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Born in Hungary, Alexander Korda became a leading figure in British
cinema. He would approach Hollywood in his production, casting, and
vision of how movies should be made. And he was quite aware of what he
was facing in his struggles. Britain's film industry was never as
wealthy as it's American cousin (or it's German cousin, for that
matter). But due to language it had inroads to the United States as
well as the empire. If it could not meet Hollywood's (or Ufa's) best
production values, it had a stable of actors that were hard to match.
In fact, many of them ended up in Hollywood (much to Korda's disgust).
This was not only those born in the British Isles like Olivier, Leigh,
Laughton, but also those who were foreign born who ended up in British
films as stars (like Veidt).
Korda also had European history and culture to play with, and in the 1930s would do a series of films that involved both. They centered on some historical or legendary character: Henry VIII, Don Juan, Catherine the Great, Rembrandt, the Roman Emperor Claudius. Laughton appeared in three of these, as Henry, Rembrandt, and Claudius. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. would be Don Juan and his son would be Catherine's husband Peter III of Russia. There were also "foreign" or "imperial" settings for some of these epics. Sabu became Kipling's Mowgli in "The Jungle Book". The Arabian Nights were the basis for "The Thief of Baghdad".
Henry VIII is really not filling in the entire monarch's life or reign. It barely notices wife #1 (Catherine of Aragon), who it considers dull. It begins with the conclusion of the second marriage with Anne Boleyne in 1536, and then jumps rapidly into the brief third marriage, the comedy of the fourth marriage in 1541, the deep tragedy of the fifth marriage in 1544, and the last marriage, wherein Henry seems to have married a nurse and a scold (not really historically correct). Laughton is superb as a man, seeming with everything, who can't (for one reason or another) find the happiness he seeks in a content home life. But the film does not delve into his policies, and it really does not get into the personality conflicts within Henry's character. He does act the bully and the gallant and the buffoon (such as when discoursing on fine table manners), but the parts (if analyzed) do not hold together as well as say Robert Shaw's sly and sinister monarch in "A Man For All Seasons", but Shaw is playing a younger man in a period of only six years, while Laughton is dealing with nearly twelve years as the same man fights to retain youth and yet ages badly due to ill-health. Laughton did deserve his Oscar, but Shaw needed two more films of Henry at later stages to fill in his first rate junior portrait.
Laughton did well with Henry, as Korda did by selecting Laughton. We are the richer for both of their visions.
During his reign, Henry the Eighth had six wives. The first of these
was Catherine of Aragon but her story is of no particular interest as
she was a decent and respectable woman so Henry only divorced her.
However his next wife was a different matter altogether and we join the
story on the day of Anne Boleyn is getting her neck ready for the
executioner's block. Henry is a boisterous king who, no matter how bad
his many marriage experiences, cannot seem to avoid getting married
again; as he himself says, 'the things I do for England'!
When I taped this film I had never heard of it but before watching it was told that it was a great moneymaker of the time in the US. I wasn't sure if this was a very historic film or a fun film but the opening credit title made me realize it would be a sort of humorous historical piece it is practically the sort of title card that appears before many Laurel & Hardy shorts! True to form the film takes liberties with history but does so to the benefit of the film, making it very funny and rather larger than life (not that hard a subject given Henry's life!) but not to the point where it is just a comedy no, it is better written than that. Instead it manages to present this big boisterous life in a balanced way when events are funny, they are funny but on the flipside it also lets us see that Henry is lonely, trapped by affairs of state and rather a big child at times. It is hard to describe but this film managed to run a gauntlet of emotions in a way that I was pretty impressed by. The very good writing has prevented it dating at all and it is just as enjoyable as it was then in fact I can't think of a film that I have been more pleasantly surprised by for quite a while how ironic that it is over 70 years old!
Outside of the script and direction, a massive reason that this film works is a great performance from Laughton. His Henry is fantastically lively and energetic without ever going completely OTT. He manages to deliver his funny lines with great timing and awareness but also delivers a real character who we can feel for he conveys real hurt and loneliness with just looks at times, and his tearful breakdown is actually quite moving. He is given good support from many small roles who are given good parts even the observers at the executions have great lines! The 39 Steps' Robert Donat gives good support in a straighter and less showy role and the various member of Henry's court are reliable. However the film belongs to Laughton and he runs it, realising the script's potential and then some.
Overall I came to this film not sure what to expect and I was very surprised by just how enjoyable and well rounded it was. Historians may be irritated by a rather generous interpretation of history but the basics are all there and the writer's touch has only really added colour and a sense of fun to the story. The script is packed with material that is funny and telling at different points and it is delivered with real confidence and ability by Laughton in a performance that dominates the film and is a major reason I enjoyed it as much as I did.
Just saw this film again on video. The film is dated now but Charles Laughton's performance still seems fresh. He's quite funny in the scene where he complains about "the lack of manners these days" as he gnaws on a whole chicken with his bare hands and tosses the bones behind him on the floor. And he's quite touching at times when be breaks down in front of everyone and cries. Laughton certainly deserved this Oscar for this role.
