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The Private Life of Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII(1934)


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Alexander's Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) is unanimously cited as the film that first defined British cinema in the sound era. It treated a quintessentially British subject the reign of the colorful and quite probably mad King Henry VIII with both elegance and humor, gave it an illusion of grand production values and produced and released it with a mix of high culture and popular showmanship. It starred Charles Laughton, the acclaimed British stage actor who was making a name for himself in Hollywood with flamboyant performances in The Sign of the Cross and Island of Lost Souls (both in 1932). With an eye toward the international market, Korda premiered the film at Radio City Music Hall in New York City a month before it opened in London and ballyhooed it into a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is worth pointing out that this defining British hit was the product of a Hungarian director and impresario, Alexander Korda, whose team included brother Vincent Korda (set designer) and fellow countryman Lajos Biro (screenwriter) and French cinematographer Georges Perinal. National cinema has always been enriched by the perspectives and insights of immigrant culture and foreign artists and Korda had essentially adopted England as his new home.

Alexander Korda had helmed dozens of productions in his native Hungary before trying his hand in Hollywood, France and finally Britain. But he was as much an entrepreneur and a producer as a director and after cranking out a couple of "quota quickies" in the British film industry, he realized that his greatest opportunity for success was in striking out on his own, not simply producing his own film but creating his own studio. Korda was a charmer equally at home among financiers and artists, and he found that businessmen were flattered to rub shoulders with celebrities. By 1932, he had attracted enough investors to launch London Film Productions and he gambled big by staking its success on a single ambitious production.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a choppy, uneven film, to say the least. Even biographer Michael Korda (nephew of Alex and son of Vincent) wrote that the film had "no central vision behind it." It came together out of opportunity and necessity. Popular legend has it that Korda hit upon the subject when he heard a London cabbie singing the tune, "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am." It makes for a great story and it may even be true, at least to the extent that hearing the humorous music hall hit reminded Korda of how the monstrous king had been embraced as a colorful comic figure by the populace. But the truth is that Korda had been looking for a subject that was distinctively British, dramatically dignified yet with risqu opportunities, and, most importantly, could be built around Charles Laughton, who Korda had befriended during his Hollywood years. Korda had already made one "Private Life" film in Hollywood (the 1927 silent film The Private Life of Helen of Troy) and was partial to historical subjects, as much for the opportunities for spectacle as for the innate prestige. The fact that Laughton resembled the famous Hans Holbein portraits of the king made it an ideal project. Laughton's rotund, hearty Henry, bouncing between thoughtful statesman and tyrannical man-child, became the definitive screen portrait of the childish tyrant king.

As the title predicts, this isn't the public face of Henry, except maybe for a few royal dinners with his advisors and the member of the court, but Henry behind closed doors, sometimes with his best friend and loyal advisor, Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat, who went on to headline future Korda productions and won on Oscar® in 1939 for Goodbye, Mr. Chips), but mostly with his wives. Not all of them, mind you. His first wife Catherine of Aragorn is dispatched in a witty title card (she's "too respectable to be included" in this tale) and The Private Life of Henry VIII begins on the execution day of Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon). "This marriage was also a failure, but for completely different reasons," reads the sardonic introductory card, as Boleyn awaits her fate and prepares for her last public appearance by making sure she'll look appropriate for the occasion. Oberon was Korda's first "discovery" and his company's first contract player. Though the role is brief, it was a substantial role for the dark beauty and future star, who played the part with poise, dark gravity and royal dignity. While the crowds clamor outside for the spectacle of the execution, the king paces impatiently in the castle, anxiously awaiting news of her death so he can marry bubble-headed young Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) without any further delay. Meanwhile, events are debated and dissected by a Greek chorus of cooks, maids, royal servants and ladies in waiting, whose political and personal observations provide a running commentary and a few colorful and often cheeky insights.

