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The Silent Films of Anthony Asquith

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

November 2012 (Friday 9th November in fact) sees the 110th Birthday of one of Britain’s major film directors. Born in London in 1902, Anthony Asquith (1902 – 1968) would make some of Britain’s most important films in the 1940s and 1950s, however, he is now also becoming far more celebrated films of the later part of the silent era.

Back in 2004 Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto delved into the work of Asquith in the period from his first film,Shooting Stars (1928) to his final silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) and discussed the importance of these films as well as British Silent Cinema.

And just in case you still don’t know; the Giornate has been (and still is) for the past 31 years, one of key film festivals in the whole world when it comes to the history of early cinema. And a regular haunt for many of us at Bristol Silents (our overall highlights of this year’s festival will be our next post)!

The festival also runs a Collegium scheme which is setup to introduce and excite a new generation in the idea of cinema history and heritage. The scheme also infiltrates these newcomers into the very special community that has been evolved around the Giornate during its thirty one year history. And once again, we are thrilled to post another one of the classic Collegium papers from the past.

And we thought there wouldn’t be a better time to post a paper on the great Anthony Asquith than in the of his 110th Birthday! Our thanks to our friend Kelly Robinson and to the superb Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto for letting us post this fascinating paper once again! Enjoy! And Happy Birthday Mr Asquith!

‘The Englishman is Afraid of Experience. He is Suspicious of Emotion’: The Asquith Silents at the 23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

This essay was inspired by a discussion held at the Collegium entitled ‘Asquith and the Others: Understanding British Silent Cinema’. I want to consider, through an analyses of Asquith’s silent films, some of the factors that arose from these discussions and from subsequent interviews conducted with people on the panel or associated in some way with the films screened. First, I will look at my own impressions of British film in the 1920s before I attended the festival.

As I made my way through old notepads recently, I came across my notes from a lecture entitled ‘British Cinema in the 1920s’ given at a University nearly a decade ago. I had written that British cinema was a ‘complex entity’ and that it ‘tends to be bluntly remarked upon…Britain has made a substantial contribution to the medium’ but its ’early significance declined’; ’Pioneer filmmakers failed to adjust to profoundly changing cinema (small-scale cottage to big business)’. Cecil Hepworth, I was informed, ‘had an antiquated approach to cinema compared to America’. To illustrate these points, clips were screened from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921) and Comin’ Thro’ the Rye(Cecil Hepworth, 1923). My notes for the former included:

‘Valentino having an affair! Her gloves give him away!’ And for the latter: ‘Historical drama, elaborate clothes, restrained acting. Set in lawns of old house, romantic – not very sexy’. I was clearly excited far more by The Four Horseman; both the star and the development of the story are immediately enticing. In contrast, my notes for Comin’ Thro’ are rather staid, more detailed and less carried away by the drama enacted on the screen. The chosen scenes are then broken down shot by shot and a conclusion is drawn. It is argued, whereas The Four Horseman breaks each scene into its ‘dramatic purpose’, the Hepworth film has a tableau style, which is ‘slow and old fashioned’.

This was my first experience of British silent film. Around the same time I watched The Lodger (1927) and presumed that this was one of a kind – Hitchcock, the auteur, overcoming the ‘backwardness’ of the British industry with the sheer force of his personality. Many years later I went to see a British silent film at the cinema for the first time, The Constant Nymph (Adrian Brunel, 1928). It was screened as part of the ‘Between Passion and Restraint’ season at the National Film Theatre curated by Bryony Dixon in 2003. I remember being quite shocked that it was a British film – it had star appeal (Novello) and looked thoroughly ‘modern’. I also remember thinking again that it must be just ‘one of a kind’. But I was intrigued and it was at this point that my re-evaluation of British cinema started to take place.

