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Anthony Asquith

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2011

A successful and long-time contributor to British cinema, it is surprising that there does not appear to be a full-length study of Anthony Asquith. There is a biography by Lesley Frewin, Puffin Asquith, [The title includes his nickname, published, London 1973], but not, it seems, a full-length study of his film output. Two of his later films, The Way to the Stars (1945), and The Importance of Being Ernest (1952) count among the classics of British cinema. And he was a fine director of actors, warmly admired by many who worked with him. Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion (1938) and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version (1951) are among the outstanding performances elicited by him. It seems that Asquith was a supporter of what is now the auteur position: “I will only say that every work of art, even where more than one mind had gone to its shaping, ultimately bears the imprint of a single personality.” [Quoted by Brian McFarlane.] In fact, collaboration was an important component in his work: these include six films from the pen of Terence Rattigan. There are also at least four features where he is credited as co-director.  The latter include two of his early silent films.

Asquith was a young cinephile: he spent six months in Hollywood as a guest of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, observing the film capital at close quarter, [presumably the trip was due in part to family connections, his father was an ex-Liberal Prime Minister]. Asquith was also a co-founder of the London Film Society. This early example of art cinema exhibition provided opportunities to see creative and influential European films like those of German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. His early films show the influence of the narrative economy of the best of 1920s Hollywood and follow, to a degree, the developing conventions of continuity. But they also use the techniques which graced European art films. What is noticeable is that Asquith tends to use them in a manner akin to that of the creators, unlike Hitchcock who revised them in line mainstream conventions.

Asquith’s first feature was made for British Instructional Films. He had started there in a junior role. The company, formed in 1919, initially developed features from actual war stories, sort of early docu-dramas. By the late 1920 they were involved in straightforward genre features. Asquith’s first feature was Shooting Stars (1928) on which he is credited with co-directing with A. V. Bramble. Bramble was an actor-producer with a theatrical background. He had entered film production with the British pioneer Cecil Hepworth. It seems likely that the young Asquith was mainly responsible for the direction on set: and the film bears the stylistic marks that are repeated in his other silents. He also wrote the scenario with J. O. C. Orton. The film is a tour-de-force, especially as it is a first time outing for a young filmmaker. The film centres on a romantic triangle. There is Mae Feather (Annette Benson) married to a fellow film star Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne) but involved with a film comedian Andy Willis (Donald Calthrop). The reflective angle on the film medium is emphasised by a number of sequences in the film, which play on the conventions of film and popular genres. The ending is a particular fine example as an ironic counterpoint is developed on the tragic ending within the setting of the film studio. The film also displays some impressive technical effects, one being a tracking shot across the various sets of the film studio, which also sets up the climax of the narrative. At a thematic level Mae’s stardom has aroused interest by a Hollywood studio. The playing out of the triangle not only subverts her ambitions; it sets up a contrast between British and Hollywood film in the person played by Julian Gordon. It is an unintended irony that Aherne subsequently became an actual Hollywood star.

On his second feature, Underground (1928), Asquith receives a solo credit both for direction and the scenario. This is another romantic drama, this time involving a quartet: Brian Aherne is once again the hero Bill, his rival is a philanderer Bert (Cyril McLaglen}: whilst the contrasting women are the beautiful Nell (Elissa Landi) and a young seamstress Kate (Norah Baring). The drama concludes with a dramatic rooftop chase and conflict. The film makes strong use of chiaroscuro techniques, as seen in the contemporary German films. Whilst the cinematographer was the British Stanley Rodwell, the lighting was by Karl Fischer, bought over from a German Studio. There are also some nice sequences filmed on the London Underground where the romance starts.

European co-operation, especially with the advanced German Studios like Ufa, was important for British cinema: and seemingly for the young Asquith. His next feature was a co-production between British Instructional Films and the German Laender Film. This was The Runaway Princess (Priscillas fahrt Glück, 1929: co-director Fritz Wendhausen). I haven’t seen the film, but the title of the novel by Elizabeth Russell on which it is based, Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight, gives an idea of the plot. Gifford in his Catalogue of British Films offers the following synopsis: “Prince in disguise saves runaway princess from a forger’s dupe.” The forger was played by Norah Baring, who is a regular lead actress across the later three 1920s features.

 Asquith’s final silent was originally a part-sound film Cottage on Dartmoor (1920: made in the same year as Hitchcock’s Blackmail. In fact, the sound version, which used the German Tobis-Klangfeld sound-on-film system, has been lost: so only a silent version survives. This was also scripted and directed by Asquith, developed from a story by Herbert C. Price. The film was a co-production with a Swedish studio, [presumably Svensk] with the Swedish version titled Fängen 53. This involved a British cinematographer, Stanley Rodwell, and a Swedish cinematographer, Axel Lindblom: presumably using two cameras. Norah Baring plays Sally, once again involved in a romantic triangle, with Jo (Uno Henning) and Harry (Hans von Schlettow – both actors from the German film industry).

Once again there is the expressionist style together with some superb editing, and particular scenes using montage. This style dramatises the conflicts in the film, set out in a superb opening and a following complex flashback. A particular delight is a visit to a cinema to watch a ‘talkie’. This was originally a sound sequence, but it works fine in the silent version. Asquith tackled this sequence by using non-synchronous sound, enabling him to maintain the dynamic camera work and editing that characterises much of the film.

Cottage on Dartmoor appears to be the type of feature that benefited from the increased investment in film that followed on the 1927 Film Act and the prospects that seemed to be promised by the new sound technology. The film was shot at the newly constructed Welwyn Studio and distributed by the fairly recently formed company of Pro Patria. Such expectations were not realised. In the 1930s British cinema suffered as Hollywood dominated the box office and set production standards that British film could rarely match. Not only Brian Aherne, but also Alfred Hitchcock [among others] crossed the Atlantic to the rival film city. Asquith stayed but only occasionally did his sound films match his early silents in technical prowess or dynamism. Around 1938 he commented: “ … the arrival of the talking film … not only killed the silent film but at first, at any rate, failed to substitute anything positive for it …” [McFarlane]. However, as I noted there are a number of real masterworks among his later output.

Quotes from An Autobiography of British Cinema by Brian McFarlane, Methuen 1997.

 Stills kindly provided by the bfi at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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One Response to “Anthony Asquith”

  1. […] was also the morning feature. This was filmed by British Instructional Films and directed by Anthony Asquith. Asquith is a much neglected British director. His earlier silent films are very fine, and so is […]

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