How to make your first (silent) movie count

This long tracking shot through a film studio is just one of the ways that the precocious young debut director Anthony Asquith announced his arrival in the 1928 film about filmmaking Shooting Stars.

Bryony Dixon
Updated:

Watch the long tracking shot in Shooting Stars (1928)

Shooting Stars is the best-named film of the late 1920s. It works on so many levels – just like its maker, clever first-timer Anthony Asquith. He was a young director eager to make his mark.

Filmmaker Ivor Montagu tells a story of the young Alfred Hitchcock, who was asked once who you should make films for. He replied rather unexpectedly “the press” – that you have to give them “novel shots that the critics would pick out and comment upon”. He went on to explain: “’If you made yourself publicly known as a director, and this you could only do by getting mentioned in the press in connection with your directing, it would be the only way you would become free to do what you wanted.”

Maybe Asquith was there on that occasion because this is exactly what he did with his first film.

He was all over Shooting Stars in this regard. He was going straight to the top, like a… well… like a shooting star.

How do I know this? Well I’ve been working with his films for many years. The BFI National Archive restored his other silent works Underground (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). I always thought Asquith’s style was very developed and easy to read, yet with enough layers of meaning to raise a film story out of the ordinary.

Shooting Stars (1928)

Shooting Stars (1928)

Then came proof positive. Just come to light and newly digitised is that rarest of phenomena in silent movie world: an original screenplay. The script confirmed everything I thought about the rationale behind the film.

What the screenplay shows is that Asquith (assisted in the scripting by John Orton) had planned the film in meticulous detail. He knew his locations – one shot in particular could only be done at Cricklewood Studios. He wrote into the script that only the best cinematography would do, with “novel camera angles” and involving “the most modern form of technique”.

Then, of course, there is the theme that Asquith chooses for his first film – filmmaking itself. This was quite a novel idea at that time when celebrity culture and the star system were just hotting up.

It was also a bit cheeky. Maybe people didn’t want the veils lifted on the moral character of their heroes and heroines. Perhaps the industry didn’t want its trade secrets given away. During the film we see every aspect of filmmaking laid out – the studio itself, the lights and crew, the different stages, the fan magazine journalists and autograph hunters, the musicians who supplied instant atmosphere for the actors, the canteen full of extras waiting stoically for a day’s work. The script tells us that the film being shot in the opening sequence, ‘Prairie Love’, is a bit passé, something that D.W. Griffith might have made. 

Asquith is making a bold statement about himself – that, for his generation, filmmaking has moved on. Not for him the corny genre film, and everything on his set would be professionalised. Asquith had studied filmmakers in Hollywood and the modern superstudios of Berlin. He knew that the modern director needed to understand all the processes profoundly, plan every shot and bring in specialist equipment and technicians.

The cover of the pressbook for Shooting Stars (1928)

The cover of the pressbook for Shooting Stars (1928)
Credit: BFI Special Collections

As we can see, all the publicity for the film has Asquith’s name right up front and central. The cautious producers, embarking on their first fiction feature, put the experienced A.V. Bramble in to supervise the direction. But there wasn’t much for him to do – the script shows Asquith had covered everything. Bramble was hopelessly outclassed.

This was the gamble of Asquith’s career and it paid off. His rise was truly meteoric.

Original invitation to a Shooting Stars screening at Park Hall, Cardiff

Original invitation to a Shooting Stars screening at Park Hall, Cardiff
Credit: BFI Special Collections

Director Asquith on the set of Shooting Stars with A.V. Bramble, supervising director and probably photographer Stanley Rodwell behind his Bell & Howell 2709

Director Asquith on the set of Shooting Stars with A.V. Bramble, supervising director and probably photographer Stanley Rodwell behind his Bell & Howell 2709

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