My lack of interest in British silent cinema stemmed from two things; most of the critical reading I had undertaken (of which there is still very little) was dismissive of the period; and I could count the number of films I had seen on one hand. To understand why so much British cinema has been neglected it is useful to look at the origins of British film criticism. Many writers on the cinema in the 20s and 30s, including Paul Rotha, C.A.Lejeune, Ernest Lindgren, John Grierson and those associated with the journal Close-Up (writers who I have often looked to for an understanding of this period) were highly critical of British film. It didn’t have either the appeal of Hollywood or the artistry of German and Russian films. As early as 1926, Iris Barry said in Lets Go To the Picture that Britain could compete in documentary filmmaking (in this sense the actuality film) although not in much else. Frequently cited histories of British film, spanning six decades, through Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now (the first edition 1930), Michael Balcon’s Twenty Years of British Film: 1925-1945 (1947), C.A. Oakley’s Where We Came In(1964) and Rachel Low’s History of British Film (1948 – 1985) are united in their lack of enthusiasm for filmmaking in the 1920s, excepting the documentary film. A British cinema, they argued, should be socially responsible. It should reflect the lives of the people. Although there has been a remarkable amount of varied writing on the cinema these writers seem to have influenced dominant critical opinion on British cinema since. For many years then these batons of distaste were handed down to new historians and I myself picked them up. I wrote an essay on the coming of sound to Britain where I dismissed all quota quickies although I hadn’t seen one. As Bryony Dixon said to me: ‘Many of the people who dismiss British cinema do this on hearsay rather than from knowledge of the films’.

It seems somewhat contradictory that many of the people I have mentioned were involved with The Film Society. During the 1920s, there emerged a critical and theoretical concern with cinema as a modern form and The Film Society is a product of these developments. It started in 1925 and its agenda was to screen films that otherwise wouldn’t get shown. The films screened included canonised classics of the silent period, many associated with German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. These films were very popular with the Society and championed by the critics, yet they were films where style often overwhelmed content, quite the opposite to what many writers were calling for in British film. Wiene’s Caligari, Eisenstein’s Potemkin, the rest of Europe’s filmmakers were seemingly helping to create a distinct national identity through the medium of film. Britain’s critics also wanted something to call their own and they championed the word that would haunt British film criticism for years to come: Restraint.

So how do Anthony Asquith’s films fit into this? Well, quite conveniently if we disregard his earlier career. Asquith became quite notorious for not putting a personal stamp on his film (a Cahiers ‘metteur en scene’ as opposed to an ‘auteur’ in British cinema). In The Times, C.A Lejeune praised The Way to the Stars (1945) for its ‘emotional restraint… with the feeling that never spills over.’ A film such as this came to signify this specifically British ideal in films. It was a film that threw Lindsay Anderson into such vehemence in his diaries for its ‘complacency of the ‘typically English’ type; the inhibitions, the smugness, the goodness of it all!’ Yet Asquith’s silent films can’t be pigeonholed quite so easy, hence their critical neglect perhaps?

The 1920s were an extraordinary period for British film. The cottage industry had been transformed with help from big business and the 1927 Quota Act. There was a boom in production and large vertically integrated companies such as Gaumont British and British International Pictures were created. As part of the Film Europe endeavour, co- productions between Britain and Germany were popular and exchanges of production personnel became commonplace. Asquith is situated directly in this specific national historical-cultural context and it is reflected in his films. In contrast to the distinctive lack of style in his later films (this is not a criticism), the silent films are united by their extraordinary formal and persistent thematic qualities, perhaps attributable to a variety of early influences on Asquith.

Before he made these films, Asquith spent six months in America watching Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at the Fairbanks studio. Chaplin (who lived next door to the Fairbanks) was making The Circus (1928) at the time and Asquith also visited his set. According to R.J. Minney in his biography of Asquith they argued about ‘a scene in Dupont’s film Vaudeville, which showed a jealous trapeze artist with murder in his heart, swinging over the audience’:

‘Dupont,’ said Puffin talking of it later, ‘did not show the scene objectively, but put his camera on the trapeze so that one had the feeling that one was in fact seeing through the eyes of the character concerned. Charlie thought this merely an irritating trick. To him any odd cinema angle, any transposition of a shot which was so striking as to draw attention to itself, was not expressive but merely a distraction. He mentioned that such devices took the attention of the audience away from what was all-important – the doings and feelings of the people. I remember I argued that, for example, if someone in a story was terrified, you could help the actor by not making him express terror with his face, but by making what he saw look terrifying. Of course we were both right about the really fundamental thing – the paramount importance of the human element.

