Why this might not seem so easy
Despite being seen with Alfred Hitchcock as the great hope of British cinema as the silents gave way to talkies, Anthony Asquith’s reputation started to calcify so early that it feels as though he has never been given a fair crack of the critical whip. In the early 1930s, documentary pioneer John Grierson said Asquith “has no feeling for people except as they can be observed from the outside”, comparing his directorial style to puppeteering. Meanwhile, Observer critic Caroline Lejeune considered him overly individualistic, complaining of a “cultured communal ideology that has little contact with the urgencies of the age”.
More recently, David Thomson dubbed Asquith “a dull journeyman supervisor of the transfer to the screen of proven theatrical properties”, whose addled worldview “accepted a 1920s notion of the intrinsic appeal of wealthy and successful people”. Others have complained that he was more a metteur-en-scène than an auteur – in other words an interpreter rather than an artist.
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Yet, there’s a consensus that the young Asquith was a master image-maker and it remains a puzzle why so few are willing to recognise the cinematic merits of the varied genre outings he produced either side of the Second World War. Or the fact that his adaptations of acclaimed stage works are models of their kind.
Inverse snobbery has something to do with it. ‘Puffin’ was the son of a prime minister who had learned about filmmaking from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch while staying in Hollywood with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The gay, Oxford-educated socialist was also something of an outsider, who didn’t stay with one studio for long. Moreover, he was deemed to lack ambition because he opted to remain in Britain and make films about what he knew rather than chase the dollar.
Such criticisms say more about the state of the UK film industry than Asquith’s talent. His first feature, Shooting Stars (1927), contains expressionist lighting effects, impressionist cutting and swooping crane shots, while his solo debut, Underground (1928), was an art deco city symphony that cut across the classes in combining social comedy and romance in a giddy whirl of urban modernity.
By contrast, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) drew parallels with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) for its elegiac rustic views and the audacious dynamism of its experimental montages. Critic Raymond Durgnat reckoned it “out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, before Hitchcock became Hitchcock”.
But Asquith retained this visual acuity, whether capturing movement in Dance Pretty Lady (1931) and The Young Lovers (1954) or filming the ballets of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev for television. He also confirmed himself to be an astute satirist of social mores with gems like French without Tears (1939) and The Final Test (1953). Yet the naysayers remain unconvinced.
The best place to start – Pygmalion
Having failed to find a niche at Gainsborough Studios or London Films in the mid-1930s, Asquith spent 3 years away from cinema and there was surprise when Gabriel Pascal chose him to direct Pygmalion (1938), in conjunction with actor Leslie Howard.
Leaving his star to shape the ensemble performances, Asquith took the bold step of asking playwright George Bernard Shaw to add the ball scene to show Cockney flowergirl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) enjoying her moment of triumph after taking elocution lessons with Professor Henry Higgins (Howard). The Irishman, who would win an Oscar for his screenplay, concurred after being inspired by Asquith’s suggestion that Eliza should mount the stairs “with the frozen calm of a sleepwalker”. What’s more, Asquith also concocted the famous line: “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.”
More significantly, he also blocked the movement of the characters to correspond with the choreography of the camera and the rhythms of David Lean’s editing, so that Pygmalion was anything but an example of animated radio.
What to watch next
When he came to adapt Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), however, Asquith sought to celebrate the comedy’s stage origins. He insisted on bookending the romantic entanglements of Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) with the raising and lowering of the proscenium curtain.
Redgrave was reuniting with Asquith after winning the best actor award at Cannes for The Browning Version (1951), which was one of the 10 films that the director made with playwright Terence Rattigan. Raymond Durgnat dismissed the pair with the epithet ‘Rattigasquith’, but they were on a wavelength and Asquith knew how to open out the action without distracting from the intensity of Rattigan’s drama. There was much of Asquith himself in Redgrave’s tormented schoolmaster, while Robert Donat’s determination to see justice done after a naval cadet is falsely charged with stealing a postal order in The Winslow Boy (1948) reflects the faith in core British values and characteristics that informed much of Asquith’s output.
Asquith had a good war, whether he was making comedies of manners like Quiet Wedding (1940) or such Gainsborough melodramas as Fanny by Gaslight (1944). But he also turned out to be an effective propagandist, with Clive Brook’s Viennese doctor sending secret messages about the Nazi threat in Freedom Radio (1940) and Russian Laurence Olivier learning as much about British life in The Demi-Paradise as co-director Burgess Meredith does in the GI informational, A Welcome to Britain (both 1943).
He also produced a superior submarine saga in We Dive at Dawn (1943) and reunited with John Mills in Rattigan’s RAF drama, The Way to the Stars (1945), in which Michael Redgrave excels as a poetic pilot. But Mills had a much more interesting role as the Spitfire ace in Cottage to Let (1941), a noirish espionage thriller set on the banks of Loch Tay that keeps the audience guessing as to who is trying to steal an inventor’s revolutionary bombsight. Slyly shifting between ratcheting suspense and comic business, Asquith gets his flagwaving message across without drumming it home. He also deftly disguises the fact the source of the screenplay is a Geoffrey Kerr play.
In The Woman in Question (1950), Asquith employed the same multiple perspective technique that was so lauded when used by Akira Kurosawa in the same year’s Rashomon. He also echoed Hitchcock in showing how difficult it could be to commit murder in Orders to Kill (1958), his favourite among his own features, which follows an American bombardier to Nazi-occupied Paris to liquidate a double agent who seems to be a harmless old man.
Where not to start
There are bound to be low points in a 36-feature career and Asquith proved incapable of recreating the magic of René Clair’s similarly themed recent hit Le Million (1931) with The Lucky Number (1933), which centres on a footballer searching for a winning pools coupon. He also struggled to impose himself upon the all-star duo of The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), which were his final collaborations with Rattigan.
The former earned Margaret Rutherford the Oscar for best supporting actress, but time has not been kind to Peter Sellers’s turn as an Indian doctor in The Millionairess (1960), Asquith’s third Shaw adaptation. To compound matters, the hit single that Sellers recorded with co-star Sophia Loren later gave its name to the satirical British Asian sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me (1996-98).