A Cottage on Dartmoor Review

Anthony Asquith was born in 1902, the son of Liberal British Prime Minister Asquith. (His older half-sister Violet was Helena Bonham Carter’s grandmother.) Despite his privileged background Asquith dressed in a boiler suit on set (compare his compatriot Hitchcock’s habitual suit and tie) and was active in the filmmaker’s trade union. Nowadays, his reputation is in need of rehabilitation, as he is often dismissed as a maker of stagey, dialogue-bound prestige projects. But The Way to the Stars was a revelation to me when it was released on DVD four years ago. (It also anticipates Hitchcock’s Psycho in a way I won’t spoil.) The fact that Asquith was gay (though closeted) gives a particular resonance to The Browning Version, a film written by another closeted gay man (Terence Rattigan, who had also written The Way to the Stars) and featured a career-best performance from a bisexual man, Michael Redgrave.

Another popular myth that needs debunking is that there were no worthwhile silent films made in the UK that weren’t directed by Hitchcock. (And that myth is often narrowed even further to just one of Hitchcock’s nine silent features, The Lodger.) Asquith began in the silent era and A Cottage on Dartmoor alone should put the lie to that.

As a story, A Cottage to Dartmoor is very simple, melodramatic in fact. We begin with an escaped convict being chased across Dartmoor, intercut with shots of a young woman holding her baby. Seven minutes in, man and woman confront each other, and the film’s first intertitle (“Joe!”) takes us into a flashback that lasts most of an hour. The woman is Sally (Norah Baring) who works as a manicurist in a small hairdressing salon. Joe (Uno Henning) is a young barber who fancies Sally, but she rejects him in favour of an older, wealthy farmer, Harry (Hans Schlettow). But Joe’s jealousy is sparked, and can only be resolved in violence…

Like the three-year-older Hitchcock, Asquith has been influenced by filmmaking trends on continental Europe, particularly German expressionism. That’s noticeable in the use of chiaroscuro and not least in DP Stanley Rodwell’s louring skies over Dartmoor. And also like Hitchcock, he followed a policy, inspired by Murnau but not to the extremes that he went, of paring down intertitles as much as he possibly could. As already noted, it’s seven minutes before one even appears. Another influence was the Soviet theory of montage: Asquith conveys meaning through associative editing. Trivial conversations between barbers and clients are conveyed by intercutting what looks like actuality footage of a test match and the women’s singles at Wimbledon. And at other times, at particularly intense moments, Asquith goes in for frenzies of rapid cutting that could rival anything the Soviets or Abel Gance came up with. At one moment the screen flashes red for a brief moment (which precedes Hitchcock’s use of a similar device at the finale of Spellbound).

A Cottage on Dartmoor was begun as a silent, and during its production sound came to the cinema. It’s oddly self-reflexive to have a silent film include a visit to the “talkies” as part of its plot. Hitchcock had largely reshot much of Blackmail as a talkie (though a silent version was also released, and still survives). Asquith, however, restricted sound to one sequence – the visit to the talkies, the new technology providing the soundtrack to the film the audience is watching. As such, A Cottage on Dartmoor was released in two versions, all-silent and part-talkie. Unfortunately, the soundtrack to this scene no longer survives. Asquith makes a brief appearance in this scene – he’s the man wearing glasses. Asquith was resistant to the talking picture, but in this scene he seems also to acknowledge its inevitability.

As it turned out, A Cottage on Dartmoor was one of the last silent films made in this country. It’s undoubtedly a young man’s film, the work of someone showing what they could do with this still-new medium. But like Hitchcock’s work, and Murnau’s and Lang’s, and Eisenstein’s, it also shows the high level of visual sophistication that silent cinema was capable of, something that was to about to be changed completely.


A Cottage on Dartmoor is released by the BFI on a single-layered PAL-format DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

As this is a silent version of the film, it is presented in the 1.33:1 silent ratio rather than the 1.20:1 early-talkie ratio, and that seems to be correct. Preserved by the National Film Archive, this film is in remarkable condition for one nearly eighty years old. Another point in the BFI’s favour is that it has been telecined at the correct speed – 22 frames per second. This results in some inevitable flickering, and there is also some minor damage, but nothing is too distracting.

The soundtrack is mono, comprising Stephen Horne’s piano score. (As mentioned above, the soundtrack to the cinema sequence has been lost.) Horne has long experience in accompanying silent films, and his work is very effective.

The extras begin with Insight (15:01), a short film made in 1960. It was part of a series aimed at the young and taking them behind the scenes of certain professions – in this case, film director, and their chosen example is Anthony Asquith. The narration has the kind of slightly patronising tone that wouldn’t fly with today’s children, but ignore that and you have some interesting footage of Asquith at work on Libel and in interview. We also have interviews with the film’s stars, Dirk Bogarde and Olivia de Havilland, about working with Asquith.

Also on the disc is Rush Hour (5:55), a comedy short made by Asquith in 1941. That year is significant as this is a wartime Ministry of Information piece designed to convey a message: time your travelling home on public transport carefully, leaving the rush hour for workers.

A booklet features articles on the film, “A Last Hurrah” by critic Geoffrey Macnab and “The Sound of Silents” by Bryony Dixon, Curator for Silent Film at the BFI National Archive. Also included are a reproduction of the original pressbook, one page biographies of Asquith and Stephen Horne, and film and DVD credits.

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