Perhaps the influence of Hollywood can be felt in Asquith’s silent films – in the fast-paced cutting and the gripping, melodramatic plots. But Asquith was also one of the founding members of The Film Society and was well aware of the stylistic experiments taking place abroad. Before shooting Cottage on Dartmoor (1929/30) he worked on a German co-production, The Runaway Princess (1929, codirected with Fritz Wendhausen) where he would have been exposed to German working methods. A German, Karl Fischer, lit Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor was a joint Anglo-Swedish film, shot by a Swedish cinematographer, Axel Lindblom. These films represent the potential ideal for British films discussed at the time of a combination of Hollywood narrative and European style in an endeavour to reach the widest possible audience.

During the collegium session a discussion arose around the influence of Europe and America on British cinema. Christine Gledhill had opened the collegium arguing for the need to consider cinema in its own cultural context in a positive way. In Britain’s case, its relationship to theatre and the pictorial arts. She said that we needed to let go of the notion of ‘pure cinema’. She gave as an example Asquith’s Underground and its relationship to 18th century painting and placement of figure. She argued that Asquith was not filming an unobserved social history like Dziga Vertov (whose films also featured in this year’s Giornate programme) and that social class spaces had already been represented. For filmmakers it was difficult to construct a character without an assigned social condition, and class boundaries in Asquith’s films are clearly demarcated. She argued that filmmakers used a different style to represent different social arenas. Bryony Dixon disagreed and said that in the three Asquith films there was a lack of class difference. Bryony emphasised the international influences on the film and suggested celebrating its complexity. I believe that Christine’s comments can be applied to British cinema in the early 20s, where they usefully contradict the ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ description often applied to these films. But much of British cinema in the late 20s is more complex than her cultural frameworks provide and resist such containment. The insularity of the early 20s contrasts markedly to the openness to international filmmaking in the latter part of the 20s and Asquith’s films, in particular, are striking for their readiness to experiment. To illustrate these transformations I will look more closely at Asquith’s silent ‘trilogy’: Shooting Stars, Underground and Cottage on Dartmoor.

My perception of British cinema in this period has been transformed by my experiences at the Giornate. I want to acknowledge the importance of seeing these films in the context of the festival. I have since watched Cottage again on a Steenbeck and although still clearly brilliant it doesn’t compare to viewing it in Sacile. The sensations of watching these films with an enthusiastic audience on a large screen with live musical accompaniment are integral to experiencing the films. The opening of Cottage on Dartmooris breathtakingly dynamic and needs a large screen to do justice to the image. Joe (the escaped convict) frequently drops into the frame, in one instance, his foot splashing into puddles directly in front of the camera. The horizon consists of contorted trees, smoke rising from the earth, the sun peaking from behind a cloud. There is a powerful Eisensteinian shot – as Joe rests for a moment on a rock. The land is black – a pool of light holds a reflection of the sky.

Cut to another pool of light in which a woman bathes a child. Asquith uses cross cutting between this idyllic home and the desperate fugitive in an expressionistic landscape, to create dynamic tensions. Mother and child are blissfully unaware of oncoming threat. The opening sequence ends as follows. Sally seems to sense danger. She holds some fabric up to the light and pauses:

1. Mid-shot: Sally pricks her finger. Finger to mouth. Looks up and off screen 2. Mid-shot: Joe’s figure in shadow. Looks like a ghoul. Face in darkness. Head tipped down. Eyes glaring. Arms pulled down straight 3. Close-up: Sally’s eyes widen. Puts finger in mouth. A deep intake of breath. 4. Camera zooms into close-up of Joe 5. Repeat shot 3. 6. Intertitle: “Joe!” 7. Flashback. Cut to a very different Joe at beauticians. Brightly lit. Turns towards the camera dressed in white. 8. Intertitle: “Yes, Sally?”

