Cinema superstar Mae Feather is just a woman who wants to have it all: her career in Hollywood, her boyfriend by her side and her husband dead. This dark showbiz satire was Anthony Asquith’s first film as director.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
Filmmakers can never have enough movies about movies. They can be cute, they can be bitter, they can be dark but the motion picture industry looking deeply into its own navel has been a staple of movie since movies began.
Co-director Anthony Asquith had spent several months in California as the guest of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (being the son of a former prime minister had its advantages) and met silent era luminaries. After returning to England, he launched his own career in film and Shooting Stars clearly makes use of his experiences abroad.
I am surely not the first person to make this observation but there was no place in the world better to conceal a murder than a silent movie set. The horrific deaths of assorted personnel, from catching fire to being swept out to sea, read like a second volume of The Gashleycrumb Tinies. I promise I am not a murderer (the evidence was purely circumstantial!) but I do read my share of mysteries and I recognize a plum setting when I see one.
So, that’s our setup, ladies and gents. A film set filled with opportunities, a love triangle and a loaded shotgun.
The main character of the film is Mae Feather (Annette Benson), a beautiful blonde whose wig is as fake as her marriage to Julian (Brian Aherne). We meet Mae as she is smooching a bird, a standard silent era trope to establish the heroine as a virginal sweetie. But the bird immediately takes a bite out of her lip and we soon realize that we are not in Culver City anymore.
Mae and Julian are starring in a western and while he is absolutely in love with her, she far prefers the company of Andy Wilkes (David Calthrop), a Sennett-esque slapstick comedian. His set is just above the western background where Mae and Julian are working. Obviously, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes material with the mood musicians who worked on film sets and the un-enclosed spaces where separate movies would all but spill over onto one another.
Now, you probably have a question in the back of your mind and that’s okay because I had the very same question too: were there that many westerns being made at British studios during the silent era? I don’t know about you but the UK western I could think of was Carry On Cowboy, decidedly un-silent.
Anyway, it turns out that the UK claims the earliest known western film. Emphasis on “claims” because the “Indians” in Kidnapping by Indians (1899) are decked out in their best trunk hose and, quite frankly, I don’t buy any of it. (And keep in mind, I adore Euro westerns.) But we have more options with The Night Riders (1920), which was about cattle rustling in Canada (but filmed in California) and Adventurous Youth (1928), which was about the Mexican Revolution. So, it is indeed conceivable that Mae and Julian would star in a western picture.
In any case, Mae fully intends to blow this popsicle stand. She’s been putting out feelers for a contract in America and her efforts have paid off. A fat agreement is hers for the signing with all the usual clauses, including the morality clause. If she’s in a scandal, she gets no money and no ticket to Hollywood.
Well, surely that’s not a problem. I mean, it’s not as if she’s aching to eject Julian and replace him with Andy, right? Oh.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Before the contract is signed, three significant events take place. First, Julian is going shooting and so Mae gives Andy the key to their apartment to use while the cat’s away. Second, Julian is preparing his shooting kit and notices that he has accidentally mixed in ball cartridges, which he puts away. But, third, Mae accidentally picked one up because she mistook it for a lipstick tube. (They are just about the same size and shape, though the cartridge is considerably heavier.)
At this point, let me butt in to talk a bit about shotgun cartridges and why the events of the film play out as they do. Julian was going shooting and from the context, he meant to hunt birds. Shotgun cartridges can carry a variety of projectiles including birdshot and larger shells. The ball cartridges he discovered in his bag would have been suitable for shooting large game; they’re huge and heavy and they can blast right through a target and keep going. (I know nothing of armaments but I consulted with the hunting/shooting branch of the family.)
So, it’s quite understandable that Julian would not want those with him while shooting with friends. They would destroy the birds and they would be an accident waiting to happen. And, needless to say, they would be a very, very brutal way to murder someone.
But surely Mae wouldn’t be so foolish as to try anything like that, right? Well, maybe but her hand is forced when the hunting party is cancelled and Andy shows up for the rendezvous at the exact wrong moment. There’s no explaining away another man having your apartment key and Julian asks for a divorce. Now back then, as we all know, a divorce with adultery could be fatal so Mae must find a way to end her marriage by another means and fast.
But you see, the last scene they will be shooting involves a shotgun with blanks being fired directly into Julian. Can anyone say “Unfortunate on-set accident?”
Let’s start with the positives. There are some sly digs at then-popular movieland tropes (bird smooching, big actress pretending that she lives for Shakespeare) and the behind-the-scenes shots of the bustling studio at work are dynamic and interesting. The climactic shooting scene is genuinely suspenseful as it evolves into a deadly game unwitting Russian roulette.
The acting and the cinematography are good. Annette Benson plays a combination of Alice Terry, Lillian Gish and a black widow spider and keeps the audience guessing at how far she will go. The performance name-checks American stars but never turns into an impression or direct parody of any one actress.
Brian Aherne is perhaps a little too “Papa, what is beer?” in his part but I think the screenplay is more to blame than the actor. However, I did like the subtle touches that showed Julian was not nearly as popular with the public as Mae: his quiet pleasure at actually being asked to sign an autograph book, his obvious delight at anonymously watching himself play the hero in a late night screening of an older film.
David Calthrop is suitably obnoxious as a comedian who seems to have stepped out of the early 1910s Keystone concern. And, like so many other comedians, he cleans up well enough from the greasepaint and crepe mustache to be a creditable rival to Julian.
Asquith, co-director A.V. Bramble and cinematographers Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell make use of the white hot unchained camera technique but unlike Asquith’s later film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, the cinematography supports the story instead of distracting from it. Without giving too much away, there is a late scene in the film involving a chandelier that will likely induce nausea but in a good way.
