Cast & Crew
Preparations are made for the execution of Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII. She dies like a queen, and only minutes later, Henry marries Jane Seymour, whom he expects will be an ideal wife, as, he boasts, she is not spiteful or ambitious, only stupid. Jane bears the king's long hoped for son and heir, but dies in childbirth. Thomas Culpepper, one of the king's squires, is in love with Katherine Howard, a lady of the court who met Henry on the day of Anne Boleyn's death and is ambitious to be queen herself one day. The royal court urges Henry to marry again, placing him in a foul mood at the dinner table. While others are afraid to speak, Katherine Howard makes him notice her by offering to sing one of his own songs. Squire Thomas Peynell is then sent to arrange a royal marriage to a German, Anne of Cleves, but falls in love with her himself as she sits for court portrait painter Hans Holbein. Meanwhile, Henry has become infatuated with Katherine Howard, but a rendezvous in her apartments that he hopes to keep secret is made noisy by the guards. Word arrives that Anne of Cleves is not far away, and Culpepper must interrupt the royal assignation. To save herself for Peynell, Anne of Cleves offends Henry with her bizarre behavior. However, to send her back would mean war, so he agrees with great reluctance to the marriage, dreading his wedding night by saying "The things I've done for England." As Anne of Cleves pretends naivete, the newlyweds play cards until he agrees to an immediate divorce on her terms. Henry, now fifty, is offended by his barber's suggestion that he is too old to marry again, and weds Katherine Howard. Exuberantly happy, Henry tries to prove his youth to Katherine by engaging in a wrestling match that leaves him exhausted. Katherine realizes she still loves Culpepper, and despite his reluctance, they began an affair. Six months later, royal advisor Wriothesley discovers their relationship, and has Archbishop Cranmer tell Henry. First angry, then tearful, Henry sequesters himself while the crowds again watch a queen be beheaded. In 1543, the aged, lonely Henry meets Anne of Cleves, who suggests he marry Katherine Parr, who takes care of his children. Within three years Katherine Parr has become a nag, depriving her aged husband of his beloved food and drink. Henry remarks, "Six wives--and the best of them was the worst of them."
B. J. Simmons & Co., Covent Garden, London
David B. Cunynghame
A. W. Watkins
The Private Life of Henry VIII
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 risqué 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 Biró (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
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Alexander Korda's Private Lives - 4 Film Biographies in a Set from Eclipse
After directing silent films in America the Hungarian expatriate Korda settled in London and hit his stride as England's most prestigious producer. Korda made good use of the artistic assistance of his brothers Zoltan and Vincent and attracted top talent from across Europe. French cinematographer Georges Périnal filmed all four of the historical biographies in this set, and Austrian Lajos Biró was a writer on three of them. By prying into the love lives of monarchs and artists, the films offer witty observances on the larger subjects of romance and marriage. Warners' responded with its own series of popular, award-winning biographies that became acting showcases for Paul Muni. Korda's productions now seem superior in every respect.
1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII made both Korda and actor Charles Laughton famous; Laughton won an Academy Award with his uproarious interpretation of the king with the failed marriages. Henry is vain, petty and supremely selfish, yet he's also simply fulfilling the role into which he was born. The Price of Power is paid mostly by those forced by circumstance to defy Henry's authority. The unlucky Anne Boleyn, seen only briefly, is played by Merle Oberon, a ravishingly beautiful discovery who would soon marry producer Korda. Binnie Barnes has the strongest role. Her Katherine Howard waits patiently to become the Queen consort, only to find unhappiness in an ill-fated affair with one of Henry's aides, Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat). The skillful script begins with a French executioner preparing his sword, reminding us that more than one of these women will end up with their dainty necks on a chopping block.
But the overwhelming impression of The Private Life of Henry VIII is comedy. Frisky ladies-in-waiting make small talk over which one of them will next be invited to Henry's bed. The jolly crowds come to see a great lady lose her head -- and to critique her wardrobe. One spectator complains to her husband that she wants a nice gown too. He assures her that she'll get it -- at her execution.
Previously seen as a mad doctor and a Roman emperor in Paramount films, Charles Laughton is nothing short of spectacular. He trots through scenes and struts proudly on his skinny legs. The film's most celebrated image comes at Henry's dinner table. He stuffs his mouth with roast fowl, tossing bones over his shoulder while complaining about the lack of manners at his court.
The funniest scenes show Henry's calamitously brief marriage to Anne of Cleves, played by Charles Laughton's supremely eccentric wife Elsa Lanchester. Anne practices making grotesque faces in the mirror and behaves like a dotty German peasant. In their wedding bed, she promptly draws Henry into a game of cards, and wins by cheating!
