The Hon Anthony Asquith
  • November 10, 2012
  • Posted In: Film

Anthony Asquith (1902-1968) was a leading English film director who, with Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Carol Reed, was one of four internationally acclaimed British film directors at the top of the profession in the 1950s and 60s. Asquith is a very rare entry in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers from the entertainment profession. The fact that he was introduced by his father H.H. Asquith 1st Earl of Oxford, Britain’s Prime Minister during World War I, might explain the firm suspending its disapproval of show business professionals.

Educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford, Asquith had musical interests but insufficient talent and decided instead to pursue a career in the burgeoning British film industry. In 1920 he went to Hollywood to observe the workings of the world’s most prolific film studios. His directorial debut was a series of silent films in the 1920s culminating in Boadicea 1928 where he appeared in a blonde wig as the body double of leading actress Phyllis Neilson-Terry.

Asquith was best known for his adaptations of contemporary dramas; in particular his collaboration with playwright Terence Rattigan on ten of his most famous plays including The Winslow Boy 1948, French Without Tears 1940 and The Browning Version 1951. Both Asquith and Rattigan were part of a theatrical coterie of homosexuals in London’s West End such as Noël Coward, Ivor Novello and Binkie Beaumont. His mother the society and political hostess Margot, Lady Oxford nicknamed him ‘Puffin’: a moniker by which he was known in West End and British film circles. With a reputation as an ‘actor’s director’, Asquith was known in the business for his charm and his patrician manner on set. Like many of his generation, he was also prone to lift the elbow a little excessively.

Asquith directed one of his most widely acclaimed films Pygmalion – an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s plays starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller – in 1932 when his orders at Henry Poole & Co were most prolific. His wardrobe was furnished with black double-breasted evening suits, grey flannel trousers, dress coats with silk lapel facings and linings and drab tweed suits for weekends at theatrical house parties. In 1952 Asquith directed arguably his best film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest; an irony considering his father H.H. Asquith was the Home Secretary who ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1895.

Asquith’s most commercially successful films were made in the 1960s when he directed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in ensemble pictures The VIPs #1963# starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Maggie Smith and his last picture The Yellow Rolls Royce 1964 featuring Rex Harrison, Jeanne Moreau, Shirley MacLaine, Omar Sharif and Ingrid Bergman. Though he never won a Best Director Oscar, Bernard Shaw won for the screenplay of Pygmalion as did Margaret Rutherford for Best Supporting Actress in The VIPs. Anthony Asquith was instrumental in founding the London Film Society. He died from lymphoma at the age of 65 in 1968.

(c) James Sherwood

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