All the comments I have read about this movie have focussed on Charles Laughton and though he gives a performance that makes this film worth seeing on that basis alone, I was more struck by Elsa Lanchester and daresay that she even managed to usurp him in their scenes together. Her performance as Anne of Cleves is one that is memorably eccentric, as she plays her with a kind of flakey caginess that is funny, fascinating and original. She is also quite striking to watch and I am thankful that Bride of Frankenstein has given her a degree of cinematic immortality that might otherwise have been denied her. Returning to this film though, it is highly entertaining, though its abrupt mood shifts leave the viewer with an inconsistent impression about Henry VIII and his volatile personality, but, then again, perhaps that was the point: to show just how inconsistent a man he was in his thoughts and desires.
In watching The Private Life of Henry VIII it's good to remember that
we are talking about his private life. The reasons of state and the
impact all the marriages had on Tudor foreign and domestic politics is
not dealt with her at all. For a balanced treatment of that I would
highly recommend watching the BBC mini-series with Keith Michell.
In fact it was all politics and religion and the mix of the two that was involved in Henry VIII's first marriage and the divorce. That was what led to the English break away from the Roman Catholic Church and the founding of the Anglican church. In this film Catherine of Aragon, wife number one, is dismissed as "a good woman."
The film begins with the execution of Number 2, Anne Boleyn, who failed in her duty to provide a male royal heir. Number 3, Jane Seymour did so at the cost of her own life when she died in childbirth. Both Merle Oberon and Wendy Barrie who played both of these women respectively make brief, but lasting impressions.
Wife Number 4 is Anne of Cleves and were not sure exactly why Henry VIII found her so unappealing. Reportedly the portrait sent to the English court of her before the marriage was brokered was shall we say, exaggerated advertisement. This vacuum of knowledge gives Elsa Lanchester a great opportunity for some scatterbrained comedy that she so excelled at. It comes as a comic interlude in an otherwise grim film. The things Henry does for England.
Wife Number 5 is Catherine Howard, reputedly a young girl with some nymphomaniac tendencies. Binnie Barnes as Catherine Howard is a good deal more virtuous, but just as ambitious as the real Catherine. In truth Thomas Culpepper played by Robert Donat was only one of a series of lovers with whom she cheated with. And doing that to the King had only one remedy.
Charles Laughton one an Oscar for this performance and set a standard for playing Henry VIII. Some of the others that followed and all of them doing it well are Montagu Love, Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, James Robertson Justice and Keith Michell. Yet Laughton's is the performance all others are measured by.
Robert Donat got his first real notice playing Thomas Culpepper and of course went on to a great, but limited career because of his chronic asthma. Some of the cerebral qualities that went into all of his lead roles are definitely found in Culpepper.
But despite Donat and the wives the film is Laughton's. Laughton was only 34 when this film was made about a decade at least younger than the real Henry VIII. And folks did age faster in Henry's time than in Laughton's. I've always thought that the key to Henry VIII was the fact he wanted to stay young forever. He wouldn't accept growing old as a fact of life that even monarchs aren't immune from.
We should remember the film is about his private life and it is Laughton's portrayal of the private Henry that has made this film a classic.
Alexander Korda's film about Henry VIII was a worthy Oscar winner - the
first time a British film was so recognised. Seen now it is a dated
piece of work but Charles Laughton has the heart and soul of the king
down to perfection - grumbling, belching, ripping meat of the bones
with his bare hands, leering at the women of his court, and - when the
situation allows it - giving the part a fair amount of pathos.
Oddly, the film begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon). We don't see the first wife, Katherine of Aragon, at all. Wendy Barrie is Jane Seymour, the one true love of Henry's life - for her he changed his initialled monogram from an entwined H and A (for Anne) to H and J. Catherine Howard is played by Binnie Barnes - she's a bit too flighty for my liking and not an accurate reading of Catherine as history renders her. Robert Donat has a thankless part as Culpeper, who Catherine sets her sights on. And as Catherine Parr, the last Queen to Henry and the one to outlast him, Everley Gregg is amusing and touching.
The scene-stealer as usual though is the real-life Mrs Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, playing the plain, card-dealing, Anne of Cleves. She puts this part across with little effort, wheedling money from her new husband in lieu of the expected fruits of their wedding night. These scenes are a great source of comedy as the two pros play off each other.
'The Private Life of Henry VIII' is a good play, and just when you think you know how the part is going to go, it surprises you as all good acting should. Laughton would do other good work for Korda (including Rembrandt a few years later) but this is one of his best remembered roles for British cinema.
Love and absolute power are two things that bring out the worst in
people. For most of history, men enjoyed the better of the bargain, and
King Henry VIII of England was perhaps the most representative example
of that. Between his many dalliances he had six wives, a cast of very
different women who spoke to his love of variety if not constancy.
