Saturday, 17 October 2015

Shooting Stars (1927), John Altman, Live Film Orchestra, BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala

Annette Benson, naughty white dove and Brian Aherne
So, to the Leicester Square Odeon for one of the few occasions in the calendar when silent film gets to be the big shot… even in this palace built for the talkies. The red carpet was rolled out and in the absence of the film’s original stars this could be construed as a recognition of the special audience silent cinema attracts although it’s probably just Festival branding…

This was Anthony Asquith’s first feature and, whilst he may have co-directed with A.V. Bramble and co-written along with John Orton this feels very much like what was to come with Underground and A Cottage on Dartmoor. In short, Shooting Stars is another late period British silent that shows we were much, much better than we thought.

Annette Benson: new favourite actress alert!
Shooting Stars is one of the first British films about film-making – although Hollywood had got there much earlier with the under-rated Souls for Sale, the lost Merton of the Movies and others. The business of film provides perfect fodder as the impudent young director sets about the delusion industry with relish… But then what do you expect from Herbert’s son, ex-Winchester and a Balliol alumnus: he was a bright lad with a background in confidence.

Newly restored by the BFI National Archive, the film was presented with a live score by BAFTA and Emmy award-winning composer John Altman whose work includes some of the more elegant sections of Titanic and who, more importantly, has worked with the genius Nick Drake.

Beach cheeky: Donald Calthrop
Here he employed the 12-piece Live Film Orchestra to superb effect in playing his elegantly-energetic themes.  The music moved with the emotional flow of the film with sections of jazz-age swing flowing into romantic themes that hopped between the action on film and the action being filmed and which were infused with the promise of somehow-inevitable sadness even amid the hope. At times the playing seemed to be within the film; echoing the characters’ sentimental journeys with sweetly mournful lines from Chris Garrick on violin, Simon Chamberlain on piano, Jim Hastings, Bob Sydor and Robert Fowler on woodwind: is there anything sadder than the Clarinet?

That’s not to say that Shooting Stars is a sad film it is funny, saucy and very poignant: a study of human frailty and hope. Annette Benson is quite superb as aspiring superstar Mae Feather – enough of a prima donna to bring the show to a halt when nipped on the lips by a dove but somehow lost in her marriage to the blue eyed and frankly dashing leading man Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne who is so-o cool he manages to carry off the most outrageous pair of cowboy leathers).

A British Coop?
Benson isn’t quite pretty enough to be a Hollywood star but she is all the more interesting for that especially playing alongside this Anglo-Gary Cooper. She’s bored and he’s a bit detached not even bothered enough to stop her going to see their own flick with the cheeky comedian Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop – the blackmailer from Blackmail). Andy’s rather underfed in comparison with Julian but he’s funny and at least he pays attention.

The action shifts from studio to homes as Mae goes out to stay in with Andy whilst Julian ends up watching his own film next to a couple of school boys – a marvellous glimpse of cine-watching culture as the actor, almost forgetting his own story starts to cheer along with the audience as he (acting) comes to the rescue.

Andy struggles with the telephonics
Their triangulated affections play out across the backlot and studio with some eye-popping set pieces from Asquith and his cameramen Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell. There’s an audacious opening when the camera pulls back from a cosy blossom tree cuddle to reveal the mechanisms of the studio and then the camera floats overhead as the characters move from stage to stage. As BFI head curator Robin Baker pointed out in his introduction, the script prepared by Asquith shows just how much of these shots were already in his head. The consistency of tone is remarkable throughout and he clearly works so well with the performers.

With apologies to the BFI... the camera floats over the action within the action...
Then there is a marvellous final sequence that I won’t discuss save to say that it is a suitably emotional coda to a wonderful film: pure cinema in a way that wouldn’t be equalled for decades once the microphones popped up to restrict movement, imagination and the visual drama. This film moves like the best of European silent cinema but is very British all the same.

The restoration was another triumph for the BFI and Robin’s pre-show demonstration of the “before and afters” illustrated just how much had to be done. The film looked spanking new even though only one reel of the original negative survived. Watching this wonder, in cinema and with such a score brought more audience engagement than a dozen iMax/3D films involving grim-faced crime fighters and Norse gods. It was almost too much of a shock to walk out to the outside world where Leicester Square was being loudly serenaded by a longhaired man with an electric guitar.

Mae's mellow in the process of being harshed...
As my friend Mary from Santa Barbara would say: “don’t let it harsh your mellow…” and it didn’t.

BFI, can we see this one again please?

There’s more detail on the film on the BFI site with an excellent essay from Bryony Dixon - How to make your first (silent) movie count.

The Live Film Orchestra site is here whilst John Altman’s Facebook page is here – he really has worked with everyone – and there’s an interview with him talking about Nick Drake on MIMO. He also received the Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music for Hear My Song...

Red carpet for silent film...

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