Director: Anthony Asquith, A.V Bramble
Screenplay: Anthony Asquith, John Orton
Producers: Harry Bruce Woolfe
Starring: Annette Benson, Brian Aherne, Donald Calthrop
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 101 mins
British director Anthony Asquith is a highly respected name in film history but how many of his films have most people actually seen? I checked my own history with the director and discovered that I have only seen three: the slightly ropey wartime comedy/drama Cottage to Let and his two most famous films, Pygmalion (far superior to the more famous My Fair Lady) and The Importance of Being Earnest. Although these films are beloved of many Brits, Asquith is rarely mentioned in lists of great directors and his films tend not to trouble those must-see film lists. In recent years, however, a spotlight has been thrown on Asquith’s early silent films, with A Cottage on Dartmoor being reappraised as an overlooked classic and being given the BFI restoration treatment alongside his second film Underground. Fans of these films will be delighted to hear then that the BFI have now released a dual format Blu-ray and DVD of Asquith’s debut Shooting Stars and it’s an absolute gem.
Largely set in a film studio, Shooting Stars is notable for satirising the film industry while it was still essentially in its infancy. Asquith chose this subject for his self-penned script in anticipation of the gleefully self-referential opportunities it would present and while the direction of the film was attributed to A.V. Bramble, it is widely acknowledged that Asquith handled the majority of these duties too. Right at the top of the film, the opening title card announces ‘Shooting Stars by Anthony Asquith’, tipping its hat to the film’s genuine auteur before the film even begins. The clever title has three different meanings in relation to the plot, which become clearer as the story progresses. For cinema audiences who came to see Shooting Stars without knowing what to expect, it begins confounding expectations from the off, when what appears to be a corny Western romance quickly degenerates into farce when the lead actress Mae Feather (Annette Benson) is nipped by a bird she is holding and lets it fly up into the rafters, unleashing a tirade of abuse. The camera then shows her cowboy lover astride a rickety wooden horse and the illusion is shattered.
Asquith clearly has a cynical view of Hollywood stars as egotistical phonies and the next scene shows Mae, despite having let her true side show on set, give a ludicrously preening interview to a journalist in which she portrays herself as a kind, loving, cultured and saintly presence. Asquith, who finds many clever ways to get around the overuse of title cards, gives the audience the gist of what is being said by showing the journalist’s notepad as she writes down key words. Later in the film, Asquith flashes up the words of a radio broadcast on the screen next to the radio itself, without providing a black backdrop for the writing as is customary. It allows us to experience the crucial broadcast along with the characters without being yanked out of the action.
Many of the early scenes of Shooting Stars are very funny, spoofing different film genres with snippets of films with a film, but in spoofing the excesses of trashy cinema, Asquith sets himself the difficult task of telling his own story without falling into any of the traps he has mocked in other productions. Given that the film moves from satirical black comedy into elements of melodrama, he does an amazingly good job. The dramatic elements of the script are engaging but Asquith never relinquishes the comedic side completely. The whole of Shooting Stars has an underlying, acidic comedy that is well hidden during the more dramatic scenes but gives them a slyly edgy flavour which makes them all the more enjoyable. The finale, in which a series of small incidents lead to histrionics, revelations and tragedy, is especially skilful in telling a melodramatic tale using the tools of farce.
Comedic farce is never far from Asquith’s mind as one of the characters in the film’s central love triangle is Andy Wilkes, a Chaplinesque screen comedian brilliantly played by Donald Calthrop who imbues his morally questionable character with a sense of dissatisfaction which makes his selfish actions that little bit more understandable. The Chaplin reference is so clear that many have speculated over whether Wilkes was a deliberate potshot at Chaplin, whom Asquith had worked with previously, but nothing so personally bitter comes through in the script. Rather, Asquith seems to be revelling in the opportunity to expose a seedy vein that runs throughout the film industry, encouraging his audience to avoid idolising those who make a living in creating illusions.
Shooting Stars is released by the BFI on dual Blu-ray and DVD on 21 March 2016. As well as the usual high quality booklet featuring essays on the film, the set also contains a range of vintage film snippets to complement the main feature, a stills gallery and a downloadable PDF of the original screenplay.