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Saturday, 1 December 2007

Rembrandt (1936) Alexander Korda

One of the more obscure titles on the Home Theater Forum list of the 100 Great Films of the 1930s, Rembrandt is, as you'd imagine, a biopic about the great painter Rembrandt van Rijn. It was made in England, by the famous Korda family, here represented by Alexander Korda, producer and director, and Vincent Korda, production design. The knew what they were doing, to say the very least, and they represent one of the most important eras of British film.

We begin with a celebrated Rembrandt as he loses his wife and muse, the lady Saskia to illness, and work through a succession of powerful scenes dominated by Charles Laughton in blistering form but with other superb performance by people like Roger Livesey, Elsa Lanchester and Gertrude Lawrence, who was notably non-prolific but thankfully appeared at least a few times on film for posterity. There's also great cinematography by Georges Périnal who would go onto such adventurous classics as The Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad. This film firmly belongs to that tiny collection of films that aren't too long but too short. 85 minutes just isn't enough to get onto celluloid everything the cast and crew here were trying to achieve.

The scenes are seemingly endless. There's the scene with the civic guard where Rembrandt proves as powerful with words as he is with paint, Rembrandt painting his dead wife while the memory is still strong, the unveiling of his 'masterpiece' to an unenthusiastic audience... and that's just the first ten minutes. Later we meet the beggar who opens his eyes about life, revisit the countryside where he grew up as a peasant, then are introduced to Hendricke Stoffels, the new maid who becomes his true love, played by Elsa Lanchester who was Laughton's real life wife. They'd appeared together already in The Private Life of Henry VIII, but would make ten films together in all.

The only downside here is the preponderence of English accents in a film set firmly in Holland and with awesome costume and set design that makes us really feel like we're in the seventeenth century. Lanchester has her moments but they slip and nobody else comes close. I should add that this is a very minor point and offered only because everything else is outstanding. Most British films I've seen of the early to mid thirties are hampered by their budgets, looking notably tawdry compared to the lavish productions being mounted across the pond. The Korda films are notable exceptions and this is a treat

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