The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) was released a few months before Josef Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, a film version of the exact same historical events. Korda's film lacks the delirious visuals of the Marlene Dietrich vehicle but is a much more rounded drama. Actress Elizabeth Bergner is the German princess taken to Russia to marry a Grand Duke. Her new husband Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) turns out to be a mental case given to gloomy moods and paranoid suspicions. A successful marriage is impossible.
Flora Robson adds to her gallery of strong monarchs with the lustful Empress Elizabeth, who soon realizes that her daughter-in-law is far more stable than her son. In this telling, Catherine only pretends to have affairs with a regiment of officers, as a ploy to regain Peter's interest. Peter responds by flaunting a lover at court. He can't wait to assume power, not realizing that the nobles, the army and the people are all firmly behind Catherine.
The director this time is Paul Czinner, Elizabeth Bergner's husband. His work is visually smoother and more delicate than Alexander Korda's, but The Rise of Catherine the Great was also much more expensive to produce. The delightful The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) is the lightest film in the stack, a farce with much to say about the nature of romantic illusion. It's the final film role of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who quit acting because of the notion, encouraged by the press, that his voice was unsuited for talking pictures.
Frederick Lonsdale and Lajos Biró's script, from a play by Henry Bataille, shows the Spanish lady-killer outpaced by his own legend. In Seville to patch things up with his lady Doña Dolores (Benita Hume), Don Juan dallies with the dancer Antonita (Merle Oberon) and suddenly faces the prospect of debtor's prison. All appears saved when a young rake masquerading as the great lover is killed by an irate husband. After attending his own funeral, Don Juan hides at an inn under an assumed name, but finds that seduction isn't easy without his reputation to do all the work. He's shocked when the barmaid (Binnie Barnes) would rather settle for a gift.
Worse still, when Don Juan returns to Seville, he can't get anyone to acknowledge him. Ex-lovers, blinded by their own romantic illusions, are convinced that the real Don Juan was much younger and more handsome. Don Juan is now the subject of plays and scandalous books; he's become a marketable franchise. The legend has not only taken over, it no longer has room for the real man.
Aided by the expressive settings designed by his brother Vincent, Alexander Korda directs The Private Life of Don Juan with a new sweep and flair. The aging Fairbanks is still graceful in action scenes. Better yet, he understands completely the situation of a man whose image is beloved by so many. The bored Spanish wives that swooned at the mention of Don Juan now reject him as an impostor. It's a bitter pill to swallow.
The most mature and melancholy film in the set is 1936's Rembrandt, a tender and insightful contemplation of the artist's relationship to society. Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton, superb) is successful and happy working in his studio in Amsterdam when his beloved wife Saskia dies. Less willing to suffer fools and hypocrites, Rembrandt antagonizes his patrons and develops serious financial problems. Housekeeper Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence) raises his son Titus and holds off the debtors but Rembrandt becomes so morose that he attempts to flee to his hometown in the country. He then finds calming inspiration with Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), his new maid. But complicated debt issues prevent Rembrandt from marrying Hendrickje or even selling his own work. Outraged church officials excommunicate Hendrickje for living out of wedlock.
Rembrandt doesn't try to cover the painter's entire life story, and instead advances a series of telling episodes. We never see Saskia; her place is taken by Rembrandt's touching speech explaining how one woman can be all things to one man -- an ironic inversion of Don Juan, who searches for the perfect woman by bedding thousands. Rembrandt receives support and criticism from his paying pupils Fabrizius and Flinck (Edward Chapman & John Clements). The painter's practice of using beggars to model as Biblical figures produces an amusing episode with Roger Livesey (of I Know Where I'm Going!) posing as King Saul. Highly sentimental moments make their point without being oversold, giving Rembrandt an honest emotional kick.
Korda's direction is sensitive to the rhythms of the story, aided greatly by cameraman Georges Périnal, whose lighting frequently suggests the master's dramatic portraiture work. Rembrandt van Rijn is one of Charles Laughton's best roles, yet we're informed that the actor was torn by self-doubt and inner frustration. Laughton's next film for Korda would be the disastrous, unfinished I, Claudius. Merle Oberon's car accident was the official reason for the production shut-down, but the raw dailies seen in the documentary The Epic that Never Was show Laughton to be so conflicted that he cannot stammer out a performance.
Each of the four Korda films is a grand concept requiring the input of superior talent, and each makes good on its promise. The transfers in Eclipse's Alexander Korda's Private Lives set show occasional wear but are far better than prints available on television, especially Rembrandt. The audio is also much improved, with hiss-free music and dialogue. The Eclipse presentation format does without extras, but the brief individual essays by Michael Koresky provide efficient and informative introductions, as well as an overview of this part of Alexander Korda's career.
