Cast & Crew
In 1642 in Leyden, Holland, Rembrandt van Rijn, a painter and miller's son, experiences the death of his beloved wife Saskia and, during her funeral, finishes her portrait before her face fades for him forever. Later, while working on a painting commissioned by Captain Banning Cocq, Rembrandt depicts the sixteen gentlemen of the civic guard as disfigured. After humiliating them at a public unveiling of the painting, Rembrandt refuses to apologize and loses the portrait commissions that had assured his income. Still racked with grief about Saskia's death, Rembrandt longs for another wife and marries the cold and shrewish Geertje Dirx. Ten years following Saskia's death, Rembrandt has become bankrupt, and his house and its furnishing are sold at auction. He then paints a beggar and tells him the Biblical story of David and Saul. Geertje harangues Rembrandt about their poverty, and he learns that Govaert Flinck, an old student of his, is now making a handsome living painting aristocrats. Rembrandt, however, refuses to compromise his art for money. Because the king was once Rembrandt's patron, Rembrandt finally agrees to see the prince, but goes instead to his father's mill in Leyden and reads from the Bible at dinner. When he returns to Amsterdam, he meets his new housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels, and paints her portrait. Jealous of Rembrandt's attentions toward the kind and beautiful maid, Geertje threatens her. Rembrandt is intent on marrying her, but knows that half of Geertje's money will go to Rembrandt's son Titus if he remarries. When Hendrickje becomes pregnant, Geertje charges her with "unchastity, concubinage and immoral conduct." Hendrickje is tried before a jury of Lutheran elders and is ex-communicated from the church. A forced sale of Rembrandt's property drives him and Hendrickje into the country. When he sells a painting of the Blessed Virgin to an art buyer for the cardinal in Paris, the court purloins his paintings for his creditors, claiming that he has no right to sell his own work. Hendrickje cunningly becomes Rembrandt's art dealer and the official owner of his paintings and is able to sell them. Hendrickje then gets sick from nursing their baby and sends the child to her mother. In light of Hendrickje's failing health, Rembrandt decides to marry her and, as Titus arrives with his bride, Rembrandt sends for the baby and Hendrickje's mother. He then paints Hendrickje's portrait as he did when they met, and she falls dead while posing. Years later, in 1669, Rembrandt has become a beggar and recites profound words to a group of young painters, who finally recognize him. He then begins a self-portrait, muttering the Biblical words of King Solomon, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
Jerrold Robert Shaw
David B. Cunynghame
Johan De Meester
H. M. Waller
A. W. Watkins
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
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
And of a sudden he knew that when one woman gives herself to you, you possess all women. Women of every age and race and kind, and more than that, the moon, the stars, all miracles and legends are yours. Brown-skinned girls who inflame your senses with their play, cool yellow-haired women who entice and escape you, gentle ones who serve you, slender ones who torment you, the mothers who bore and suckled you; all women whom God created out of the teeming fullness of the earth, are yours in the love of one woman.- Rembrandt van Rijn
What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.- Rembrandt van Rijn
The Hollywood Reporter review credits Lajos Biros [sic] and Carl Zuckmayer with the screenplay, although Biro's name does not appear in the onscreen credits, and it is unclear what contribution he made to the final script. Early Hollywood Reporter production charts list Sophie Stewart in the cast and credit Rene Hubert with costumes, although their contribution to the final film has not been confirmed. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Rembrandt was the first film to have a trailer projected on an airplane by television transmission. The projection took place on a fourteen-passenger flight bound for London. According to a modern source, this was the first film shot in its entirety at Korda's newly-acquired Denham Studios. According to Elsa Lanchester's biography, at the time that this film was made, it was rumored around Hollywood that if Laughton were cast, Lanchester, who was his wife, would have to be cast also. One biography of Laughton reports that Laughton insisted that Lanchester play "Hendrickje." Korda was opposed to the idea, but relented after being unable to find a suitable alternative. Before filming began, Lanchester was in a car accident in England. She sustained a deep cut above her left eyebrow, which prevented an inch of eyebrow from ever growing back. She writes that it "became a long race between [her] scar and Hendrickje Stoffels," but with the help of make-up, she was able to play the role.
Lanchester states that when no folk song could be found to evoke "Hendrickje's" memory of flat land and windmills, she wrote one herself, after a drink of gin, in one hour; the melody was woven into the score and was called "Hendrickje's Theme." According to Lanchester, Gertrude Lawrence's ribald story-telling on the set caused Laughton to have a screen put around the set to keep away the "chattering and flittering" of her voice. Lanchester writes that Lawrence "despised films so much that she wouldn't even attempt to learn the words" and wrote her lines on the large white cuffs of her "Geertke Dirx" costume or on the back of a chair. Lanchester states that Korda and Laughton had considered showing several Rembrandt paintings on the screen, but "realized that the dramatic interest of the story lay in the creative needs that drove Rembrandt to paint." Believing that the actual paintings would only remind the audience that Laughton was not a painter, it was decided that the camera should show Laughton painting at an easel, but never show the actual brush touching the canvas. According to a Laughton biography, Laughton had set designer Vincent Korda and costume designer John Armstrong teach him how to create the illusion of painting. Lanchester reports in her autobiography that Laughton visited Holland several times before shooting began and went to every museum that had Rembrandt paintings.
According to a biography, Laughton added the Bible readings to Zuckmayer's script. The biography also notes that Korda's sets and Georges Perinal's lighting were based on "Rembrandtesque principles of rooms illuminated by a north light." According to his biography, Laughton told many reviewers "that Korda had not had the courage to reveal the true horror of Rembrandt's existence." Laughton reportedly begged Korda to include a scene in which Rembrandt had to sell his first wife's grave in order to pay for his marriage to his second wife, but Korda refused Laughton's request. The speech Laughton recites about women that began, "There was a man in the land of Uz," was written by Zuckmayer. Lanchester states that following the film's release, thousands of people requested a copy of the speech. It was printed in full in Hedda Hopper's column in the Los Angeles Times on September 9, 1948 in response to requests for her "memorable scenes" column. Modern sources list Richard Angst as photographer with Perinal, and include Wilfrid Hyde-White in the cast. According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter on June 4, 1985, a nitrate print of this film was restored by the National Film Archive. A Dutch film based on Rembrandt's life, made in 1977 by Jos Stelling Film Produkties, was called Rembrandt-Fecit 1669. It was directed by Jos Stelling and starred Frans Stelling and Ton de Koff. Korda's Rembrandt was re-issued in 1943.