This opening sequence shows the skill with which people and places are presented. I suspect it was fairly innovative to have incorporated the flashback in this way – a simple cut, without warning. It is thrilling and enigmatic and completely trusting of the audience. This is an excellent example of Asquith’s ability to exploit cinema’s unique qualities, particularly space and time on which I will elaborate later. This opening sequence looks like a cross between Dovchenko’s Earth and Wiene’s Caligari with cutting by Griffith – the point being I suppose that you cannot ‘fix’ them; you could just as well argue a link with Sjöström because of Axel Lindblom. When one does endeavour to decipher the influences on this opening, the cultural frame of references feels international and ‘cinematic’.

In the Collegium, Gledhill suggested that characters are often shot in a different style according to their social class. So, for example, the lower class characters in Underground (the couple that do not have clearly defined jobs) are shot much of the time in shadow. But I would argue that shadow in Underground is less an example of class difference than an attempt to express the emotion of its haracters. For example, in the shot of Kate on the banister: she has a shadow covering her forehead but then moves into the light. It is more likely that this effect was an attempt to express her realisation of her mistreatment at Bert’s hands than to put her in her place socially. Bert is often shot with zigzag shadows across his body, but it is doubtful whether this is intended to demarcate his social space. I suspect these shadow compositions are used more as an expression of his suspect personality: his ‘badness’. The issue of class is a recurrent theme in analyses of British cinema, but doesn’t seem to have so much weight here. This is not to argue that these Asquith films are not indicative of British life or that class is irrelevant in a discussion of them. I am suggesting only that class is not always the overriding source for expression that it is often proposed to be in British cinema.

Often the settings in these films feature very English institutions – the Underground and the boarding house for example (although there are also fairly universal spaces such as the cinema), and the minor characters that fill them are often very English types providing comic relief amongst all the strained emotions. Ann Flemming, who attended the collegium, noted how in Underground people are observed in a way that shows how British documentary influenced fiction. I think this notion is critical when looking at these films and how they often combine melodramatic scenarios with bits of everyday life. An image that stayed in my mind is of the tramp walking along the street in Underground or the lady at the bar who has her equivalent in a landlord in Asquith’s The Lucky Number (1932). Often these switches in tone are unusual but not incongruous. It is quite possible that this mix of humour and tragedy, romance and melodrama was an attempt to draw in the widest audience possible. This combination is found in many films of the period (Hitchcock would refine it to perfection) and perhaps is one of the things that make these films particularly ‘British’. Stephen Horne suggests:

‘Maybe it’s the British love of the amateur, but even with the best films there’s sometimes a sense of slight underachievement. For instance, I seem to remember that “Underground” undercuts its fantastic chase climax with a moment of knockabout comedy. It’s as if we’re afraid of really “going for it”. Or, more favourably, maybe it’s our refusal to take things too seriously. Either way, one of the reasons I love Cottage so much is that its intensity seems pretty undiluted. But then, this is one film that feels more European.’

All three films are unusual in their approach to character, particularly if we compare them to the classic narrative use of protagonists. For a start everyone is deeply flawed. In Cottage our sympathies are shifting all the time. Joe is forgiven at the end because he couldn’t help himself. He says, in a heartbreakingly simple manner, as he lies dying in her arms: “You see – I couldn’t live without you”. The most impressive switch in sympathies is with Mae in Shooting Stars. She has an affair, attempts to kill her husband, and all the way through acts maliciously, yet when she walks off the stage, rejected and desolate represented by a silhouette in a shaft of light, our sympathies are confusingly drawn to her again. In this festival context we are also reliant on the pianist in our interpretation of character and mood, as Neil Brand illustrates:

‘Shooting Stars has always seemed to me a strange hybrid of drama, thriller, comedy etc. At my last performance I found myself playing it as a much darker film and began to click into the idea of adultery as seen by audiences of the time. In a sense from the start the heroine is playing with fire and ends up justifiably (to 20s audiences) getting not just burnt but destroyed. I had believed this was a film with no ‘centre of good’ i.e. all the characters were somehow at fault – however I think it would have been perceived in a much more fundamentalist way at the time.’

The hybrid quality of these films was also acknowledged in contemporary reviews, very often as a criticism. Genre mixing was seen as frivolous, undermining the seriousness of the content. Much of the drama in Asquith’s films is undercut by humour. In Cottage, often the same technique is used to provide alternately comedy or impending horror, for example the use of subjective inserts. As a man rabbits on to Joe he imagines a crow. As Joe enthusiastically describes sporting events there is an insertion of documentary footage.

