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This is a comprehensive critical study of Anthony Asquith. The author sets the director's work in the context of British cinema from the silent period to the 1960s, and examines the artistic and cultural influences within which his films can be understood. Asquith's silent films were compared favourably to those of his eminent contemporary Alfred Hitchcock, but his career faltered during the 1930s. However, the success of Pygmalion (1938) and French Without Tears (1939), based on plays by George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan respectively, together with his significant contributions to wartime British cinema, re-established him as one of Britain's leading film makers. Asquith's post-war career includes several pictures in collaboration with Rattigan, and the definitive adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1951), but his versatility is demonstrated effectively in a number of modest genre films including The Woman in Question (1950), The Young Lovers (1954) and Orders to Kill (1958).
This chapter provides an account of the films of Anthony Asquith, and draws attention to the varied body of work with which he is associated. His works have been positioned in relation to the various directions taken by the British film during the period of his career, and he is regarded as one of the most underrated film directors in British film history. Although not ignored by scholars and critics, Asquith's work has certainly not had anything like the attention enjoyed by his most distinguished contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, and neither has it had the consideration devoted to figures such as Michael Powell and David Lean. The selection represents a diverse career in which art cinema, middlebrow culture, and popular art are reflected, although the films chosen are not intended to indicate any particular ranking in Asquith's career as a whole.
This chapter charts the topography of the British film industry in the 1920s, when Anthony Asquith began his film career. Asquith entered the film industry in the mid-1920s, towards the end of the troubled silent period when the production industry in Britain was in decline in the face of competition from the American film. The industry struggled to find a position in the market and seemed to many on the brink of extinction. The 1928 Cinematograph Films Act effectively laid the foundations for a British production industry by, among other provisions, requiring exhibitors to screen a number of British films as part of their annual schedules. It was also a period marked by ‘a lively engagement with issues of film criticism and aesthetics’, which was stimulated in part by the new adventurous films from Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, and the Soviet Union. Tell England (1931), the much-delayed project about the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War, was to be Asquith's first sound film proper, though, as with Shooting Stars, he was to work in collaboration with another experienced figure. British Instructional had proved to be a congenial context for the start of a career in film making; the next phase of Asquith's career was to prove somewhat more problematic.
This chapter looks into the problems faced by Anthony Asquith during the 1930s. He joined Gainsborough Pictures, merged with the Gaumont-British, which, during the decade recruited an impressive array of stars, directors and technicians. However, things did not quite work out for the director, and Asquith effectively got lost in the array. He spent around two years at Gaumont-British and directed just one film: The Lucky Number (1933). Asquith's other work during this period was confined to working for or with other directors, and he failed to make a mark in the smaller London Films, run by the flamboyant Hungarian-born Korda, and also with Max Schach. The one clear feature of his professional life at this time was his appointment as President of the ACT, the film technicians' union. Towards the end of the decade, Pygmalion (1938) and French Without Tears (1939) reestablished Asquith as a leading film maker and were effective in defining the ‘middlebrow’ Asquith, the accomplished adapter of mainstream theatre for the screen, perhaps the dominant strand in his eventual directorial image.
This chapter explores the films directed by Asquith during the Second World War. French Without Tears was released late in 1939, a few months after the outbreak of the war, but the film showed no trace of the turbulent context into which it was released. However, it was not long before Asquith threw himself into the war effort and started making films that drew directly on the war. Freedom Radio (1940), his first war-related film, was a large-scale production made for the Two Cities company. Asquith's next film – Quiet Wedding (1940) – was for the Paramount company and was a box-office success. In 1941, Asquith rejoined Gaumont-British and directed three war films: Cottage to Let (1941), Uncensored (1942) and We Dive at Dawn (1943). He returned to Two Cities, where he directed two war pictures: The Demi-Paradise (1943) and The Way to the Stars (1945). In common with many directors of the time, Asquith also made a number of propaganda documentary dramas for the Ministry of Information.
