British director Anthony Asquith is best remembered today for his elegant film adaptations of plays by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Terence Rattigan, and also for the star-studded international melodramas he made at the end of his career, such as The VIPS (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). However, the film that firmly established Asquith’s credentials as a filmmaker was a silent-era psychological thriller which has only lately been rediscovered by contemporary audiences. A Cottage on Dartmoor was one of the last silent films produced in Britain, and only the third film of Asquith’s career. Completed and released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor was greeted as proof of a resurgent British cinema, which had floundered since World War One.
Anthony Asquith was born in 1902 to Herbert Henry Asquith, a Liberal Party politician who would become Prime Minister of England just four years later, and Margot Tennant Asquith, a free-spirited woman who gave her beloved son the nickname “Puffin.” He was a pampered and privileged youth who grew up in the official residence of the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street, and from his earliest age he was surrounded by the elite of British society. Asquith initially aspired to a career as a composer, rather than follow his family’s tradition of politics and law. However, as a student at Oxford University he was inexorably drawn to the cinema. He saw some films as many as six times in a single day, and he took particular interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking. As a founding member of the Film Society of England he was able to gain access to films never released in Britain, including German and Russian masterpieces such as Metropolis and The Battleship Potemkin. It was at Film Society screenings that Asquith acquired a detailed knowledge of avant-garde films from around the world.
Following his graduation from Oxford in 1925, Asquith went to New York to visit his sister Elizabeth, a playwright who had many friends in the American film industry. They traveled to Hollywood together, where they were guests of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and they met such stars and directors as Lillian Gish, Ernst Lubitsch and Charlie Chaplin. Asquith also spent time on the set at the United Artists studio, where we watched and studied Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin at work.
Chaplin was of special interest to Asquith, and we owe a particularly memorable moment in A Cottage on Dartmoor to a scene filmed and rejected by Chaplin during the making of The Circus. Chaplin had instructed his cameraman – the legendary Rollie Totheroh – to film a scene by attaching a camera to a trapeze bar, which would serve to represent the point of view of The Little Tramp as he swung high above the audience. Chaplin declared the result to be little more than an “irritating trick” because it did not show the scene objectively, and it drew too much attention to itself. Asquith responded by arguing that it could well be used to transport the viewer directly into the character. Chaplin disagreed, but the scene stayed with Asquith, who was fascinated by the many tools a director has at his disposal to manipulate the image in a way that can profoundly affect the experience of the viewer. It was this fascination that led him to make films himself, and, consequently, to use a similar “trick” to great effect in A Cottage on Dartmoor.
On his return to England, Asquith managed to get hired onto a film, and his enthusiasm rapidly earned him multiple assignments: property master, make-up assistant, stunt man and assistant editor. Within a year, Asquith was directing his first film, Shooting Stars. A film about filmmaking, Shooting Stars is both a study in contemporary film technique and a satirical look at the lowly state of British cinema in the 1920s. When Asquith made A Cottage on Dartmoor two years later, he would confidently employ many of the techniques he absorbed from the rich tradition of European silent film – just as it was buckling under the strain of the new sound technology.
When Asquith began work on A Cottage on Dartmoor, the state of British cinema reflected that of the nation itself: economically and culturally exhausted, slow to recover from a devastating war. 80 percent of all films shown in British theaters in 1915 were domestically produced, but the war effort had crippled the industry. By 1925, the number of domestic productions had plummeted to 20 percent, as Hollywood and continental Europe grew increasingly dominant. The downturn in domestic film production, coupled with a continuing economic recession, grew so severe that, in 1927, the British government passed the Cinematograph Film Act. The act mandated that five percent of films shown in British theaters had to be from domestic sources in the first year, and that the percentage would have to increase annually until 1935, when theaters would be required to attain a domestic exhibition rate of twenty percent. While this legislation spurred investment in the film industry, it also led to the production of an enormous number of cheaply and quickly made movies by incompetent artists and inexperienced actors. These films existed solely to satisfy the quotas, which kept British movie theaters open so they could continue to show the more popular Hollywood product. While it is true that “quota-quickies” were responsible for giving life to an entire generation of filmmakers and actors, and it is fair to acknowledge their development as a significant factor in the growth of British cinema, it is equally important to note that many of these films earned their derisive nickname all too well.
A Cottage on Dartmoor, however, was a leading indicator of a new wave in British filmmaking, which would serve to redeem the unfortunate reputation of the domestic cinema of the 1920s. It was also one of the first films to be produced at a newly constructed studio in Welwyn, Hertfordshire – a facility built specifically as a result of the Film Act to capitalize on the public’s desire for talkies.
Right on the cusp of the sound era, Asquith pays homage to the silent films that inspired him to pick up a camera in the first place. Many of the most impressive sequences in the film favor the use of metaphorical imagery over explanatory intertitles, which gives the film a visual sophistication much beyond that of the emerging, technologically crude sound movie. Asquith conveys mood and suspense by using chiaroscuro lighting techniques that recall such great works of German Expressionist cinema as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921). He makes extensive use of the powerful montage techniques innovated by Sergei Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Dziga Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). And he structures the story around a dramatic juxtaposition of cityscape and wild nature, characteristic of the Swedish director Victor Sjöström in films like The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). Asquith takes those who are lucky enough to see A Cottage on Dartmoor today on a whirlwind tour of high artistry from the silent era, as it was enjoyed then and is celebrated now.
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Stephen Horne