The same technique is used for quite a different effect in the montages that appear before he cuts Harry’s throat. What makes Asquith particularly inspiring is not so much his choice of visual equivalents for states of mind (which are at times clichéd) but the way they are used. The tension in the beauty parlour has literally reached breaking point with a series of looks between the three protagonists. Sally is sitting beneath Harry working on his manicure; Harry is being shaved by Joe who is standing leaning over him ready to shave; Joe sees the ring on Sally’s hand as Harry caresses it. Then there is an extreme close-up of a thread being pulled, the thread snaps, water sprays up, a cannon fires, then there is a flash of bright pink. The play with time and space can extend to whole sequences. In the cinema Joe’s tortured state of mind causes him to reflect on past events involving Sally. In this film within his head we see segments of flashbacks to sequences we have already seen in the film proper. These then turn sour as Joe begins to imagine forcing himself on her – something we haven’t been witness to, which makes it very unsettling.

Asquith also uses actions to anticipate events in an almost preternatural way. For example the liquids spilling on the floor in the beauty parlour before Harry’s throat is cut, and Sally pricking her finger before she sees Joe in the scene described earlier. A more recent British film that uses similar devices is Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973). Like Roeg, and as Dupont did in Variety, Asquith often uses the camera subjectively: the most terrifying example being when he has the audience staring up at the razor. If Asquith can literally take the audience inside the heads of his characters he also successfully uses actors’ external actions to allow the audience themselves to dream. In Underground dejected Nell wanders around her room. She moves a plant, pushes a mannequin, and wipes dust from a table. The way each film is structured is memorable; the framing technique of Underground with the train entering and exiting the tunnel, the long flashback in Cottage and the films within a film in Shooting Stars. Asquith (in an interview in 1931) said: ‘I have always written my own screenplays, and it seems to me to be an absolute necessity for a director to do so’. This was relatively unusual; many films of this period were adaptations of plays or novels. It shows in the ‘modern’ approach to the stories’ construction, in their self-referentiality. A Variety reviewer observes how Shooting Stars starts with a clinch (a fiction within the fiction) and ends with the closing of a door – the exact opposite of the normal way a film plays. All three films have intriguing openings. I found particularly moving the opening of this film. The long crane shot from the pigeon in the beams of the studio to the actress on the set on the studio floor. Apart from being technically impressive it conveys the grandeur and mystery of the stage, in a way that seems to me comparable to Kieslowski’s Personel (1976).

British Cinema in 1920s, it is argued, is frequently bound up with the idea of the theatre and performance. In Shooting Stars, the ‘act’ is constantly interrogated. The aforementioned tracking shot exposes the mechanics at play in the construction of film firstly by drawing attention to itself – its length, its versatility and then also by what it films. The camera guides us through the physical make-up of the film within this film: the set, the cameras, the crew, the performance of the actors.

Asquith’s films break down the distance between the audience and the enactment. Remembering Asquith’s conversation with Chaplin, what he is interested in is what the camera can add to the conveying of emotions. The close-ups, point-of-view shots, tracking shots, framings and montage sequences in these films attempt to insert the viewer into the action.

What is clear from these films is that Asquith was someone who was interested in the creative possibilities of cinema. The oft-repeated comment by Satyajit Ray: ‘I do not think the British are temperamentally equipped to make the best use of the movie camera’ seems a misguided assumption. This argument has a long history. In an essay on ‘The English Cinema’ in Close-Up (1929), Harry Alan Potamkin says that: ‘The Englishman is afraid of experience. He is suspicious of emotion.’ Yet watching these films at the festival (a rare chance to see all the films so closely) it becomes clear that there are many exceptions. One of the highlights of the festival was watching Cottage on Dartmoor withStephen Horne’s accompaniment (now available on BFI DVD). I remember when the film finished there was a moment of silence where the audience made a pause to take a breath, for a spilt second trying to take in what they had seen – it was magical. When I asked Stephen about playing to these films he said:

‘I think that, rather than taking a ‘museum’ approach and trying to recreate whatever music might have been used originally, the most important thing is to help bring the film to life for an audience – which is inevitably contemporary. This does not mean being overtly anachronistic, which would seem ironic and therefore have a distancing / alienating effect. But rather I try to get inside the film emotionally, if that makes sense. The abundance of emotion in Asquith’s films was complemented by the musicians at the festival, some of who were even Englishmen!’

