For two decades, Anthony Asquith was -- along with Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Carol Reed -- one of the most successful filmmakers to come out of England. So much of his career was spent adapting plays to the screen, however, that his critical recognition was lacking in his own lifetime and for many years after. Born in 1902, Asquith was the youngest child of Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), who served as British prime minister from 1908 to 1916. As a young man, Asquith played a pivotal but indirect role in the development of motion-picture arts in England by cofounding the London Film Society, along with such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw. Their purpose was to help push the British movie industry toward adopting the bolder, more inventive cinematic influences of Germany, Sweden, and the United States. Asquith joined the British film industry in the mid-1920s as a crew member and advanced initially by virtue of his family name. He easily could have become one of England's idle rich, but instead he decided he wanted a career in film, and so he made it his business to visit Hollywood at the end of the silent era. He made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and spent his time in the film mecca watching various directors at work. Following his return to England, Asquith made his directorial debut with Shooting Stars (1927). That movie and his 1929 feature, A Cottage on Dartmoor, were among the most highly regarded British films of the late silent era.
He made the transition to talkies with Tell England (1931), which dealt with the World War I Battle of Gallipoli. The movie is now considered jingoistic and dated, but it was massively popular among middle-class audiences in its own time. Across the next four years, however, he found himself a filmmaker adrift, trapped working on projects with which he had little sympathy and showed no inventiveness. That changed when Asquith was chosen to direct the 1938 screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The resulting movie was perhaps the finest comedy ever to come out of England (as well as the first successful film adaptation of Shaw), and was a hit in England and most of the rest of the world. Its success was due in no small part to Asquith's ability to persuade Shaw to rewrite the ending of the play, something that the author had steadfastly refused to permit in earlier attempts to adapt his plays to the screen.
Asquith's next success was the screen version of Terence Rattigan's play French Without Tears (1939). With a second hit under his belt, he was on his way once more, just as World War II was starting. According to biographer R.J. Minney, it was at this point that Asquith rendered what might have been his greatest service to the British film industry -- by saving it. Upon the outbreak of the war, it had seriously been proposed within the British government that the nation's cinemas and film industry be shuttered for the duration. Asquith and his mother, using their social and political connections within the government, were able to intercede and get this decision reversed.
Asquith's wartime output ranged from thrillers (Cottage to Let) to topical romance (The Demi-Paradise), and included one enduring classic, his drama The Way to the Stars (1945). It was in the postwar period that his reputation grew with a string of major cinematic successes, including The Winslow Boy (1949), The Browning Version (1951), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). His career slowed in the mid- to late 1950s, partly due to his declining health. It was Asquith's long association with Rattigan and producer Anatole de Grunwald that carried him through this rough patch, so that by the early '60s he was one of the few members of his generation of British filmmakers who were still working on major projects.
Asquith passed away in early 1968. In more recent decades, Pygmalion, The Way to the Stars, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, and The Importance of Being Earnest have achieved enduring recognition. And, in memory of the filmmaker and his first creative love, music, the British Academy Award for Best Music Score has been named the Anthony Asquith Award. Actress Helena Bonham Carter is his grandniece.