Shooting Stars

Annette Benson and Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)
Annette Benson and Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)

The opening sequence of Shooting Stars is a hesitant but nevertheless ambitious crane shot swooping over an active film studio. The location is the Stoll Film Company studios, Cricklewood, and through this opening vista the self-reflexive theme is introduced. This is a film about the process of making a film. It is constructed as a comment on its own creation. As such, for 1928, it was something quite new in British film, and it remains in many ways a landmark production. Not until Peeping Tom, some thirty years later, would a British film so knowingly and so effectively turn its own camera on itself. It is a young man’s film, the first effort of someone representative of a new creative spirit in British film, and it displays much of the excitement at what the medium can do that characterises such notable later debuts as Citizen Kane, A Bout de Souffle and Reservoir Dogs. If it is a lesser artistic work than such notable films, it nevertheless achieves the same goal of giving us the filmmaker’s eyes and looking at film as though for the first time.

Shooting Stars tells the story of a love triangle between three film stars, leading to the ‘accidental’ death of one of them. The three are Mae Feather (played by Annette Benson), an actress who in her mixture of simpering performance onscreen and sour manner offscreen seems an amalgam of Hollywood actresses of the period; her husband Julian Gordon (played by Brian Aherne), an uncertain action hero actor; and Chaplinesque comedian Andy Wilks (played by Donald Calthrop). Unknown to her husband, Mae Feather is conducting an affair with Andy Wilks.

The film opens with Feather and Gordon being filmed in a Western, Prairie Love, while elsewhere in the studio Wilks is making a knockabout comedy. Mae has a row with her husband and the director, and goes off to watch Wilks being filmed. To a magazine reporter, however, she expresses her deep devotion towards her husband. She then sets out with Wilks, while Gordon visits a cinema in a despondent mood, only to be temporarily lifted by seeing one of his own films where he is able to be more of a daredevil and a success with women than he is in real life. The young boys in the cinema who cheer the film along with him are indicative of his infantilism and naivety.

Feather and Wilks plan to leave together for America. The following day, however, Wilks’s double is injured in a comic stunt by the sea, but the news gets out that it is Wilks himself who has been injured. Feather is startled to see Wilks when he comes to her flat, but then Gordon returns unexpectedly early to find the two lovers. He decides to divorce her, which Feather knows will lose her a promised Hollywood contract and ruin her career. Desperate, she decides to kill her husband by staging an accident. She puts a live bullet into a film prop gun. A shot is fired at Gordon while he is acting, but it is a blank cartridge that is fired. The loaded gun is then used in a scene for Wilks’ film, and he is shot dead while swinging from a chandelier.

Feather breaks down, and Gordon divorces her. Years later, Gordon has become a famous film director, while Feather is completely forgotten. She gains work on her former husband’s film as an extra, and in the film’s outstanding sequence, is seen praying in a church which is dismantled about her, it being only a film set. She asks the director, ‘Will you want me any more?’, to which he shakes his head, not even recognising her. She walks, in an extended take unbroken except for a cut back to Gordon with a puzzled look on his face as if he half-remembered the voice, through the dark of the studio until silhouetted by a door in the far distance, after which she disappears, and the film ends. It is the final scene from The Third Man, in reverse.

The scenario of Shooting Stars is not an especially subtle one, and its picture of the filmmaking process and the double standards practised by (particularly American) film people is tuppenny moralism. Its importance lies in its particular position in the history of British film production to that date, and in the attitudes it expresses that position British film as a distinct identity in contrast to Hollywood.

Anthony Asquith (left) and A.V. Bramble
Anthony Asquith (left) and A.V. Bramble

The story was written by Anthony Asquith, and Shooting Stars is very much an Anthony Asquith film. This is despite the director’s credit, which went to British film veteran A.V. Bramble. This remains the modern understanding of the film’s authorship, and it was the same at the time of the film’s release, much to Bramble’s chagrin. Even the novelisation by E.C. Vivian was subtitled ‘From the film by Anthony Asquith’. The difference between the two men is symptomatic of the state of affairs in British film at the time. Bramble was a stolid, efficient director of the old school in British film, which in creative terms meant very little. His past credits as a director included The Laughing Cavalier (1917), Wuthering Heights (1920), The Card (1922) and co-director of Harry Bruce Woolfe’s Zeebrugge (1924). None of Bramble’s surviving work indicates any filmic gift, and the relatively long career of such a journeyman talent indicates the impoverished nature of British film in the early to middle 1920s.

