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Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)


Main image of Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)
35mm, black and white, silent, 6840 feet
DirectorAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films
ScenarioAnthony Asquith
Original storyHerbert C. Price
PhotographyStanley Rodwell
MusicWilliam Hodgson

Cast: Hans Schlettow (Harry Stevens); Uno Henning (Joe Ward); Norah Baring (Sally)

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A barber's assistant becomes infatuated with a female colleague, and takes drastic action when she spurns him in favour of a new customer.

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Shot at British Instructional Films' newly opened Welwyn Studios, A Cottage on Dartmoor marked another milestone for Anthony Asquith following his impressive 1928 debut Shooting Stars. A straightforward but beautifully realised tale of sexual jealousy, the film easily counters the entrenched criticism that British cinema in the silent era was staid, stagy and lacking emotion.

Asquith was never afraid to draw on techniques more commonly associated with the European cinema of the day. Sally's slow realisation of Joe's presence in the shadows following his escape is truly chilling, while the barbershop scenes, relayed in flashback, pursue a particularly efficient line in visual metaphor; the sharpening of razors an ominous counterpoint to the shy glances across the manicure table. Joe's handsome features are slowly contorted by frustration and rage as Harry woos Sally, his broken heart warping him into the embodiment of malevolence we see in the opening scene: will he take his revenge and 'finish them off' as promised?

Yet this is no one-dimensional story of good versus evil. Asquith builds many layers of ambiguity, acknowledging that it is possible to be torn between two people, that happiness is relative, while touching on themes of loneliness, lust and mental illness. Ultimately, however, this is a film about love: its joys as well as its ravages.

Just as the spoken word was about to inhibit such border-hopping, the cast here is triumphantly pan-European; indeed the film itself was co-produced by the Swedish Biograph company. Expressive English starlet Norah Baring is well matched with Swedish actor Uno Henning, who worked with G.W. Pabst, Victor Sjöström and Ingmar Bergman in a career spanning forty years, and Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, a prolific German actor killed in Berlin during the final days of the Second World War.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is something of an historical anachronism in that it was not an entirely silent film. When Joe sneaks in behind Sally and Harry at the 'talkies', Asquith playfully references his film's status at the precarious transition between two eras, spotlighting the soon-to-be-unemployed orchestra. A sound sequence, now lost, was recorded in Germany to coincide with this scene, but its absence is barely noticeable: this was never produced to be a sound film as we know it, and is perhaps most rewardingly viewed as a final, passionate cry in defence of the silent aesthetic in British cinema.

Simon McCallum

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. On Dartmoor (5:00)
2. In the cinema (5:38)
3. A very close shave (5:12)
Production stills
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Silent Lovers