For two decades, Anthony Asquith was -- along with Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Carol Reed -- one of the most internationally 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 somewhat limited in his own lifetime and for many years after, and it was only in the 21st century that his movies began getting the respect they deserved. 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, in turn, played a pivotal but indirect role in the development of motion picture arts in England by co-founding the London Film Society, along with such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw. Their purpose was to help push the British movie industry to look seriously at adapting the bolder, more inventive cinematic influences of Germany, Sweden, and America. Asquith formally joined the British film industry in the mid-'20s as a crew member, and advanced initially by virtue of his family name and the opportunities that it afforded for travel. He easily could have become one of England's idle rich -- even in his twenties, he was one of those people who, thanks to his family connections, was often written about for his travels and sightings in the gossip columns -- but instead he decided he wanted a career in film, and made it his business to visit Hollywood at the end of the silent era. There he made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and spent his time watching various filmmakers at work. He returned to England, and, with that experience under his belt and some promise already shown, Asquith was moved behind the camera, making his debut with Shooting Stars (1927). That film and his 1928 feature A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) were among the most highly regarded releases of the late silent era in England, and Asquith was suddenly thrust into the forefront of the film industry.
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 hopelessly jingoistic and dated, but it was massively popular among middle-class audiences in its own time, and seemed to portend great things for Asquith. The early '30s caught him adrift, however, trapped working on projects with which he had little sympathy and showed no inventiveness, including the early Laurence Olivier vehicle I Stand Condemned (aka Moscow Nights). His career was languishing by the mid-1930's, and it seemed as though all of that early promise had dissipated. In 1937, that all changed when Asquith was chosen as the director of the screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The resulting film was perhaps the finest comedy ever to come out of England, as well as the first (and some would say the best) successful screen adaptation of Shaw. The movie was a hit in England and also in the United States and most of the rest of the world, and easily ranked among the most successful British comedies ever released. 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 do or permit in earlier attempts to film his plays. In the wake of Pygmalion, major opportunities started coming Asquith's way; he was, along with his slightly older contemporary Alfred Hitchcock (who was about to leave for America), the most celebrated and prominent filmmaker in England. \