Anthony Asquith was a very different character, and one representative of a new spirit sweeping through British film in the late 1920s. Asquith was the son of the former Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his gifted socialite wife Margot. He was brought up in a privileged, intellectual world. Born in 1902, he came maturity at the start of the 1920s, and was very much one of the generation too young to have gone to war, and anxious for cultural regeneration and discovery. Cinema, for an intellectual elite, became one avenue for this new spirit of adventure, and Asquith was an early member of the Film Society. This organisation, established in 1925, showed, under licence, films which were either refused a general cinema exhibition certificate by the British Board of Film Censors or did not have a distributor at all. Other members included Ivor Montagu, Sidney Bernstein, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, J.B.S. Haldane, Michael Balcon, Victor Saville, John Maynard Keynes, Julian Huxley and John Gielgud – the cream of British cultural and intellectual life, and a sure indication of the excitement generated by the artistic possibilities of film for the intelligentsia. Principally, the Film Society was able to show the best of the films coming out of the Soviet Union, and at the Film Society Asquith was introduced to the works of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov and others, revolutionary in content and in style, as well as films of the German expressionist movement, the avant garde, scientific and documentary film, and films selected for their importance in an emerging history of film practice. Asquith knew his film history, he understood its radical power, and he knew in what techniques seemed to lie its greatest potential.

Asquith was keen to become involved in film production, and doors were bound to be open to the son of a prime minister. The British film industry was tickled to find the Hon. Anthony Asquith entering its portals, and his progress was followed with much interest. He first worked on Boadicea (1926), directed by Sinclair Hill for Stoll, before he joined that film’s producer, Bruce Woolfe, at British Instructional Films. There he was the brightest star among a number of young talents Woolfe was gathering around him, including Mary Field, J.O.C. Orton and Arthur Woods. Asquith co-wrote the scenario (with Orton) from his own story for his first B.I F. film, Shooting Stars, but in view of his inexperience the old hand Bramble was brought in and given the director’s credit, principally for his knowledge in the handling of actors. Asquith was named Assistant Director, but in every scene of Shooting Stars it is palpably obvious that a young man, brimful of ideas, is the guiding spirit behind the film.

The influence of the Soviet school is clear throughout, as would be the German expressionist influence in Asquith’s later silents, Underground and A Cottage on Dartmoor. The influence is shown most obviously in two bravura sequences that have no parallel in anything filmed in a British studio prior to Shooting Stars. First is the scene in which Andy Wilks’ double cycles down a hill, a stunt which gets out of control and leads to the crash. Point-of-view shots from the bicycle hurtling down hill, intercut with angled shots of the bicycle coming towards the camera with the startled actor’s face, create a memorable if jarring sequence. The impression is solely one of technique, and somewhat faltering editing technique at that, but it takes the film out of the ordinary even if the import of the scene does not truly match up to the means chosen to deliver it.

The second scene is more impressively executed, namely the one where Wilks is fatally shot during filming in the studio. Again, self-conscious editing intercuts the unknowing actors and crew with close shots of the actor swinging, first alive, then dead, from the chandelier. Here the technique is appropriate to the action, the irony of performance over reality chiming in with the film’s primary theme, while the cuts from conventional studio scenes to the jarring shots of the dead actor swinging on high emblematise the shift between British cinema old and new that the film represents.

Donald Calthrop as the comedian Andy Wilks
Donald Calthrop as the comedian Andy Wilks

Beyond the Soviet influence, Shooting Stars illustrates throughout Asquith’s interest in the culture of cinema and its history. This is displayed through the ironical view of conventional filmmaking that is the film’s hallmark. The joke on Hollywood is at its strongest in the opening scenes of Prairie Love being filmed, where a stereotypical view of the cowboy hero and his sweetheart is deconstructed as the camera pulls back and we see that she is sitting not on a horse but on a dummy, and the romantic West is revealed to be located in a cold, vasty film studio. The bare mechanics of cinematic illusion are revealed in this key establishing sequence. Its theme is then echoed in a shot of Andy Wilks removing his make-up, turning the merry comic into the mean and bitter little man that he is in reality. The filming of the knockabout comic scene by the sea contrasts the sunny action with the dismal reality of a drab English seaside location.

The Englishness of the seaside setting points up a problem that the film does not resolve. Are the satiric barbs aimed at American filmmaking, at British filmmaking, or filmmaking in general? If Hollywood is the target, as Prairie Love and the Mack Sennett-style knockabout of Wilks would seem to indicate, then how to explain the English settings, the English film studio, the obviously English character actors (particularly Wally Patch as a cockney stage hand)? Mae Feather has been offered a Hollywood contract (dependent upon her good behaviour), which indicates most clearly that we are in Britain. But if British filmmaking is the target, then how to explain the filming of a Western or the Sennett comedy, when only Walter Forde was making films in such a vein in Britain at the time? The film is caught between a wish to strip the illusions away from classical Hollywood conventions, while being forced to do so with the impoverished resources of a British film studio. If there is a resolution to this dilemma, it is an argument that the British filmmaking process, through its very poverty, could expose the Hollywood aura for the sham that it was. Actors, scenery, studio, publicity, the film’s title itself – all fall away to reveal the shabby reality beneath.