(Disclaimer: Did not care for Dartmoor very much in general. Sorry.)
Black comedy is one of my favorite flavors of humor and I love a good death joke as much as the next girl but Shooting Stars didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I think a big part of the problem is that it wants to be too many things at once. Julian is wholly good, Mae is pretty much all bad and that would have been okay if this had been a melodrama but it has pretentions of having something big to say, so the cartoonish characterization just doesn’t work for me.
Or, on the other hand, the picture could have gone a bit more wicked and really leaned into Mae’s vamping, murderous ways. I think of the gleeful performance of George Beranger as a hitman in Flirting With Fate, the way he enthusiastically brags about his assorted methods of murder as though he is a salesman bragging about the features of the car he is promoting.
Basically, I see this film as having three options and it took none of them. They could have made Mae and Julian more complicated, gone in a more melodramatic direction or played up Mae as a comical villainess. The hybrid we get instead simply is not satisfying or particularly believable. Mae is like the credulity-straining ex-from-hell so many divorcees claim to have.
One gets the impression, frankly, that the filmmakers had issues with women. Asquith’s parents were rather infamously anti-suffrage and his mother proclaimed in a letter that “women have no reason, very little humour, hardly any sense of honour.” Now, I don’t normally factor the correspondence of one’s parents into a film review but, well, look at Mae.
(I should also note that a main theme of A Cottage on Dartmoor seems to be that a woman turning down her stalker and dating somebody else is somehow responsible for his going off the rails and cutting his romantic rival’s throat. I mean, good lord, Louisa May Alcott was clapping back on this nonsense back in the nineteenth century. And modern adaptations may take the opposite approach but Sir Walter Scott was against the stalking-as-love thing as well, so let’s have none of that “look at context” nonsense.)
I also felt that for its runtime, the film seems a bit thin on story and character development. Again, it’s not a bad movie or anything like that but it does skip over some things that I wanted to see. For example (spoiler) when Julian realizes exactly what Mae had planned for him, I was ready to see the fallout of the scandal and the tabloid feeding frenzy. Instead, we get a time jump forward with Julian as a director and Mae as an extra. The ending is fine but just isn’t quite there for me.
In the end, the issues I have with Shooting Stars are quite similar to the ones I had with Dartmoor: while it has a killer concept and a stylish flair, there is a lack of depth for all of the artistic ambitions obviously harbored by Asquith and his collaborators. If the picture had embraced the melodrama or if it had deepened the love triangle characters, I think I would have liked it much better.
Is it a bad film? No, it’s not. I wanted to like it a lot more. I love back comedy, I love behind-the-scenes showbiz films, this should have been a slam dunk. While I think this is generally a well-made film and worth seeing, it was slightly hollow and left a bit of a bitter aftertaste that I didn’t entirely enjoy.
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber.
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Perhaps the studio were aware of the irony of a UK made western, and anyway, Hollywood made films based on British folk heroes, so all was fair game. At least on the silent screen the actors didn’t have to affect an American accent as in Carry On Cowboy—-kind of Dick van Dyke in reverse?
I’m actually quite a big fan of non-American westerns. I love Italian spaghetti westerns, French Camargue westerns, German sauerkraut westerns and Russian Osterns. I just wasn’t familiar with any British westerns beyond Carry On Cowboy. My incredulity about Kidnapping by Indians being the first western was less about where it was filmed and more that I see zero evidence that it isn’t a Colonial/French & Indian War picture. Given the sheer amount of trunk hose seen, I tend to believe that it is and therefore not a western.
I watched ‘Shooting Stars’ again yesterday, and ‘Underground’ today.
Michael Brooke in the notes to ‘Underground’ calls ‘Shooting Stars’
“…a wittily satirical portrait of the [presumably British] film industry.” Which might be your ‘sly digs’?
I agree that the Brian Aherne character is one dimensional; it’s a surprise to discover him, after a fade out/fade in as a great film director. He’s somewhat similar in ‘Underground’ as another Dudley Do-right, but less passive.
And Annette Benson’s part isn’t a lot more complex, but she does have adultery and murderous intent in her arsenal.
Asquith in ‘Underground’ doesn’t have issues with women that I can see, the female lead is assertive as are others. And again from ‘Underground’ notes, he was a socialist who liked to direct in a blue boiler suit, so perhaps he outgrew his aristocratic parentage. ‘Underground’ is very much a working class story.
I’d agree that most of the characters in ‘Shooting Stars’ could be more complex, and the old saw of wanting like one and root for them applies; but it’s hard to pick one. (I quite like the stagehand in overalls myself, I’ve known a few particularly British film techs just like him, lots of them couldn’t wait for wrap to get off to the pub for a pint).
Please excuse my diversion from the subject; I just felt that this later film shows less of the toff and more of his abilities to depict women favourably.
I do enjoy the film from time to time, but more for its depiction of the film industry than its story.
I’m not arguing that every single one of Asquith’s films were anti-woman, merely that his two most famous silent films are rather distressingly so. I’m not sure that his posh upbringing had all that much effect on the plot of the picture (apart from guaranteeing him entrance to the top tier circles of Hollywood and his assumption that his audience would be familiar with different shotgun cartridges) but I think the anti-woman stance held by both of his parents is significant considering the context. But yes, this film’s strength is definitely in its behind-the-scenes content.
I kind of liked it – would have preferred the movie to end after Julian figured out what she had tried. The ending felt tacked on. (This was in my to-be-watched pile and I waited to read the review)
Yes, I think there would have been more impact if it had concluded there as well.
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