British Instructional Films Ltd.
Release Date: February 1928
101 minutes
Directed by A V Bramble

CAST: Annette Benson (Mae Feather), Brian Aherne (Julian Gordon), Donald Calthrop (Andy Wilks), Chili Bouchier (Winnie), Wally Patch (Property Man), David Brooks (Turner), Ella Daincourt (Asphodel Smythe), Tubby Phillips (Fatty), Ian Wilson (Reporter), Judd Green (Lighting Man), Jack Rawl (Hero)

Commentary

It's that good

For someone who is a less than an enthusiastic fan of foreign silents in general, it is more than casual praise for me to say that "Shooting Stars" ranks with the best of late 1920's silent cinema, whether from Hollywood or anywhere else. It's that good. And the BFI combo Blu-Ray/DVD release is one of the finest presentations of a silent film we've ever seen. But more on that later.

After being surprisingly bowled over after a viewing of "Shooting Stars" at Cinevent in 2015, I was more than delighted to learn of BFI's restoration and upcoming Blu-Ray/DVD release. And, after a second viewing, I'm even more impressed with this film. It is one of those rare films that literally has everything going for it - the story is near perfect, the direction/cinematography is inventive and artistic, the acting is beyond reproach - and to top it off, BFI's combination Blu-Ray/DVD release is a collector's dream.

Before we get into the storyline, I will say this commentary is going to be limited for a very good reason - if you haven't seen this film, don't let anyone spoil it for you by giving away too much of the plot. Get the DVD and see what a joy it is as each page of the story unfolds and develops. So, that being said, here's a reserved - and very abbreviated -- overview of the film's plot: Mae Feather (Annette Benson) is a major movie star. Her husband, Julian Gordon, is a tall, good-looking leading man, but his name appears on the marquee in much smaller letters below hers. One of the intriguing aspects of the film is that it takes place in a movie studio giving us a particularly enjoyable insight into British movie-making in 1928. The shooting location of this film was the Cricklewood studio in North West London, an ex-aircraft factory covering over 20,000 square feet where five productions could be filmed simultaneously. It had its own power plant, printing and developing labs, rooms for scene painting, editing, scenario work, financial planning, scenery lofts, dressing rooms, carpenters' workshops, props departments, and, of course, the canteen - and the film shows many of these functions and departments.

And the story goes like this

The film opens with a typical Hollywood-style western as the Mary Pickford-inspired (blond curls and all) heroine sits on a low branch of an apple-blossom tree being wooed by the handsome cowboy (Mae and Julian). As he rides off, she takes a dove out of a cage, cuddles it and kisses it on the beak (no doubt, reminiscent of early D.W. Griffith). However, the sweetness of the scene is broken when the dove pecks the heroine on the lip. She tosses the animal away and begins a wild rant that shuts down the shooting. The contrast is stark, but we are awakened to find we are in a studio, and this is a very temperamental actress who is more than a challenge for the director. The scene is also important in that the film begins to establish the character of Mae Feather. She's difficult, demanding, egotistical and definitely not the personification of the character she portrays onscreen. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband tries to defend her to the director by explaining that she's tired.

As the couple leave, go up some stairs to a second level on their way to the dressing rooms, they arrive at another film crew at work - the Chapinesque comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop). Mae seems very absorbed in the shooting, so Julian passes the time talking to some of the crew. Before leaving, we get a little hint that something is awry when Andy looks over at Mae, and they exchange what appears to be more than a casual glance and smile.

Later, Andy comes by the dressing room and asks Julian if it's OK if he takes Mae to a show that night, and since Julian will be busy for awhile -- and Mae is all too eager to go -- he amicably agrees. As the evening transpires, we are introduced to the affair that is taking place between Andy and Mae.

So there's the premise to the story. OK, so the idea here is not to reveal too much. Let's just say this - Julian does discover the affair, and there's a very ingenious murder plot involved. Does that whet your appetite a little more?