For more information about Alexander Korda's Private Lives, visit Eclipse. To order Alexander Korda's Private Lives, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Alexander Korda's Private Lives - 4 Film Biographies in a Set from Eclipse
My wife? Huh... not yet.- King Henry VIII
Poor mother told me... first he says the marriage is no good, and then he cuts off the head with an ax chopper!- Anne of Cleves
That is an exaggeration, madam.- King Henry VIII
Then why do you say I am not yet your wife?- Anne of Cleves
Well, madam, uh, a marriage ceremony doesn't make us one.- King Henry VIII
Who's there?- Katherine Howard
Henry.- King Henry VIII
Henry who?- Katherine Howard
The King.- King Henry VIII
Oh, the King, not the man.- Katherine Howard
I never should have come, Kate. We can't go on like this.- Thomas Culpeper
I know, it's dreadful, seeing each other every day and never being alone together...- Katherine Howard
Oh, it's not that, it's... it's being torn in half between you and the King.- Thomas Culpeper
But, Tom, we belong to each other!- Katherine Howard
No. We belong to him.- Thomas Culpeper
Ah, what am I, what am I going to do with you!- King Henry VIII
Chop my head?- Anne of Cleves
Probably.- King Henry VIII
You daren't.- Anne of Cleves
Why not?- King Henry VIII
Isn't it a pity to lose a head like this? Still, they will easily find a nickname for me: among the Queens of England, I shall be "Anne sans tete." That means "Anne who lost her head."- Anne Boleyn
Immediately following the onscreen credits are two written statements. The first reads: "Henry VIII had six wives. Catherine of Aragon was the first; but her story is of no particular interest-she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her." The second note reads: "He then married Anne Boleyn. This marriage was also a failure-but not for the same reason." The film's opening credits differ somewhat from the end credits. In the opening credits, the "wives" and the "king's nurse" are listed last, and the wives are given numerical designations, such as "Anne Boleyn, the second wife" and "Jane Seymour, the third wife." Although the cast credits spell Robert Donat's character name as "Culpepper," it is spelled "Culpeper" in an onscreen note, and several reviews also spell it as "Culpeper." Publicity items note that clothes worn by Charles Laughton in the picture were reconstructed from period portraits, and interior sets were reproductions of interiors at Hampton Court and other Tudor palaces. The film won Laughton an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the movie was nominated for Best Picture. It was chosen as one of the "Best Foreign Films" of 1933 by the National Board of Review, made New York Times's "ten best" list of 1933, and was voted one of the ten best pictures of 1933, according to a Film Daily critic's poll.
Modern sources add the following information about the production: The idea for the picture came to director Alexander Korda after he heard a London cab driver sing a music hall song about King Henry VIII. Seven complete scripts were written and discarded. Initially only the story of Henry and Anne of Cleves was to be dramatized, but the story was eventually expanded to include five other wives. Korda had a difficult time finding financing, as period projects were then regarded as box-office poison. He was even told to leave Henry's name out of the title and instead use the title The Golden Bed. Finally, with the help of Richard Norton and Murray Silverstone, £12,000-20,000 were secured from United Artists, which was looking for new product to distribute. Although producer Herbert Wilcox had an exclusive contract with United Artists for British films, Korda overcame this restriction, and his film was shot at Wilcox's British and Dominion studios between late spring and early summer 1933. Even after production had started, Korda lacked sufficient funds to complete the picture. To save money, sets were constructed cheaply, the same costumes were worn throughout the picture, and actors reduced their salaries or waited until completion for their compensation. The London opening took place at the Leicester Square Theater on October 24, 1933, two weeks after the New York opening. The picture grossed around $500,000 in America alone, and much more overseas, thus proving that a British sound film could match Hollywood product in popularity. Following the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII, film production in England blossomed, and Korda's London Films was placed under contract by United Artists. His next two pictures, Catherine the Great and The Private Life of Don Juan, were also biographical costume pictures. According to modern sources, the cast included Judy Kelly (Lady Rocheford).
Other pictures dramatizing Henry VIII's personal life include Cardinal Wolsey, a 1912 Vitagraph film, directed by Stuart Blackton and Lawrence Trimble and starring Hal Reid; The Six Wives of Henry VIII, a 1971 BBC mini-series, directed by Naomi Capon and John Glenister and starring Keith Michell, Annette Crosbie and Angela Pleasance; and Henry VIII and His Six Wives, an Anglo-EMI production, directed by Waris Hussein and starring Keith Michell and Charlotte Rampling.