The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Film review of the comic historical movie starring Charles Laughton

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Historical/Period/Epic

image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the comical period romp starring Charles Laughton as the titular king and focusing on five of his six wives. Co-starring Robert Donat and directed by Alexander Korda.

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Synopsis

The life, times and romances of King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) as told through the thoughts and comments of those around him and the man himself.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Am I a King or a breeding bull?!

Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) ruminates on his romantic life.

Here’s an old classic in need of the loving hands of a skilled film restoration team with a good spit and polish!

Pre-The Tudors, film and TV audiences were used to seeing the merry Tudor monarch Henry VIII portrayed in the light he is treated to here. A slightly obese, slightly rude, slightly psychotic man who was happiest eating, getting laid, getting hitched, sending people to ‘The Tower’ or chopping their ‘eads orf.

With The Tudors we were treated to the lovely sight of the gorgeous Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the embodiment of the young Henry, an athletic and romantic King who at one time in real-life was referred to as “the most handsome Prince in Christendom.”

The Tudors took a few liberties with the history but going back to an earlier cinematic incarnation of the man, historical accuracy is more or less chucked out of the window with one of the many chickens the old boy chomps his way through.

Here we have Charles Laughton (that erstwhile screen-hogger) securing most of the attention as the corpulent, poultry-guzzling king we are more familiar with.

Henry almost certainly didn’t speak with a broad, Scarborough accent as Laughton’s did (“Diplomacy, diplomacy me foot!”) but Charlie boy at least nails the brim and brio of one of the most colourful personalities in English history. It’s ham of course, but butcher’s A-grade ham.

And the dialogue he is afforded here is far juicier and inunendo-laden than any Tudors script; it is Carry on Henry (1971) decades before that long-running series was even thought of.

I have to admit the script (by Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis) is a Godsend to the critic. It might not be perfect but it is absolutely, fabulously ‘quotetastic’. Ahem:

  • “There’s no delicacy these days…no consideration of others. Refinement’s a thing of the past! Manners are dead!” Henry says this as he gobbles on a chicken, talking with his mouth full, chucking the remnants behind him and almost hitting one of his guards.
  • “Am I a King or a breeding bull?!” Henry is incredulous as to the pressure to remarry after dispatching of another wife.
  • “The things I do for England” as Henry prepares to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves, a wife who displeases him from the outset.
  • “Six wives. And the best of them’s the worse!” Henry sums up his romantic career after being nagged by wife number six Catherine Parr.

On that last point I’ll bring in the truly delightful Elsa Lanchester – Laughton’s own wife – who plays his German fourth bride Anne.

An intelligent and witty actress she treats us to an impish, cunning continental Princess who deliberately, calculatingly makes him see her as shrill, silly and simple so she can instead marry the handsome young courtier he has sent to woo her by proxy (John Loder, later Hedy Lamarr’s third husband).

In the marital bed she cools his ardour further by whooping the ass of “the best card player in England” before negotiating a cracking divorce settlement – that includes Loder – and tells him she already knows about his affair with the doomed next wife, Katherine Howard.

Merle Oberon is fleetingly seen as Quen Anne Boleyn.

The other wives are dealt with in a factory-like, bed ’em and get rid of ’em manner. Catherine of Aragon is not seen and summed up in a title card as a not very interesting, “respectable woman”. Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) gets a few minutes before she loses track of her head. Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) shows off her radical, short hair-do and Catherine Parr has a few minutes of moaning at the end. The accent, strangely, is on Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (Binnie Barnes).

In support – before he came the undisputed English leading man in British movies of the 1930’s – is handsome Robert Donat as Thomas Culpepper, Katherine Howard’s lover who went to the executioner’s block with her.

There is an amusing cameo from ‘Lady Tree’ (wife of renowned Shakespearean Herbert Beerbohm Tree) as Henry’s nurse who insists his lack of male progeny is due to her being locked out of his pre-nuptials bedroom to secrete special herbs under his pillows.

But it’s characters like this that make me flinch a little. I get the Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey approach with having ladies-in-waiting and kitchen staff gossiping about the king’s antics. And I know this is a specifically directed, comic skit on the historicity of Henry VIII.

But some of his servants have a bit too much candour with him after the filmmakers establish that he can dispense with people’s heads following the slightest indiscretion or faux pas.

For instance, Nursey rebukes him in public for his poor fathering something that, at this point in his life for certain, would have seen her sent to the chopping block form bit of ‘Off with her head!’

Maybe it’s the history pedant in me, but I think there a few too many liberties were taken here. But to quote this film’s Henry again, the whole thing could just be “All sauce and no substance”- and I’m not talking about what dresses the chicken – so should be treated as such.

Cast & credits

Director: Alexander Korda. 1hr37mins/97mins. London Films/United Artists. (U).

Producers: Alexander Korda, Ludovico Toeplitz.
Writers: Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis.
Camera: Georges Périnal.
Music: Kurt Schröder.
Sets: Vincent Korda, C.P. Norman.

Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon, Elsa Lanchester, Binnie Barnes, Wendy Barrie, Everley Gregg, Franklin Dyall, Miles Mander, Lawrence Hanray, William Austin, John Loder.

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