Thursday 30 October 2008

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Back in 1933, what seems like everyone who would become anyone in English film appeared in this Alexander Korda production. Korda wasn't new to the business, as he'd been producing since 1923 and directing since 1914 back in his native land of Hungary (or Austria-Hungary as it was then), but he's known today as an English film magnate, one of the various Kordas who dominated English cinema for a while. This is an early one, the one that broke them to a wider audience, before Rembrandt, The Thief of Bagdad or The Four Feathers. Then again, how could they go wrong with a cast like this, especially with Charles Laughton in the Oscar winning title role, the first time the award travelled beyond American shores.

Henry VIII was a legendary king of England, whose legendary status extends well beyond his six legendary marriages, that form the focus of this film. We enter at the end of wife number two, wife number one being dismissed with a single title card: Catherine of Aragon 'was a respectable woman,' it tells us, 'So Henry divorced her.' We never meet her but we meet the succeeding five, played in succession by no lesser actors than Merle Oberon (later to become Mrs Alexander Korda), Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's own wife), Binnie Barnes and Everley Gregg. That's not a bad run!

They're all excellent, though to inevitably different degrees given their variable amounts of screen time, but some are marvellous, not least Binnie Barnes as Catherine Howard, the ambitious young lady who throws herself at the king in order to gain the crown, even though she really loves one of his court. The real object of her affection is Thomas Culpeper, played by a young Robert Donat, looking at least fifty years younger than he soon would in Goodbye Mr Chips. I wonder how much he learned from Laughton's performance here. Catherine Howard gets her shot after a slew of others: Henry divorces 'the clever' Catherine of Aragon, then beheads 'the ambitious' Anne Boleyn and 'the stupid' Jane Seymour dies during childbirth.

In between Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard is Anne of Cleves, a German who Henry marries for political reasons. She's a joy to watch in the hands of Elsa Lanchester, an astounding actress who was never given the respect she deserved, probably because she had the audacity to appear in a horror movie of all things, and in the title role no less! Then again Bride of Frankenstein has been cited more than once as the best of the genre and I'm not going to argue too hard against that judgement. On the flipside her husband had already made two: The Old Dark House and Island of Lost Souls and he went from strength to strength for another decade at least.

Here Lanchester is a memorable queen with a gloriously malleable face underneath her bonnet and she's the only person in this film who really works on the same page as Henry and outplays him at his own games, literally. 'The things I've done for England!' he sighs as he enters the bedchamber on their wedding night, only to end up losing to her at cards, then organising their divorce and setting up the next marriage. Henry may let both his nurse (played by Lady Tree, who looks and acts remarkably like Monty Python's Terry Jones in a dress) and his final wife Catherine Parr boss him around but that's very much according to his whim. Anne of Cleves is the only one who could do it outside of his intention. A night of cards with her and he's bellowing for money to cover his losses.

And as much as you'd expect Laughton to bellow as the large and boisterous Henry VIII, which he does, this role provides far more than bellowing. It's a really great part for an actor: the entire film revolves around it and the rest of the cast are as deferential as you'd expect when interacting with a king who beheaded two wives. Laughton is superb and his Oscar was well deserved, even in the fascinating precode year of 1933. He runs through the gamut of emotion, depending on the scene and who he's acting with or against.

He stalks around exuding danger to all nearby; then struts with a different sense of danger in mind. He roars with laughter at his own jokes, breaks down in tears at news of his wife's adultery, tiptoes to find her suite for a rendezvous, combing his beard for her. He has his black moods though, when the world goes silent for fear of giving offense. He wrestles on the banquet hall floor to demonstrate his virility to his new wife, even with half a century behind him, and he rants about manners and lack of modern delicacy. 'Refinement's a thing of the past,' he says throwing hunks of chicken over his shoulder.

The film zips by so quickly that you hardly have time to note that it's a full 97 minutes in length. The script, by Lajos Biró, another Austro-Hungarian ex pat in London, is packed with choice little nuggets of dialogue. 'Elizabeth will never learn to rule a kitchen,' he cries, referring to the future Elizabeth I; the barber can't say anything right, whatever his intentions; French and English executioners bicker over who gets to take Anne Boleyn's head and why. Scripts like this one are to be treasured and Laughton obviously did so, taking full advantage of its opportunities to forge an international name for himself. Another treat from Korda, Laughton, Lanchester and the rest.

1 comment:

Gloria said...

Laughton and Donat were good friends. When Dona'ts wife and children were in the USA during WW2, laughton helped Robert's son John to get a relevant child part in his film "this Land Is Mine". Donat was to play again with Laughton in "Hobson's Choice, but unfortunately, he didn't get the part because of his illness.

I don't know if Donat learned anything from Laughton but he had his own sound (and classical) stage training, behind him, so Donat wasn't quite the freshman when he made the film ;)

Just for the curio, let me mention that, before "Mir. Chips" was made, producer Irving Thalberg wanted Laughton to play that role. Thalberg's early death and Laughton's involvement with other movies kept that from becoming a reality. I wonder how would have been Mr. Chips if played by Laughton. Donat's Mr. Chips, however, is so embedded in memory that it's hard to think of anybody else in the role.

And yes, after all thses years, Laughton's Henry remains awesome.