The Guardian, the fictional Zenith studio is seen producing a western and a Mack Sennett style slapstick comedy. Neither genres were made by the real British studios of the time. The western, titled Prairie Love features Zenith's biggest star, Mae Fether, resembling Mary Pickford with her long, blonde tresses. Julian Gordon, in cowboy gear, is reminiscent of Tom Mix, a point brought home when it is revealed that the unseen horse he is seen riding is actually a large wooded hobby horse with the name Tony scratched on its side. Mae and Julian are married, but Mae is in love with Andy Wilkes, a goofy, Chaplinesque would-be lover on screen, and a sophisticated man in private.

The credits for Shooting Stars are a bit confusing and required a little bit of research. The original credits list the film as "by Anthony Asquith", but list A.V. Bramble as the director. Bramble was an actor turned director, whose first directorial credit was in 1917. He directed his last film in 1933, and returned to stage work, save for a supporting role in Carol Reed's Outcasts of the Island. Most of Bramble's work has been lost, but it could be that he could well have been a significant pioneer of the silent era. Essentially, Bramble was the on set supervisor, insurance for having the actual direction done by the novice Asquith. According to historian Peter Cowie, Asquith was also was the film's editor.

Asquith's best known silent film is A Cottage on Dartmoor, considered by some critics to be one of the best British silent films. Asquith, a cinephile before that term was invented, was noted for his use of Russian inspired montage in his silent films. There is some of early experimentation here, with a bicycle stunt gone wrong, Asquith cutting between shots of the stuntman rolling downhill, and brief, handheld shots of the rider and the other cast and crew members on the beach. Also reworked in A Cottage on Dartmoor are a couple of scenes with the use of mirrors, and also a scene of characters watching a movie in a theater.

What I had not expected from any films I've seen by Asquith was the use of extended takes emphasizing the unity of a given space. There is an overhead shot of Mae in the studio walking from her mock western set up a flight of stairs, to an open second floor where Andy Wilkes is filming his comedy. The camera follows Mae from a distance tilting up as she ascends the stairs, followed by laterally traveling the length of the second floor. The final shot is static, save for Mae walking away from the camera, diminishing in size as the studio is an overwhelmingly large and dark cavern. That final shot is a masterpiece in the use of depth of field.

The blu-ray is the restored version from the British Film Institute. Included is the BFI commissioned music track by John Altman. The publicity materials that serve as an extra on the blu-ray indicated that Annette Benson was the star, with her name in larger type than that of Brian Aherne and Donald Calthrop. The brevity of Benson's stardom is inadvertently anticipated, as her career ended shortly after the silent era ended. Donald Calthrop was almost as unlucky as Andy Wilkes when a dressing room accident almost ended his career. The name might not be remembered, but Calthrop appeared in five films by Alfred Hitchcock. Second billed Brian Aherne made two films with Anthony Asquith, and shortly afterwards made his way to Hollywood and a lengthy career on stage and screen. Aherne may not have ruled as studio set like Julian Gordon, actor turned director at the end of Shooting Stars, but as King Arthur, Aherne did get two opportunities to be the king of England.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 23, 2019 07:04 AM