"The Private Life Of Henry VIII" is a merry recounting of five of those marriages, with a passing nod in the opening titles to first wife Catherine of Aragon: "Her story is of no particular interest. She was a respectable woman." It's a funny line that sets up what will be the film's cheerfully cynical tone.
Director Alexander Korda and his writers Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis made several brave choices, like the episodic structure of the story as it focuses on each wife in turn, and how it concentrates most on the last four rather than the second and most famous of Henry's wives, Anne Boleyn, played by Merle Oberon for what only amounts to a cameo as she awaits her execution. By doing this they acknowledge Henry VIII's cruelty without giving us the kind of details that would make us not like him, even as he is played by Charles Laughton.
Laughton is the best thing in the movie, winning an Oscar for a performance undimmed by time. He struts wide-legged from scene to scene, playing up his character's vanity and vulgarity and finding an emotional core that draws us to like him despite his legendary faults. When we first see him, after a few minutes of exposition around his court, he has caught one of his ladies-in-waiting, Katherine Howard, making comment about how unfair this whole Boleyn business is. Why if he were not a king, she would call him...
"What would you call me?" Henry demands as he appears from the shadows of the doorway.
Katherine trembles, and manages to blurt: "Why, I would call you...a man!"
A big laugh from the big man. "So I am, and glad of it. And you may be glad of it too, one day."
As played by the lovely Binnie Barnes, Katherine Howard gets the lion's share of attention among the wives, as we first see her as a court lady who soon becomes ambitious for Henry's attentions even as one of Henry's knights, Thomas Culpeper, pleads for her love. She gets Henry eventually, lives to regret it, then doesn't, in a nice story arc Barnes carries off well with her beauty and charm, well enough to not make us wonder about her sudden turnabout in character from the sensible, decent woman we see in the beginning. About the only negative of her performance, and of the film, is her scenes with Culpeper slow down the story and take too much time away from Henry.
Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife, makes a strong impression as the least romantic of Henry's partners, a German duchess he marries for politics but comes to grief when he gets a load of her face. Lanchester actually is lovely, but Anne figures her only way to avoid Henry's attentions is to push out her jaw and act dense when he talks about what her wifely duties entail. She and Laughton have a wonderful comic chemistry as they spend their wedding night playing cards; and its especially fun to watch Laughton as his character gets some of his own back for all his serial marrying.
"If you want to be happy...marry a stupid woman!" Henry tells Culpeper at one point. That's not exactly true; stupid women can break your heart, too. True marital happiness may in fact be a fallacy, but at least "The Private Life Of Henry VIII" makes such failure fun.
Charles Laughton is quite simply one of the best actors to ever grace the
earth. EVER. He proves his range once again as he portrays Henry VIII.
Now, I've never seen Henry VIII, but I swore I was looking at him. To me,
Laughton is that convincing. Compare this confident, powerful character
his 'Ruggles', in "Ruggles of Red Gap". A total wimp. A complete 180.
Then there's Capt. Bligh. From sissy to nasty. The freaks: Quasimodo,
Moreau, Nero, et.al. To say this man can play any sort of role is putting
mildly. Name one other actor with more range. I personally
The personal life of England's infamous monarch is portrayed marvellously
this British classic.Starting with the beheading of his second wife the
ambitious Anne Boleyn we follow Laughton's masterly performance of King
Henry through his subsequent marriages which all end in tragedy,until his
last wife outlives him.
Charles Laughton is simply fantastic in his role.Portraying the King of England as a virile,charming but dangerous man when he's young and a crouching,old fool in his latest years.Very good performances also by Elsa Lanchester and Binnie Barnes as two of his wives. Rating: **** out of *****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1933 Alexander Korda production actually holds up mighty well
today. Given that it is an early talkie, and was made in a fledgling
British film industry, I was expecting more than a little creakiness.
But it is still a very lively, well-paced film- in large part due to
Laughton's terrific performance as the much-married King Henry VIII.
Politics take a back seat in this bawdy royal yarn, as we watch fat, charismatic, roaring and sometimes sensitive Henry work his way through six wives in quick succession. Actually, we never see the first, Catherine of Aragorn. The film begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, played by a young Merle Oberon. It's an eye-catching small role for the future Mrs Korda, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Stage player Wendy Barrie is Jane Seymour, Henry's pretty, dumb and short-lived third wife, and the kooky, delightful Elsa Lanchester threatens to steal Laughton's thunder as Anne of Cleves. She's the only woman in the film who doesn't want to be Queen! And Billie Barnes is ambitious Catherine Howard, who carries on a fateful affair with a young, handsome Robert Donat....
Fine production values, a fun, sharp script and good acting propel the drama. Korda keeps the film moving at a lively pace, even if the editing is a bit primitive. The film only starts to lose it's spirit after the death of Billie Barnes- the rest of it is a rollicking ride. Laughton won the Oscar for his portrayal, and his dominating performance is still very admirable today. Yes, Laughton was very theatrical, but he was also a darn good actor, one of the best.
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