The film succeeds in its satirical intentions, but its fundamental weakness lies in its failure to take the argument any further. For all the excellence of the three central players (the film is notable for a realism in performance which alone marks it out as something new in British film – and something for which A.V. Bramble should probably receive more credit than has previously been his due), their characters are only ciphers. It is not, after all, a startling revelation to demonstrate that film exhibits an illusion, and the film needs to make much more of its unpeeling of reality. Shooting Stars is a clever film, one conducted with wit and cinematic verve, but it has no depth. No character rises out of the essential banality of the story to give it a greater resonance, and thereby to encourage us to feel that here is a film with feeling to match its virtuoso technique, a film classic. The final scene with Mae Feather praying in the film-set church is poignant and thematically precise, but (to this observer at least) it is an exercise in ingenuity, not in tragic denouement. Hence the final walk into the distance equals the finale of The Third Man in its brilliance, but not in its satisfying emotional truth. Asquith (and Bramble) has not truly shown us anything beneath the façade.

The comparison with The Third Man is worth pursuing. Carol Reed was another director whose brilliant technique could not mask a failure to engage with the deeper emotions of human beings in crisis, a failing he rose above in The Third Man, if not (arguably) at any other time. Asquith would go on to become a skilled director, if not one keen to demonstrate the flashy techniques learned from the German and Soviet masters after his silent period; instead one whose films would trade on the director’s affinity with English reserve. But the intriguing parallel between Shooting Stars and The Third Man is the alliance with the Western. The Third Man is the quintessential British western. Holly Martins, the writer of cheap Western novels, arrives like a lone gunslinger in Vienna, finds himself in a confusing role when he tries to uphold honour, and the climax to the film is a traditional shoot-out. The Third Man plays out Martins’ Western imagination, in its banality and ineffectualness in the face of complex reality, to full ironic effect.

Shooting Stars similarly, if a little less profoundly, takes the Western form and uses its shallow conventionalities as a means to uncover real human crisis. This begins with the film’s title, at once ironic and silly, gun-toting in the cinema alongside the transience of fame. Prairie Love itself, if only seen briefly as a stereotypical sentimental Western romance, nevertheless sets up the idea that the love triangle – that most obvious of dramatic constructions – in being played out in real life, echoes the expected forms of cinematic narrative. We have Hero, Heroine and Villain. The gun (and how seldom were guns seen in British films at this time, except where aping American conventions) in the studio is meant to fire only blanks. The climactic shoot-out brutally brings reality to the film studio when we see that guns can kill after all. Life on the range only truly becomes life when removed from the screen.

Shooting Stars plays with too many styles, and is not so profoundly thought-out, to bear too great a comparison with The Third Man in the adoption of the Western motif. Half the time it is a Western, the other half it could be any story with the same basic conventions. If the ironic position of the Western in a British film studio could have been exploited more fully, Shooting Stars nevertheless does make a clear enough point about dowdy reality, and in particular exposes for a British audience the falsity of the dream expounded by the Hollywood that dominated its screens. It is in this exposure that Shooting Stars is probably at its strongest.

Annette Benson with gun in Shooting Stars (1928)
Annette Benson with gun in Shooting Stars (1928)

Shooting Stars is certainly among the finest British silent feature films. Probably only Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, The Ring and The Manxman, and Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George and Hindle Wakes are equal to it. In its ambition and confident execution, it marked a new standard for British film, hovering on the cusp of sound. It displayed an affinity with the works of German and Soviet masters that seemed to indicate that an invigorated British cinema was attaining artistic maturity at last. Those judging it in this fashion were looking back on two decades of impoverished film culture, where miniscule budgets combined with filmmakers of narrow ability and stars of limited appeal to create a national cinema that seemed emblematic of a fall in national status generally. British films became defined by what they were not – that is, American. It is therefore notable that Shooting Stars should so confidently (allowing for the inconsistency noted above) target Hollywood, making a good film out exposing the falsity of the medium.

Shooting Stars came at the end of some thirty years of British fiction film production which, by conventional consent, combined artistic failure with commercial failure. There has been sufficient critical argument in recent years to overturn the traditional view of British silent cinema as being characterised by low achievement, but it is unquestionably true that, at the time, all but its most blinkered practitioners viewed British film in a highly critical light. It was a cinema manned by a host of A.V. Brambles: earnest, modestly talented journeymen, who displayed a profound lack of understanding of the medium in which they were working. Directors of minimal vision were allied to technical staff and studio equipment of only the most basic competence, scripts that could not imagine the leap from the printed word to the screen, and performers caught between the mannerisms of the theatre and a desperate aping of the stylings of American film.

