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March 30, 2008
Anthony Asquith (1902-1968)
Anthony Asquith by Helen Wilson in the National Portrait Gallery
Anthony Asquith was born in 1902 whose father Herbert Asquith became the Liberal Prime Minister of the UK from 1908-1916. He gained the nickname of 'Puffin' and was educated at Winchester and Oxford. Drazin notes Asquith's enthusiasm with film as an undergraduate when he sometimes saw up to three films a day.
Upon leaving university he went to Los Angeles for about six months where he came into contact with many of the leading figures in the film industry. On his return to the UK he was determined to enter the film business which wasn't then consider a 'respectable'career for somebody of his background as Drazin notes:
At the time it was an extraordinary aspiration for someone of his class to have, the cinema generally being frowned upon as a rather tawdry diversion for the masses... . (Drazin 2007 p 187)
Early Years in the Industry
He went to work with Bruce Woolfe for British Instructional Films which was a company formed in 1919 that specialised in documentary reconstructions of World War 1 as well as a series of natural history documentaries. In 1925 Asquith was so embedded in film culture he became a founding member of the London Film Society and was enthusiastic about all the latest films from Germany, Russia etc. In 1926 he joined Woolfe at the Stoll Film Company in Cricklewood as a general assistant. Asquith was to direct 4 short films in the late 1920s. His first sound film was Tell England (1931). Asquith joined Gainsborugh Films in 1932 and worked on both screenwriting and directing. In 1935 he joined Korda's London Films directing Moscow Nights in 1935. In 1937 he became President of the recently formed Association of Cine Technicians. He held this position until 1968 when he died of cancer in February whilst working on a film.
The recently released Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) from BFI has been regarded by many as providing the evidence that at this stage in his career Asquith was at least as good as if not better than Hitchcock.
Asquith's breakthrough film was Pygmalion (1938) on which George Bernard Shaw himself worked on the script. It gained a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and gained Oscars for adaptation and its screenpaly. It was Shaw who won the latter. Asquith's next film French Without Tears (1940) was the first of ten films which he directed in collaboration with Terence Rattigan the playwright.
Asquith During the War
Asquith's Wartime output was prolific it encompassed straightforward war stories such as We Dive at Dawn, Spy Thriller propaganda such as Cottage to Let (1941), comedy as in Quiet Wedding (1941)and also the well-known Gainsborough melodrama Fanny by Gaslight (1944).
Phyllis Calvert and Margretta Scott in Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Asquith's Postwar Output
After the war Asquith continued to make films on a regular basis of around one per year. He made several films which Terence Rattigan had scripted including Rattigan's most successful plays The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).
The Browning Version
Asquith also continued to make films from the British literary repertoire such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Asquith worked in a number of genres and ended up working on large budget co-productions with US companies. Despite promising beginnings Asquith never became a director who own powerful vision came through as something of an auteur unlike his contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. Asquith has been considered as more of a metteur en scene.
From Asquith 1952 version of The Importance of Being Earnest
The Browning Version (1951)
The Winslow Boy (1948)
While the Sun Shines (1947)
The Way to the Stars (1945)
Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Two Fathers (1944)
The Demi-Paradise (1943)
We Dive at Dawn (1943)
Cottage to Let (1941) Not yet open
Quiet Wedding (1941)
Freedom Radio (1941)
Rush Hour (1941)
French Without Tears (1940)
Channel Incident (1940)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Geoffrey McNab on Asquith: Guardian 2003
Caughie, John with Rockett, Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassells
Drazin, Charles. 2007. The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s. London: I. B. Tauris