Contemporary reviews of these films reflect frequent demands made of British culture from its critics. Both Close-Up and Paul Rotha criticise Underground for not being a ‘document’ of the people and the institution of the underground. Bioscope, wishes that Asquith had focused more on the details of the story and ‘less on angles of production.’ Like many of the reviews it is cautious about the lighting techniques and ‘unusual angles’. One reviewer, probably recalling the landscapes of Hepworth, goes so far as to wish ‘Dartmoor might be presented more attractively.’

Variety published two reviews of Shooting Stars, one by an American and one by an Englishman. It is perhaps easy to guess which one was scathing about the film. The Englishman complains that the film is ‘imitative of the Ufa “absence-of-lights” complex, that it travels [sic] the camera till the looker-on becomes dizzy, and that the story is even more ordinary than the derided by implication in the film itself.’ The British critics have always been the toughest on British films. Interestingly the American reviewer remarks that if the film had been made by a continental, ‘say a German’, its artistry would be remarked upon in Britain. This echoes a later comment by Low, ‘Had Hitchcock been German, Russian or French, had he even presented himself as a more conventionally bohemian figure, he would almost certainly have been taken more seriously.’ The ‘It’s alright for them but not us’ attitude is exemplified in Rotha’s writing. He frequently enthuses about German filmmakers but is not happy about them coming to work in Britain, as if they’ll ‘pollute’ the British style (which of course they do in an extremely positive and long lasting way). Rotha’s chapter on ‘The British Film’ in The Film Till Now opens with a quote from Léon Moussinac in 1929: ‘England has never produced a truly English film’. Rotha is obsessed with national identity; with what is ‘German’, English, ‘French’ etc. In his book 10 pages are devoted to British cinema, compared to 39 to German cinema. He says:

I am unable to discern a realistic, expressionistic, naturalistic, decorative, or any other phrase in the development of the British cinema. Added to which, there are no tendencies to be traced, for British films do not have tendencies, unless allusion is made to the prevalence of cabaret scenes and war themes.

Rachael Low often remarks that these ‘international’ films appear ‘nationless’. But what is an authentically British film? In fact, what is an authentically German, Italian or French film? As Gledhill remarks in the opening of her book Reframing British Cinema, no study of a national cinema can assume a hermetically sealed culture. Someone at the collegium said “Eclecticism is often viewed as weakness”; does this justify elements of British cinema being skimmed over or ignored? Of course not, quite the opposite. These films are interesting because at these junctures interesting historical and aesthetic questions are raised.

I think British cinema is an absolutely valid contribution to the silent picture and that it does NOT need to be discussed within a protective framework…Luke McKernan’s wake up call two years ago at Nottingham re reception “We’ve been sending people to the wrong place – the original texts (the films) are only half the story” is, I think, fundamental to the study of British film in particular.

Re-evaluations of British cinema have been taking place over the last 15 years, including ‘rogue’ elements of British cinema, for example, the Gainsborough films, reviled by critics but extremely popular with audiences. These critical re-examinations exposed British identity as far from hermetically sealed and emphasised the hybrid cultural character of the films. Asquith’s films are of their moment: modern, self-referential, often classless or about one class (emphasising their universal appeal) and clearly influenced by international cinema: both avant-garde and popular forms. As my notes from the long-ago lecture illustrated, national cinemas are often defined in relation to the model of classic narrative cinema. In the collegium, Neil Brand said that Britain turned to Europe, not America during this period. These films, he argued, needed to be seen “as part of the world” and that “British cinema is not American cinema.”

After watching the films together it has become clear that there is a whole array of forces working on them. To fully appreciate what these are, demands research on the personnel, on the production organisation etc. although much of this information will be difficult to establish. Then perhaps we can begin to make suggestions as to why these films look this way at this particular era. Many of these stories have yet to be written.

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