Out of this picture of artistic emptiness, which reached its nadir around 1925, unexpectedly arose a small renaissance in British filmmaking that can still excite the viewer today. Anthony Asquith was not the only talent that arose at this time. Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey, Victor Saville, George Pearson, Sinclair Hill and Adrian Brunel were indicative of a new spirit of inventiveness, of solutions to narrative questions answered in cinematic terms, even if some (Elvey, Hill, Pearson) were old hands brought up in old ways. The real secret behind the renaissance was a new breed of producer and investor. Michael Balcon, Harry Bruce Woolfe, John Maxwell, Herbert Wilcox and the Ostrer brothers were the leading figures. A new artistic confidence, demonstrated by Asquith’s eager adoption of the German and Soviet styles he witnessed at the Film Society, was matched by new, soundly considered investment in the British film industry. While the early 1920s had seen the wastefulness and absurd over-optimism of Sir Oswald Stoll’s determined efforts to enter the film industry with Stoll Film Studios, and Cecil Hepworth’s ill-fated attempt to expand his existing production business, the end of the decade had the Ostrers registering the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation as a public company in 1927 (associated with Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures), with £2.5 million capital. Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films, begun modestly in 1919, bought by Stoll in 1924, was purchased by investor A.F. Bundy in 1927 and floated as a public company. Herbert Wilcox formed British and Dominions Films in 1927, while Maxwell’s British International Pictures, also formed in 1927, was the largest and most successful British production company by the end of the ’twenties.

The new breed of confident businessman did not occur at this time by simple coincidence; 1927 was the year of the quota. Government legislation introduced in the Cinematograph Act of 1927 ensured that a percentage of the films distributed and exhibited in Britain had to be British in origin. The eventual result, in the 1930s, was to be an onrush of shoddy, cheap productions (‘quota quickies’) guaranteed some sort of a screening so as to fill exhibitors’ quota obligations, but in the late ’twenties the effect was liberating. The guarantee of exhibition for a certain percentage of British-produced films (previously many British films could wait months for a cinema release, blocked out by American product, leaving producers without a guaranteed return), removed some of the fears investors had. Capital flooded into the British film business, beginning in the year in which Shooting Stars was made.

Shooting Stars therefore appeared at a dynamic period for British film production – probably the first such dynamic period in its history. False dawns and naïve assumptions of films’ popularity based on audience demand for Hollywood product, seemed to be a thing of the past. Shooting Stars is a film of the Cinematograph Act. It is an expression of the confidence that investors were starting to have in the industry, and of an emerging solidity to that industry. It is equally an expression of an intellectual excitement at the artistic, expressive possibilities of the medium, qualities established by the programmes of the Film Society and specifically qualities generally absent from the prevailing Hollywood product and certainly from British fiction film production to that date. Shooting Stars encapsulates this new spirit – not simply by the quality of its filmmaking, but by its self-consciousness. It stands for a cinema that is newly aware of itself and its possibilities.

Equally, however, Shooting Stars, is emblematic of the underlying uncertainty that persisted in British film. Just as the cowboy’s horse is really an absurd dummy, just as the supposed sunny beach setting is a cold and dreary English seaside, so behind the façade of an active film business is the reality that British films needed government intervention to sustain them. Without the imposition of a quota, British films were struggling to find an audience in their own country, and even with the quota there was no guarantee that audiences would choose to see them. And the enthusiasm for the innovations of the German and Soviet cinema espoused by Asquith, also reflected in other British films of the period (The Informer, Moulin Rouge, Piccadilly), only exposed an emptiness in British films themselves. Was this not merely the importing of an alien style onto a national cinema which needed its own defining characteristics?

Shooting Stars is a film full of contradictions. It is unable to express absolutely where its heart lies, caught between Hollywood hegemony, the artistic revelations of the German and Soviet cinema, and the aspirations of British film production. In the end, in this dilemma lies its particular strength. Shooting Stars turns the camera on itself in a rewarding and effective manner. It is a landmark film, and a creative delight.

From The Cinema of Britain and Ireland, by Brian McFarlane, ed. Copyright (c) 2005 Brian McFarlane. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

Note: This is an essay that I wrote in 2005 for The Cinema of Britain and Ireland, and I am very grateful to the book’s editor Brian McFarlane, to Yoram Allon of Wallflower Press, and the Columbia University Press who now manage the Wallflower titles, for allowing me to reproduce it here (unchanged except for additional illustrations and the hyperlinks). The reason for doing so is that Shooting Stars is to be the feature archive restoration at the 2015 London Film Festival, screening at the Odoen Leicester Square, 18:45 on Friday 16 October, and I thought it would be helpful to make the essay available online. The film has long been a particular favourite of mine, and the usual top-notch BFI treatment on DVD is bound to follow. Do look out for it.

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