Blu-ray Review: Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground

In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres.

Shooting Stars

Although British director Anthony Asquith is known primarily for such acclaimed stage-to-film adaptations as Pygmalion, The Browning Version, and The Importance of Being Earnest, the first two of his three silent films, Shooting Stars and Underground, display a fully formed and unique vision of the tragic consequences of love. Released at the tail end of the silent era in 1928, these films tap into the violent impulses often lurking beneath romantic obsession, starting off as lighthearted comedies before sliding into something far more nefarious when their main characters sour on love.

Shooting Stars begins as a meta-satire of the film industry, cleverly and amusingly pulling back the curtain to reveal the often-clunky machinery involved in creating cinematic magic. Asquith opens on a schmaltzy, softly lit close-up of a cowboy kissing a young woman sitting in a tree, but after the cowboy rides off, the woman picks up a nearby dove to snuggle, only for the bird to bite her lip. And in true diva form, she looks directly into the camera, shrieking and angrily cursing up a storm. The romantic illusion is even further shattered when we see the cowboy being wheeled off screen on a makeshift wooden horse and a stunning crane shot tracks the actress as she storms from one set to another on the floor above, capturing all of the ropes, ladders, backdrops, and lighting apparatus that go into making cinema gold.

Few films of the silent era so baldly lay bare the unflattering, factory-like nature of early movie-making. But it’s the film’s collisions between the idealistic romance of so many silent films and the rougher realities outside of the camera’s eye that Shooting Stars is ultimately more interested in. Despite the on-screen chemistry of the aforementioned actors—Mae (Annette Benson) and Julian (Brian Aherne), who also happen to be their studio’s de facto power couple—and the former’s loving praise of her husband during a puff-piece interview, the actress is desperately looking for a way out of her seemingly happy marriage.

In a particularly amusing bit, Mae stands in the high-rise apartment of her lover, the hacky slapstick comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop), as an advertisement for her and Julian’s new film hangs in the middle of the frame, slyly blinking the title in bright lights: My Man. Asquith doubles down on the irony by cutting to Julian inside a theater, cheering on his on-screen counterpart from one of his earlier films as the hero rushes to rescue his wife from a friend who’s forcing himself upon the helpless woman. Here, cinema has become pure wish-fulfillment, and in the case of Julian, he took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Following Julian’s inevitable rude awakening to Mae’s unfaithfulness, the film further blurs the line between fiction and reality when a blank from a rifle used in the western the actors are shooting is replaced with a real bullet. The material’s wry humor gives way to a suspenseful sequence that lends Shooting Stars a genuine pathos and psychological complexity as the stakes turn deadly and the title of the film takes on a second, and ironic, resonance.

Underground replaces film sets with the more lower-class milieu of the London Underground, but the toxic nature of jealousy is just as pronounced here. As in the earlier film, Asquith begins on a light note, with a kindly ticket taker, Bill (Aherne), falling in love with a classy salesgirl, Nell (Elissa Landi). In a scene that evinces a bit of the elusive Lubitsch touch, shadows on a distant wall act out various forms of kissing and embracing as the two youngsters flirt. But the shadows in this film soon take on more foreboding, harshly angular shapes as the brutish, envious Bert (Cyril McLaglen) schemes to have Nell all to himself.

Like Shooting Stars, Underground cleverly upends audience expectations in its handling of a love triangle, avoiding focusing on which man Nell will choose and instead morphing into a shockingly dark “wrong man” thriller that anticipates noir in both its aesthetics and thematic concerns. In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres, using that familiarity to his advantage as he injects romantic flights of fancy with a playfulness and hard-edged honesty that gives these otherwise humorous films an underlying psychosexual tension and emotional richness.

Shooting Stars and Underground are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The Criterion Channel: Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming

Next Story

Blu-ray Review: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd on the Criterion Collection