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Alexander Korda established his reputation as Britain's pre-eminent film mogul with the 1933 costume drama The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film he both produced and directed. It gave the British film industry a classy hit in America and made a star of its leading man, the flamboyantly theatrical Charles Laughton, who earned an Oscar® for his hearty performance. Korda had been looking for a follow-up ever since and, after a failed attempt at an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, settled on a biography of the legendary 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn: "the greatest painter who ever lived," according to the forward of Korda's handsome 1936 production.
Rembrandt was a natural subject for both Korda and Laughton, who had developed a close relationship during the shooting of Henry VIII. They were both art collectors and Laughton's uncanny resemblance to the painter's self-portraits made him an obvious choice for the role. They traveled back and forth to Holland together to study the works in the Rembrandt Museum. Laughton took up painting, to give his scenes at the easel a natural ease and confidence, and even grew a mustache, which he painstakingly trained to match the wild hair seen in his self portraits.
Korda and his screenwriters chose to chronicle the later years of the painter's life, from the death of his first wife, Saskia (who is never seen in the film but whose spirit hangs over Rembrandt) through his radical change in style, his bankruptcy, and his scandalous affair with young kitchen maid Hendrickje Stoffels (Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester), who became his common-law wife before her premature death. They show only one of Rembrandt's paintings onscreen his legendary masterpiece "The Night Watch," which receives a hostile reception and favor intimate scenes over artistic landmarks from the life of the maverick painter. The episodic script becomes a series of tableaux rather than a dramatic narrative, and the numerous monologues and biblical recitations (surely included to showcase Laughton's gifts at dramatic recitation) tend to stop the film dead.
Korda's London Pictures had become the standard-bearer for taste, elegance, and production value in British cinema, and films he directed for his studio reflected both his refined sense of taste and his producer's sense of showmanship. His direction tends to be stiff and stagy but he showcases his magnificent sets and costumes and his detailed period recreations beautifully. Rembrandt was no different. Korda makes the most of the sets created by his brilliant production designer brother, Vincent Korda, and captures a handsome, often painterly visual canvas. While he resists showing the paintings of Rembrandt, he evoke the painter's subjects, compositions, and lighting through the film's imagery.
Laughton was intimately involved in all aspects of Rembrandt, from the design to the casting of friends Roger Livesey (in a memorable role as a beggar who poses for Rembrandt), Marius Goring and, of course, his wife Elsa Lanchester. Yet there were problems on the set, notably a clash with stage legend Gertrude Lawrence, who took a rare film role to play Rembrandt's exasperated housekeeper. She was quite the raconteur on set, entertaining the cast and crew, and especially Korda, with gossip and ribald stories while Laughton tried to focus on his part. Laughton had soundproof screens put around the set to keep the chatter and bustle down, but Korda's perceived neglect of Laughton in favor of Lawrence led to a rift between the actor and the director that was never repaired.
It doesn't show in Laughton's performance, which ranks as one of the best in his career. Arrogant and romantic, lively and jaunty, with a passion for life and art and a flair for the theatrical, Laughton's Rembrandt is an amazing marriage of magnified naturalism and intense theatricality brought down to screen dimensions. "His Rembrandt is a detailed, heart-breaking performance, quietly pitched, with not a trace of exaggeration," writes actor, director, and Laughton biographer Simon Callow. "It is also one of the very few filmed recreations of an artist that actually convince." Next to the sharply entertaining crispness of Lawrence's bright caricature, Laughton feels like one of Rembrandt's own paintings come to life: soft, indefinable, full of vivacity and melancholy and mystery behind those heavy eyes.
Rembrandt was a commercial failure, more respected by critics than liked by audiences. Korda even attempted an inspired gimmick free admission to anyone who could prove that they owned a genuine Rembrandt to no avail. And it all but marked the end of their collaboration. Korda attempted one final production with Laughton, an ill-fated adaptation of I, Claudius that Korda shut down after his leading lady, Merle Oberon, was injured in a car wreck. Today it is best remembered for Korda's magnificent black and white canvas and Laughton's inspired performance, aspects that are as impressive today as they were in 1936.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Carl Zuckmayer (story), June Head, Lajos Biro
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Francis Lyon
Art Direction: Vincent Korda
Music: Geoffrey Toye
Cast: Charles Laughton (Rembrandt van Rijn), Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje Dirx), Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje Stoffels), Edward Chapman (Fabrizius), Walter Hudd (Banning Cocq), Roger Livesey (Beggar Saul).
by Sean Axmaker