Shooting Stars (1928)

It’s not often that I’m prescriptive about the way you choose to watch a film, but if you do get the BFI’s new dual format edition of Anthony Asquith and A.V. Bramble’s pioneering British silent Shooting Stars, watch the extras first. The main bonus feature is a near-fifty minute compilation of short documentaries centred around show business in the 1920s, from beauty queens through cinematographers to the visiting American child star Jackie Coogan. They are, first and foremost, delightful. They also help get you into the world of Asquith and Bramble’s film, a love triangle set backstage at Cricklewood Studios.

The most unmissable difference between the main feature and the extras is how they look. The extras look good, certainly, but they look good in the way you expect silent films to; the odd line and scratch on the film, the occasional damaged frame is all part of the charm. The BFI National Archive restoration of Shooting Stars, on the other hand, looks like it could have been shot yesterday. The night scenes shot by Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell have a rich and enveloping quality that this restoration wholly honours; the daytime scenes are clear as a newly-cleaned window. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a silent film restored this perfectly.

The only murky thing about Shooting Stars now is its directorial credit. It seems that Asquith wrote the script with the intention that he would direct; as he had not directed a film before, Bramble was assigned to direct in his place. By all accounts, though, Bramble largely followed Asquith’s instructions, and the disc includes a PDF of Asquith’s script so viewers can make their own mind up about whose vision we’re seeing. Asquith’s script specifies every detail of the film, from set design to overall tone. A keen cinephile who had met Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on a trip to California, Asquith sets the mould for every later film about film-making, right up to the present day. The opening scene, of a mishap during the shooting of a Wild West romance, is very reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

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Whether or not he needed any help from Bramble to realise it, Asquith’s visual imagination remains incredible. A crane shot around the studio is astonishing even before you remember how heavy film cameras were at this time; a mishap during the shooting of a silent comedy flicks the film’s mood effortlessly from humour to suspense. Of the actual storytelling, there is a problem at the centre in that the central character Mae Feathers is set up as a terrible show-business phony who we’re then asked to care deeply about. Asquith’s style, as it would be in his later films like The Browning Version and The Final Test, is intelligent and restrained; none of the gurning melodrama of lesser silent dramatists. But this ambiguity is not much help when you’re trying to work out how much you’re supposed to like the lead character.

Still, there is plenty to entertain in Shooting Stars, from the expertly-made parodies of the films Feathers and her fellow actors star in to the comic turn by Ella Daincourt as the unforgettably-named journalist Asphodel Smythe. Asquith was the first in a lineage of British directors who bemoaned the low ambitions of their native film industry; unlike others, he both stayed in his home country and made films of an unmistakably British character. With its Hollywood inspirations and cowboy outfits, Shooting Stars may be the most international film he made prior to his final movie, Yellow Rolls-Royce, which starred Shirley MacLaine, Ingrid Bergman and Omar Sharif, among others. Despite the central love affair not quite coming to life, Shooting Stars succeeds in bringing unapologetically glamorous movie-making brio to Cricklewood.

Special features

  • Newly restored and presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
  • Pathe’s Screen Beauty Competition (1920, 2 mins)
  • Around the Town: British Film Stars and Studios (1921, 2 mins)
  • The Lovely Hundred (1922, 25 secs)
  • Secrets of a World Industry – The Making of Cinematograph Film (1922, 8 mins)
  • Meet Jackie Coogan (1924, 11 mins)
  • Starlings of the Screen (1925,15 mins)
  • Opening of British Instructional Film Studio (1928, 4 mins)
  • Stills and Special Collections Gallery (2016, 6 mins)
  • Original screenplay (downloadable PDF, DVD only)
  • Illustrated booklet with essays by Bryony Dixon, John Altman, Henry K Miller and Chris O’Rourke, and full film credits

Shooting Stars (1928) is now available on BFI Dual Format

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