The perfection of the story construction is evident

As noted earlier, the perfection of the story construction is evident. In fact, in the DVD's liner notes, BFI curator Bryony Dixon quoted original production notes that indicated producer Anthony Asquith was very insistent that the story be rock solid. "Designed to be 'cast iron,' the picture should be taken to the script exactly." (1) Dixon himself observed, "The script, co-written with JOC Orton, is so well thought through that there would have been relatively little for (Director AV) Bramble to do but supervise." (2)

Upon viewing the film, the extra care given to the photography and the quality that it adds to the film is very evident, as well. Dixon pointed out, "There are scenarists' notes in an insistent tone, regarding photography: 'The success of the production will depend to a great extent upon the excellence of the photography - very novel camera angles, etc. Hence an expert cameraman is essential. The most modern form of technique is involved.'" (3) Asquith was very familiar with the latest German filmmaking techniques having personally visited the German studios, so it's no surprise he recruited German lighting expert Karl Fischer for "Shooting Stars," and the results are nothing short of impressive. The evening that Mae and Andy spend together in his apartment (they decide not to attend the show) takes place in front of a fireplace, the only light in the room. The background is dark, and we can see the shadowy light from below give a romantic, albeit secretive, glow to their faces, as well as the room. Otherwise, all but the two figures and the furniture they occupy disappears into darkness.

And it's not only the lighting, but the camera angles that impress, too. The shot of Mae and Julian walking from their set downstairs to Andy's set upstairs is followed in its entirety from a high camera angle (maybe a lofty catwalk?), giving us a bird's eye view of the confusion of a large studio, the complexity of wires and lighting, crew milling about in their duties and the general busyness of the environment. Camera angle is used, too, to tease us regarding Andy's appearance. We've seen him in costume with the fake mustache, wig, bowler, baggy pants and tight coat, but, of course, we want to know more about the person who has stolen Mae's affections. At this point, we have yet to see him out of costume. When he sits down at his dressing table, the camera is placed close behind him - we see his back from the waist up and the back of his head, but this angle also obscures any view of him in the mirror. This is the shot we have as he removes the costume and make-up, and once completed, the director then allows us to see the real Andy Wilks in the mirror. Dressing mirrors are used throughout the film to give us our view of the actors, which works well, especially when one actor is busy at the mirror and another is behind talking to him or her. In one scene, for example, we see Mae sitting at her dressing table talking to Julian, but Julian is only visible as a reflection in the mirror - actually a very simple, yet effective, technique.

An interesting camera technique is also used in a beach scene where Andy is filming one of his comedies. His double must ride a bicycle down the twisting sandy paths of a large hillside to the beach. However, he is unable to stop, and the bicycle flies freely and uncontrollably down the hillside and crashes at the bottom seriously injuring the double. The camera angle gives the illusion that we are on the bicycle seeing the bouncing, flashes of beach, sand, sky and general chaos that the rider may have experienced on his way down. Asquith biographer Tom Ryall said, "Roger Manvell has noted the allusion to Eisenstein in the 'impressionistic accident to the stuntman on the bicycle (which is silmilar in treatment to the shot of the man who falls near the beginning of the Odessa Steps sequence in 'Potemkin')." (4) Whether director Bramble borrowed the idea from Eisenstein or not, it makes for an intense scene and certainly works better than the tired and overused long shot undercranked to project at a faster speed. We also get a similar experience later when Andy is swinging from a chandelier and we see the dizzying, uncontrollable back and forth movement and height from his point of view.

Again, the quality of the "look" of this film cannot be overstated. "Shooting Stars" deserves a place as one of the silent cinema's finest examples of direction and cinematography.

Played to perfection

Annette Benson is not a name most American silent film fans would recognize, and, as a matter of act, little information can be found on her. She was born in London in 1895 and died in Santa Clara, CA, in 1965. (Thanks to Christine Leteux of Ann Harding's Treasures for locating this information). Little more is known about her other than she was in at least two dozen or more silent films and she worked with some of the top British directors of the day including George Pearson, Graham Cutts and Alfred Hitchcock. (5) And in "Shooting Stars," she is perfectly cast as the faithless and temperamental Mae Feather. Benson is attractive with the small mouth that was so popular and desired among silent movie stars. Without a doubt she is the star of this film, given the meatiest role and garnering the acting honors. She is innocent and demure in the blond wig as the movie opens and could easily play the sweet heroine of a "B" western, as she supposedly is doing in this film within a film. Without the wig, she has short, dark, curly hair - much in the style of the day - and is still attractive with a charming smile. She can be at once sexy, as she is next to the fire with Andy in his apartment - or devilish as she is when Julian lifts her chin to kiss her, but then wipes away his kiss from her lips as he walks away. At the end of the story (we're still not giving away anything, promise!), she is in anquish over a life or death decision she has made and struggles with her conscience - made all the more difficult because she is tied to a post for a scene in a western, and her protestations are interpreted as good acting for the film. In the end, a dejected and downcast Mae Feather is played to perfection by Benson.

