Sunday, 20 March 2016

Cricklewood Babylon… Shooting Stars (1927) on Blu-ray and DVD

“The success of the production will depend to a great extent upon the excellence of the photography… The most modern form of technique is involved.”

After featuring this superb restoration at last year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, the BFI have now released Anthony Asquith’s bravura debut – nominally directed by A.V. Bramble - on a generously-priced Blu-ray/DVD dual format set and it’s a worthy package for this gem.

Persuading ourselves that we had little credibility as a film-making culture began almost as soon as the first British hands cranked a camera. Perhaps moving images were seen as too cheap a trick for a nation with such a proud theatrical history yet, all the same, quality films were made in the UK and there’s a growing number restored and projected that show that we could hold our own.

Annette and Brian sitting in a tree...
Here Asquith – already seeped in film culture – takes aim at the darker and dafter side of the business and creates one of the first domestic films about film: a narrative that manages to be both effective as satire and affecting as a story of love gone awry.

This film opens with a stunning overhead tracking sequence that you could have sworn belonged in a German studio rather than one in Cricklewood. The stars of the film are stars in a film – Prairie Love -  and after an amusing opening showing Annette Benson being filmed in a blossom tree cosying up to Brian Aherne on a wooden horse (and wearing the most outrageous cowboy chaps), the camera looks down on the stage then follows the characters as they move around the studio.

By the time the motion has finished Benson has removed her phoney blonde wig and Ahern’s four-wooden-legged friend has been revealed: they’re not “acting” now and are a man and wife about to see their relationship move into very stormy seas.

Benson’s character, Mae Feather has walked up the stairs to another stage on which they are filming a comedy featuring madcap Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop… last seen blackmailing Anny Ondra) a man of no fixed moustache.  Bizarrely, she sees him as an alternative to her handsome husband Julian Gordon (Aherne)… maybe she’s short on laughs or just finds handsome boring.

Brian Aherne on his steed
Mae skips seeing her own film to stay in with Andy whilst Julian ends up on his own, watching their film next to a couple of school boys – he’s barely older than them and even starts cheering himself on screen, easily lost in the process. Julian’s clearly very imaginative and easy to play but this miss-aligned love triangle cannot carry on for ever and in a moment of madness Mae loads a gun due to be fired at her husband on stage…

As previously mentioned in my rave after the live presentation, Asquith brings out the best in his performers, especially Annette Benson who manages to bridge the gap between spoilt bractress, bored stage-wife and guilt-ridden devastation whilst still retaining a lightness of touch that makes her likeable. It’s her emotional flexibility that makes the story special as the reality of her violent plan could simply have appeared as ruthless.

Insert "gets the bird" line here
But there’s regret and the realisation that sometimes we get so mired in routine we forget to find the obvious truth but will it be too late? You have to hope for the best – that’s usually the best you can hope for… and all plays out in the film’s superbly anxious closing sequence.

No spoilers – you have to see for yourself.

The film has a surprisingly-high consistency of tone for a first time effort but Asquith’s script notes – quoted at the top - showed how well he had already thought through the photo play before the shooting began: the sequence described above is pretty much as he planned it although credit must also go to his cinematographers Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell – the “expert cameramen” he sought.

Donald Calthrop and Dorothy "Chili" Bouchier
Live, the score from John Altman and the Live Film Orchestra swung in an emotionally-emphatic way and the studio version on this disc reveals levels of more nuanced feeling  – with a predominant theme of bittersweet endeavour: love’s labour’s inevitable loss amongst misaligned affection and ambition. It’s a hard mix to get right and whilst some may feel the score a little too defined at times, for me it enhances the flavours already present. Hearts will be broken and it’s almost as if the protagonists know this from the start: not that this sentimental premonition will ever stop them trying.

The crew of Prairie Love
Shooting Stars comes with an extensive side order of extras including an illustrated booklet with revelatory essays from Bryony Dixon, John Altman, Henry K Miller and Chris O’Rourke.

There are seven shorts, the longest of which Starlings of the Screen (1925, 15 mins) is of the most interest to me as it features my friend Nikki’s Great Aunt Sybil Rhoda who, in addition to acting in Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927) and Boadicea (1927) also enjoyed a career as a chorus girl and model. She lived to 102 and only passed away in 2005 - by all accounts one of the family’s great characters!

Then there are further glimpses backstage including Secrets of a World Industry  - The Making of Cinematograph Film (1922, 8 mins),  Around the Town: British Film Stars and Studios (1921, 2 mins),  Opening of British Instructional Film Studio (1928, 4 mins) and a chance to Meet Jackie Coogan (1924, 11 mins)

It’s a very handsome package and available on Monday 21st March direct from the BFI online Shop and other less reputable digital emporia…  Either at home or in cinema I cannot recommend Shooting Stars highly enough not just for fans of silent cinema but for anyone who expects good storytelling from cinema and to simply be touched sat there, almost alone, in the silvery darkness.

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