This chapter sheds light on the post-war British film industry and the turn Asquith's career took during these times. He was well established as one of the British cinema's leading directors on the basis of a diverse output: the middlebrow drama adaptations of Shaw and Rattigan, lowbrow genre films including a comedy thriller and a costume melodrama, patriotic war pictures and documentary dramas. Asquith resumed his directing career with While the Sun Shines (1947), and his next film, The Winslow Boy (1948), was a Rattigan adaptation in which he corraborated with Korda's revived London Films and British Lion. The Importance of Being Earnest, a version of Oscar Wilde's famous play from the 1890s, was his first film in colour. Asquith's genre exercises from the early 1950s, though containing much of interest – innovatory narrative structures, imaginative mise-enscène, lyricism, and poetry, the radical ideological questioning of war – remain little-known films on the periphery of the mainstream British cinema of the time.
This chapter examines the directorial image of Anthony Asquith that was built upon ‘filmed theatre’ during the late 1940s and through the 1950s. For him the theatre played a major role, with eight of the seventeen feature films he directed between 1947 and his final film in 1964 based on stage plays of various kinds. It was this kind of film that played a key role in Asquith's image as a director, often to his detriment. As a skilled adapter of stage drama, with a number of films based on the plays of Wilde, Shaw, and Rattigan, among others, Asquith acquired a reputation as a metteur-en-scène rather than an auteur. He appeared to have secured his artistic emancipation early in his career but to have succumbed subsequently to theatrical enslavement as a translator of the work of dramatists. Analysis of passages from the films certainly indicates a ‘reimagining’ in terms of cinema; however, close elements from the play – the dialogue – survive the journey to the screen.
This chapter scrutinizes the final phase of Anthony Asquith's career and the internationalising of the scope of his films. Since the late 1940s, the major Hollywood companies and the new breed of independent American producers had been making films in Britain and other European countries, generating a more international approach to the business of film making. Asquith's third Shaw adaptation, The Millionairess (1960), was also made under American auspices, as a contribution to an expanded British-based schedule of ‘runaway’ productions planned by Twentieth Century Fox. His next film Two Living, One Dead was shot entirely in a Swedish studio and on location in Stockholm. Guns of Darkness had a foreign setting, a story of revolution in a Latin America republic, and much of the film was shot on location in Spain. Both films indicated the ‘international trend’ in some respects – non-British settings, filmed wholly or partly overseas, ‘international Hollywood stars’ and United States distribution links in the case of Guns of Darkness. However, it was Asquith's two final films that embodied what most critics thought of as the vices of ‘international’ film production in the 1960s.
This chapter shows Asquith's contribution to the British film industry. In a career lasting from the 1920s to the 1960s, Asquith directed thirty-five feature films and also worked in a variety of capacities on other films: foreign-version direction, screenwriting, and second unit work. He made a number of short films; some were documentary drama films made for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, others were made for charities such as the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and St Dunstan's, a centre for the blind. During Asquith's career, the industry went through numerous changes, responding to the challenge of Hollywood, to the example of European cinema and to major events such as the Second World War, constructing a body of films that prompted both despair and enthusiastic endorsement by critics at various times. The twenty or so titles chosen from the thirty-five features that Asquith directed reflect a number of things, not least of which is ease of availability. However, the selection represents a diverse career in which art cinema, middlebrow culture and popular art are reflected, although the films chosen are not intended to indicate any particular ranking in Asquith's career as a whole.
‘Art cinema’ as a significant historical element of a national film culture has a secure place in the histories of the major European cinemas (France, Germany, the Soviet Union), apart, that is, from the British. Despite a vigorous minority film culture (the Film Society, small magazines such as Close Up, writers such as Paul Rotha and Iris Barry), and some evidence of an incipient avant-garde cinema (Sexton, 2008), British films remain tangential to the discussions of what Andrew Tudor (2005) has termed the ‘formative’ period of the European art film during the 1920s. Though a major European cinema with roots in the prehistory of the medium, Britain did not produce a Caligari or a Battleship Potemkin. This chapter examines the case for a British ‘art’ cinema of the 1920s, comparable to the canonical European cinemas in the context of the film culture of the period, and an evident climate of intellectual interest in ‘the art of film’. It incorporates case studies on the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith.