The Puffin Mystery

Inspiring screening of SHOOTING STARS at Bo’ness — Anthony “Puffin” Asquith’s behind-the-screen melodrama looking and sounding gorgeous with Stephen Horne on accompaniment and the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, a big Puffin booster, introducing the thing.

Puffin to me represents an abiding mystery — the experimentation of his silents gives way to a rather leaden, theatrical approach. In perhaps his finest silent, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, heavily Germanic in style, the lead characters go to see a movie, and we get a wicked parody of the new talkies. And yet, once the talkies are established, Asquith largely abandons his formal innovation and his borrowings from German expressionism and French impressionism. There are some very watchable films with some very strong moments — I recently sort-of-praised his solution to the end of PYGMALION — but nothing like the crazy bravado of the first four films.

Still, there’s a very middlebrow sensibility lurking behind the flash-cuts and woozy blurs of SHOOTING STARS’ most delirious moments. In exposing the “reality” of the movie biz, Asquith focuses on a western, a thriller, and a bathing-beauty-bedecked slapstick comedy, of which only the thriller feels anything like a film that could be made in Britain in the late twenties. Asquith offers the genre stuff up for our contempt, but what he gives us instead is pure melodrama, played slow. To protect her career from the scandal of divorce, a movie queen (Annette Benson) tries to murder her husband (Brian Aherne) by planting a real shell in a prop shotgun to produce an Alec Baldwin-type on-set fatality.

It’s somewhat unlikely, and not really elevated above the norms of British film drama except by virtue of that craziness — at least, as a plot, it’s not boring. Asquith tells his story very slowly, lingering over each irony or visual possibility, often with admirable results. But perhaps the seeds of his prosaic future can be found in his not entirely justified sense of superiority over regular movie fayre, and his tendency to linger. The film has two suspense climaxes and about four codas, all of which are brilliant — I wouldn’t cut any of them, personally, and yet, taken together, they’re a bit too much. If some of that bravura had gone into the film’s middle, the drama might have been better served.

I wonder if Tom Ryall’s book, British Film Makers – Anthony Asquith, will illuminate the reasons for AA’s transformation. How did the man himself square his two radically different modes — did he feel his first films were overly fancy, or did he regret the loss of that early brio?

There seems to be something wrong with the BFI’s Blu-ray of SHOOTING STARS — the blacks aren’t black, giving the thing a weird pearlescent look, not horrible but not authentic. So it was great to see a perfect projection.

SHOOTING STARS stars Lydia La Rue; King Arthur; Bob Cratchit; Magersfontein Lugg; Cleopatra; Sir Harry Bumper; Ali Baba; and Boy Delivering Fish.


3 Responses to “The Puffin Mystery”

  1. Even Hitchcock seems to have abandoned some of the visual audacity of his earlier works – is there anything in the color era to match the teary-eyed dissolve in the b&w The Man Who Knews Too Much?

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Tempted to revisit a couple of British television serials which came to America in the 80s (Masterpiece Theater, of course). Both turn out to be on disc.

    The first, titled “Flickers”, stars Bob Hoskins as a hustler at the dawn of movies. Frances De La Tour, an heiress knocked up by a gigolo, backs his little company in exchange for marriage. The series follows their relationship and the studio’s shaky growth. “Pictures” was a follow-up but not a sequel, set in the 1920s with a new cast of characters at a large studio, owned by a larger American studio (the lone Yank on site is an impatient executive sent from the head office). More a conventional romcom, would-be filmmaker meets would-be star, but also amusing.

    Are you familiar with either? Are they reasonable evocations of British film history?

  3. I didn’t know Pictures, but Flickers is pretty authentic, I seem to recall. Cheap video look, which is a shame. But Hoskins and De La Tour are wonderful actors.

    Hitchcock never abandoned psychological effects, though they maybe got a little subtler. Still, there’s the cigarette lighter reflections that click on in Pat Hitchcock’s eyes in Strangers on a Train, for instance…

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