Near the beginning of Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith’s directorial debut, he boldly declares his infatuation with the movies in an astonishing sequence. It begins with a tender love scene between a cowboy on a horse and a golden-haired beauty perched in a blossom-laden tree. As he rides off into the sunset, the dove she’s billing and cooing with attacks her, and we see that his horse is a sawhorse propelled by stagehands; they are in a scene being shot on a film stage. Then, the camera wanders around the entire building, not only introducing characters but also providing a fascinating look at the mechanics of filmmaking. There is a bravura one-and-a-half minute overhead tracking shot that follows the female star as she leaves the set, goes up one flight of stairs and down another to where another movie is filming, and ends with a glimpse of musicians providing mood music for those actors. All this takes place in the first ten minutes, setting up what at first appears to be a comedy but turns into a romantic triangle among a married pair of stars and a Chaplinesque comic and then into a thriller as dizzying as that opening.
Asquith’s privileged background was an unlikely preparation for a film career. The son of a British prime minister and his socialite second wife, Asquith had an upper-class upbringing with a boarding school education, followed by Oxford. During his university years, he became an avid moviegoer, seeing some films six or seven times; his insatiable appetite for cinema included not just British and American films, but the more innovative works coming out of France, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union. Asquith became one of the founding members of London’s Film Society, which held screenings and promoted artistic appreciation of film. His older sister Elizabeth had married a Romanian diplomat, Prince Antoine Bibesco, and, after Asquith graduated in the mid-1920s, he visited the couple in Washington where Bibesco was posted. From there, Asquith and his sister traveled to Hollywood, where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, eager to host titled visitors, were thrilled to have a member of European royalty and the son of a former British prime minister as guests in their home.
The Hollywood crowd was impressed with young Asquith’s knowledge of film. Lillian Gish told Asquith biographer R.J. Minney, “He could talk with authority about films made all over the world—the techniques of the various directors … how all the effects were obtained. He was really dedicated to films. It was his vocation, like the priesthood.” Asquith later told Minney that he had spent a lot of time at the Fairbanks-Pickford studios observing the couple at work. “I made a close study of all the processes of film-making, from camera work to cutting and editing. I asked endless questions, I’m afraid.” He also got to know the couple’s close friend and neighbor, Charlie Chaplin, and spent time observing during the production of Chaplin’s The Circus, even arguing with him about the point-of-view shot on the trapeze in E.A. Dupont’s Varieté, “which Charlie thought was merely an irritating trick.” Asquith spent six months in America’s movie capital, also observing other directors such as Ernst Lubitsch at work. This informal apprenticeship was the ideal preparation for his future career.
Back in London in 1926 and determined to work in the movies, he sent a screenplay he had written to the head of production at British Instructional Films, which made nature documentaries and films about World War I. The company was moving into feature production and Asquith was hired. His first screen credit, Boadicea, about the Celtic warrior queen, was “Property Master, Assistant Make-Up Artist, Assistant Cutter, Stunt Man.” He later gleefully described what he did to earn the latter credit. “Lillian Hall-Davis, as Boadicea’s daughter, had to career at great speed across the Sussex Downs in a chariot … So I put on a flowing blonde wig and billowing robes and sat perched high in the chariot while the horses tore across the field.”
Asquith climbed the production ladder quickly. After working in various capacities on Thou Fool, he moved into the director’s chair. The opening credit on Shooting Stars reads “Shooting Stars by Anthony Asquith,” whose original story it was. The director is listed as A.V. Bramble, but most sources agree that Bramble’s purpose was only to supervise the less experienced Asquith. A recently discovered copy of the original screenplay shows that Asquith planned for every shot in the completed film. Even most of the press accounts of the era refer to the production as an Anthony Asquith film. The production’s visual pyrotechnics showcase Asquith’s love of German and Russian techniques throughout, not just in the impressive opening. One scene of a bicycle careening down a cliff is reminiscent of the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Shooting Stars was the first British film credit for German lighting technician Karl Fischer, who also lit Asquith’s next film, Underground. Asquith’s final British silent, the thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor, was released in 1929.
Shooting Stars was a big hit with audiences in Europe, but opinion on both sides of the Atlantic was mixed. Variety ran two reviews, a negative one by an English critic and a positive one by an American. The British critic wrote, “Acting and photography are both good. The rest is inexcusable.” The American writer, who liked it overall, nevertheless noted, “the picture is too modern for the average moving picture patron, who is confronted with the difficulty of carrying in his mind a story within a story and then part of another story within the inside story.”
Asquith had been one of the most exciting young British filmmakers of the late silent era. But in the early 1930s British Instructional was taken over by another company, and Asquith changed studios several times. For the next few years, his career stagnated with a series of mediocre pictures. He regained his footing when he was hired to codirect the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938). Star Leslie Howard agreed to play Henry Higgins if he could also direct, but he soon found he was in over his head and asked for help. Asquith was brought in and not only had to deal with Howard, but also with two outsize egos, Shaw’s and producer Gabriel Pascal’s, plus editor David Lean, who had his own directing ambitions and ideas for the film. Always kind, tactful, and gentlemanly, Asquith smoothly managed to satisfy all concerned, and the film was a big hit. By the 1950s, Asquith was one of the few British filmmakers to have a successful international career. He was perceived as a director who specialized in stories of the upper classes and literary and theatrical adaptations, the types of films that were becoming passé with the rise of the “kitchen sink drama” of the era. Asquith’s final two films were part of an emerging genre reflecting the new reality of international coproductions: the all-star omnibus movie featuring actors with global reputations, The V.I.P.s (1963), starring Taylor and Burton, and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), with Ingrid Bergman and Omar Sharif.
When he died in 1968, Asquith’s youthful experimentation with film was far behind him; his work had settled into a smooth, if sometimes bland professionalism. In a long and prolific career that spanned three dazzling, increasingly confident silents and three dozen varied, elegant, and well-crafted sound films, Asquith proved to be one of Britain’s most successful— if not always admired—filmmakers. Reflecting on his career, film critic Dilys Powell summed up his indisputable influence: “It is impossible to think of the British film industry without thinking of Anthony Asquith.”
The 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award was presented to David Robinson at this program.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Stephen Horne