On the other hand, Brian Aherne is a familiar name to fans of 1930's, 1940's and 1950's film. Aherne began making films in 1924, came to America and became a popular leading man in Hollywood during the sound era, making over 65 films during a five decade career. It is a very young, tall, lanky and good-looking Brian Aherne we see in "Shooting Stars." He portrays admirably the long-suffering and all too trusting husband of Mae Feather -- maybe a bit more gullible than we'd like to think is reasonable, but still a character with whom we can find no fault. And good character development goes beyond that, a fact Asquith obviously recognized. Asquith has ensured that we like Julian Gordon. Touches such as trying to defend his wife to the director by saying she's tired, sitting by her side lovingly as she gives a very artificial and scripted interview to a fan magazine reporter, assisting her by very carefully reading over a new contract before she signs it, and, yes, even being so agreeable as to allow her to go to a show with Andy because he wants her to enjoy herself. We even like the fact that he is shown cleaning his shotgun because he's going to spend a day hunting - showing a very masculine side to our hero.

His part is not just to be another piece of furniture, either. Julian's reaction to the discovery of his wife's affair is superb acting. No histrionics -- although we want so badly for him to punch Andy or Mae or both. He simply registers a look of disbelief coupled with hurt -- as another great camera shot tracks closer and closer to his face emphasizing his shock. As one would expect in dignified English fashion, he deports himself with firmness, yet decorum. When Mae exhibits extreme emotion at this time (she's more worried about her career than her marriage), we actually like the fact that Julian shows extreme restraint. Aherne is another perfect piece of casting for this film.

The casting of Donald Calthrop as Andy Wilks works well, too. He fits perfectly as a slapstick comedian - his stature, his looks (sort of a combination of Chaplin and Houdini) - yes, we can see him in that role. However, the fact that he could win Mae's affections from the strikingly handsome Julian may seem a bit of a stretch - but stranger things have happened in love. It is important that there are no redeeming qualities that would make us sympathize with this "villain" in the story, and, although Andy isn't out to do any harm to our hero, the fact that he is trying to steal away his wife is sufficient for us to accept whatever misfortune the story may have in store for him.

Asquith ensured a first-class production

AV Bramble is credited as the director; however, there is debate regarding Asquith's participation in the direction of this film. This is Asquith's first film, and he was determined it would be a first-class production that would be a tribute to British cinema. As the son of a former prime minister, Asquith had the opportunity to travel and had visited the elite of Hollywood (Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford, Gish, etc.), had seen the latest developments in studio lighting and set design in Germany, and, as a part of the Film Society in London, he had watched and learned from some of the best European films -- films that for one reason or another were banned from his country. He was smart to bring in an experienced director such as Bramble -- and no doubt the collaboration of the two made the film even better. However, it was Asquith who went on to become an icon of British cinema as a director, writer, producer and actor in the coming decades while Bramble faded into obscurity. One has to give Asquith credit for his persistence and insistence that this first film be of the highest quality in every regard, and it shows. What an amazing start to an outstanding career!

