The Private Life of Henry VIII (U.K., Dir. Alexander Korda)
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the best movies of 1933 without including a discussion of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII starring Charles Laughton as the eponymous king. Aside for Laughton’s fantastic performance (many of the popular myths about Henry come about because of this movie and his performance), the movie is a surprisingly funny and poignant examination of the life of a man many have argued was beyond redemption (much less comedy). The movie may be far from historically accurate, but even I, as an historian, don’t care because Korda and Laughton have such fun getting us from point A to point B.
We skip his first two marriages, just coming in as Anne Boleyn is being beheaded so Henry can marry Jane Seymour. This is a shame since, as anyone who has read Hillary Mantel’s great novel from last year Wolf Hall, can attest, his cantankerous divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne are fascinating episodes in both Henry’s life and in the history of England. Merle Oberon is compelling as Anne Boleyn in the few scenes she has before losing her head, and it would have been interesting to see what she would have done had she more time with the role. And I would have been interested to see what Korda would have done with the role of Catherine.
But that is the power of this movie. We want to see more, rather than, as so often happens, we beg for the end credits to role. We want to spend more time with these characters, even if it means pushing the film’s run-time over the traditional two hour mark. Each marriage the movie chronicles – first to Jane Seymour, then to Anne of Cleves, then to Katherine Howard, and finally to Catherine Parr – takes on a character of its own. With Jane (Wendy Barrie) he has a loving if rather paternal marriage that ends with her death giving birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. His brief marriage with the German princess Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) is classic high comedy, as she cleverly cons her way out of the marriage so she can be with the man she loves. The bulk of the movie is devoted to his seemingly happy marriage to Katherine Howard, whose betrayal leaves him a broken man.
The movie would not have been successful without the blustering and high spirited performances of Charles Laughton. He embodied everything popular culture has come to associate with Henry VIII: a confident swagger, vulgar gnawing on chicken bones, a hearty laugh, and a mercurial temper. I don’t know if this is really what Henry was like, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. Plausibility: isn’t that all we really want from our historical fiction?
Henry VIII is one of those rare movies that effectively intertwines scenes of comedy and drama without contradicting itself. There is no confusion over tone because we instinctively recognize that power to a man like Henry is alternately great fun and even greater heartache. We also recognize that love and companionship come harder and at a greater price for a man with so much power. At the end we take away a more sympathetic view of a king who has been demonized by history without completely accepting his brash arrogance and mercurial temper. That Korda and Laughton were able to accomplish this complex task and produce a timeless movie is a treat.