Korda had very little money but his great talent was in exploiting production value as these opening scenes illustrate. He suggested opulence and spectacle through a judicious use of his brother Vincent's evocative but Spartan sets, where a bare throne room dominated by an impressive throne and a few choice furnishings (some of them genuine antiques borrowed by Vincent from museums and private collections) stood in for the castle. A small group of actors, arranged in close quarters, and shot in a tightly-controlled field of vision represented the epic crowds gathered for Boleyn's execution. And while Korda relied more on performance and Vincent's set design and careful lighting for dramatic effect than his undistinguished camerawork and compositions, which tended to favor wide tableaux shots taking in the entire room with a few cut-ins to vary the rhythm, he ends the sequence with an evocative shot of the procession of king and bride (followed by the wedding party) through the royal hall. The brief scene, viewed from on high through a window, is a perfect Korda marriage of economy; the simple shot stands in for a lavish wedding scene and suggests a grand set through a few simple elements and theatrical expression.

The Private Life of Henry VIII takes us through each subsequent marriage like separate chapters of a tell-all biography. Henry's happiness with Jane Seymour is short lived she dies in childbirth in the very next scene and he only reluctantly marries again at the urging of his advisors. "The thing's I've done for England," sighs Henry, with a roll of the eyes, before he reluctantly marches into the bedchamber for his wedding night with German princess Anne of Cleves. Elsa Lanchester meets Laughton's larger-than-life performance with a calculatingly eccentric portrayal and their scenes together are driven by dynamic gamesmanship and offbeat humor. Binnie Barnes is Katherine Howard, who schemes and seduces her way from lady-in-waiting to Henry's fifth wife despite the warnings of Thomas Culpeper (she should have listened as history reminds us, you don't mess around when your husband has a tendency to behead troublesome wives). And Everley Gregg is his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who in this decidedly theatrical take on history was arranged by Anne of Cleves playing matchmaker to a former husband she treated with sisterly affection.

In the earlier scenes Laughton plays Henry as a boorish, gluttonous figure (the two-fisted gusty with which he attacks his meals, tearing apart a capon, gnawing on drumsticks and tossing them over his head before grabbing a goblet of wine to wash it down, remains one of the film's most memorable scenes). As the film progresses Laughton portrays the king as a melancholy monarch whose appetite for sex has evolved into a longing for love and companionship to, finally, a harmlessly mischievous child of an old man, sneaking food behind the back of the hectoring but protective Katherine Parr like he was a boy sneaking candy. Along the way he becomes an astute statesman who understands the future of England is tied to the political stability of Europe. It's a rich, strong performance, anchoring the film in a full-blooded character who hides his complexity under a royal arrogance and a hearty appetite for the sensual pleasure, and it won Charles Laughton his first and only Oscar® for Best Actor. (Laughton was not present at the awards ceremony, as he was back on the boards playing a role on stage at the Old Vic, and Leslie Howard accepted the award on his behalf.) It was the boost that elevated his Hollywood standing from gifted character actor to leading man and movie star, and he followed with starring roles in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which earned him his second Oscar® nomination, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). The Private Life of Henry VIII was the first British film to become a hit in the United States, and in addition to Laughton's Best Actor Oscar®, the film was nominated for Best Picture. It was Korda's dream come true, a film that captured both popular success and critical respect, and it made his fortune. Korda continued to direct, reteaming with Laughton on Rembrandt (1936) and directing Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in That Hamilton Woman (1941), among others. But most of his energy went into expanding his company and producing increasingly lavish and ambitious films as The Four Feathers (1939), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Jungle Book (1942) and The Third Man (1949). Korda was as much mini-mogul as director and his success in both arenas was built on The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Producer: Alexander Korda; Ludovico Toeplitz (uncredited)
Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Lajos Bir (story and dialogue); Arthur Wimperis (dialogue)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Music: Kurt Schroeder
Film Editing: Stephen Harrison
Cast: Charles Laughton (King Henry VIII), Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper), Franklin Dyall (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Mander (Wriothesley), Lawrence Hanray (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer), William Austin (Duke of Cleves), John Loder (Thomas Peynell), Claude Allister (Cornell), Gibb McLaughlin (The French executioner), Sam Livesey (The English executioner), Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (Jane Seymour)

by Sean Axmaker

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