The vintage newspaper review from Canada that we chose to accompany this commentary speaks very positively of "Shooting Stars" (click here to see the review). Kine Weekly was also impressed with the film and said that it "is a remarkably good British picture and one that with 'The Ring,' sets a higher standard technically, histrionically and constructively than we are accustomed to on this side.'" (6) On the other hand, it is interesting to note the British Variety reviewer's scathing review. " . . . this is a rather stupid and childish attempt to make a motion picture," adding that ". . . it will be sold to the public as the work of genius, and once again British films will get a black eye when this one gets to the screen. If the 'friends' of British films would realize the enormous harm they are doing by their slavish praise, they would temper it with a little sane comment." He closes his comments with, "Acting and photography are both good. The rest is inexcusable." Interestingly, a second Variety reviewer in an addendum to this review disagreed with his co-worker. ". . . this confrere in the same office takes issue with him on his opinion in the present instance," going on to say, " . . .the writer made a canvas of the picture colony, the 'wise' folks of show business in the West End and elsewhere, and has not received one opinion coinciding with this (his own) . . ." (7) Variety went on to say that the film was "peddled" in film circles in America with no takers, which is both sad and unfortunate for American audiences. The fate of Buster Keaton's "The General" is often quoted as an example of a film that, in its day, was treated with low regard but, in ensuing years, has been hailed as a masterpiece. "Shooting Stars" may not be regarded as highly as "The General," but it's a safe bet that audiences today will find it a top-notch movie. Fortunately, "Shooting Stars" did also get some good reviews and, thankfully, did well at the box office, despite harsh criticism such as that from the Variety reviewer.

The music score: one of the best ever for a DVD

Regarding the DVD release, the music score must be mentioned first which is, IMHO, one of the best scores ever produced for a silent movie DVD. The score was created by composer John Altman, who, coincidentally, was the recipient of the Anthony Asquith Award for Best Score for the 1991 film "Hear My Song." Altman said, "Scoring 'Shooting Stars' from scratch presented a plethora of problems . . . to this particular composer. A hundred minutes of continuous score -- something I (and the majority of my peers) had never attempted previously." (8) He noted that he hand-picked a 12-piece orchestra and then wrote for these instruments creating "a varied stylistic palette" that blended "dance music and 1920's jazz with modern classical techniques and conventional movie scoring. . ." (9) Utilizing flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, banjo, guitar, piano, bass and drums, Altman's score is right on target for every scene and every mood of the film. Themes are repeated, but the score never becomes monotonous nor does it ever intrude on a scene -- instead enhancing the mood and tone to perfection. The Blu-Ray offers audio choices between 2.0 stereo or 5.1 DTS surround. Either of the choices sounds fabulous, but if you have surround sound, be sure to select 5.1 in the "Setup" portion of the menu. It appears the Blu-Ray defaults to the 2.0 stereo if you don't select otherwise.

Outstanding restoration

The restoration of this film is also another outstanding silent film achievement. According to the BFI, "Eight separate copies, including contemporary nitrate elements, totaling 22,000 ft. of film were meticulously inspected and compared, frame by frame, to reconstruct the film in the best quality. . . Thousands of hours have been spent repairing damage and restoring picture and intertitles with a wide range of digital tools and skills." (10) The result is a beautiful film visually that thankfully brings to life Fischer's lighting techniques, the details of long shots, and the clarity of close-ups that enhance facial features and augment the enjoyment when viewing on a large screen.

In addition to both the Blu-Ray and DVD discs, BFI's superb release includes a slick 37-page booklet with lots of interesting reading and photos. Extras include "Pathe's Screen Beauty Competition" (1920, 2 min.), "Around the Town: British Film Stars and Studios" (1921, 2 min.), "The Lovely Hundred" (1922, 25 sec.), "Secrets of aWorld Industry: The Making of Cinematograph Film" (1922, 8 min.), "Meet Jackie Coogan" (1924, 11 min.), "Starlings of the Screen" (1925, 15 min.), "Opening of British Instrucitonal Film Studio" (1928, 4 min.), stills, original screenplay and more.

Keep in mind this Blu-Ray and DVD set is PAL format and will require a region-free player. If there ever was a reason to invest in a region-free player, "Shooting Stars" is it.

References
1. Dixon, Bryony. "Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith's Love Letter to the Process of Filmmaking." 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ryall, Tom. Anthony Asquith. Manchester University Press. 2013.
5. Ibid.
6. as quoted by Tom Ryall.
7. "Shooting Stars" review. Variety (London). Februry 2, 1928.
8. Altman, John. "On Creating a New Score for Shooting Stars." 2016.
9. Ibid.
10. Unknown. "About the Restoration." 2016.

Copyright 2016 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved

Photos courtesy of British Film Institute.


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