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Saturday Night Cinema: The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is The Private Life Of Henry VIII, directed by the great Sir Alexander Korda and starring the supreme Charles Laughton. It is the first collaboration between Korda and Laughton, and it is marvelous.

Laughton is a genius. he could play Flo in the Progressive commercials and make it compelling. His brilliant performance is reason enough to watch this comedic drama.

Charles Laughton won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the titular role with such bravado.

In 1932, Korda founded London Films with Big Ben as the company logo. The company’s releases included The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Rembrandt (1936) (next week’s selection), both of which starred Charles Laughton and were directed by Korda.

This was the more successful of the two.

Do look out for “Laughton eating a chicken with a primal gusto that clearly defines King Henry’s character as a gluttonous man devouring whatever is put before him.”

Charles Laughton in the Title Role of the British Film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”
By MORDAUNT HALL, NY Times,
Published: October 13, 1933

Charles Laughton, whose shadow is scurrying around the country in several pictures, including “The Sign of the Cross,” in which he gave his clever conception of Nero, is at the top of his form in the title rôle of “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” which was directed in London by the Hungarian Alexander Korda. The current work, which is now at the Radio City Music Hall, was not always received with unstinted praise on the other side of the Atlantic, because, although it was admittedly a clever production, some of the critics resented the buffooning of the fiery and amorous monarch. But in this country it probably will be enjoyed heartily without any such reservations, for it is a really brilliant if suggestive comedy.

Mr. Laughton not only reveals his genius as an actor, but also shows himself to be a past master in the art of make-up. In this offering he sometimes looks as if he had stepped from the frame of Holbein’s painting of Henry. He appears to have the massive shoulders and true bearded physignomy of the marrying ruler. Mr. Laughton may be guilty of caricaturing the rôle, but occasionally truths shine in the midst of the hilarity. He gives an admirable idea of Henry’s vanity and also of his impetuousness, his sense of humor, his courage and fear. There is Laughton’s amusing twist of his mouth and nose when he outwits, as Henry thinks, other persons in his entourage. This Henry is seldom able to conceal his actual thoughts. If he admires a woman, not only she knows, but everybody else. If he dislikes anything, as he does the appearance of Anne of Cleves, he almost groans.

He has a distinctive gait and glories in his strength. He also lays claim to being the best card player in England. When he laughs the laughter of others is heard, gradually increasing in volume, until all subordinates are laughing with their respective superiors. The wives who lose their heads apparently cause him concern only until the execution is over.

Catherine Howard is the real beauty of his mates. She appears at a banquet and is about to sing, when Henry asks her if she knows “What Shall I Do For Love?”—one of his own compositions. Fortunately she is able to sing the ballad and it is quite evident that Henry has lost his heart. But it chances that the frightful Anne of Cleves is about to leave the Continent for England. Henry trusts that she will not risk the Channel crossing, but she turns up with her very plain maids-in-waiting. Her English is broken and her face scarcely prepossessing. But it is not her desire to please Henry. All she wants is not love, but money—two palaces and a generous income for life. She plays cards with Henry, and, boast as he may of his ability at the game, he loses. And the rapacious Anne refuses to trust him for a hand or two. He has to go forth and borrow crowns from his courtiers.

Before Anne reaches England, Henry thinks that he will visit the apartment of the dainty Catherine Howard. He walks stealthily along the corridors, but his silhouette is beheld and there roars forth the command “The King’s Guard!” He takes another direction and again the order is heard. Just as a soldier is about to shout it a third time Henry puts his hand over the man’s mouth and then succeeds in knocking on Catherine’s door.

“Who’s there?” asks Catherine.

“Henry,” answers the man of many moods nervously.

“Henry who?” comes from the inside.

“The King,” replies the visitor, meekly.

It is a great relief to Henry when Anne consents to a divorce and he is exuberant when he finds the way clear to make Catherine Howard his wife.

It is a remarkably well-produced film, both in the matter of direction and in the settings and selection of exterior scenes. There are several lovely glimpses of old structures, including the Tower of London. No knives and forks were used in that day and therefore the always scrupulously dressed monarch thinks nothing of devouring a chicken in his hands and tossing the bones to the floor.

The performances of the supporting players are uniformly good, especially the portrayals of Elsa Lanchester, who in private life is Mrs. Laughton. She is excellent as the fine little business woman, Anne of Cleves. Binnie Barnes is able and charming as Catherine Howard.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, written by Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis; directed by Alexander Korda; produced by London Film Productions; released by United Artists. At the Radio City Music Hall.
Henry VIII . . . . . Charles Laughton
Thomas Culpeper . . . . . Robert Donat
Henry’s old nurse . . . . . Lady Tree
Catherine Howard . . . . . Binnie Barnes
Anne of Cleves . . . . . Elsa Lanchester
Anne Boleyn . . . . . Merle Oberon
Thomas Cromwell . . . . . Franklin Dyall
Wriothesly . . . . . Miles Mander
Jane Seymour . . . . . Wendy Barrie
Cornell . . . . . Claud Allister
Thomas Peynell . . . . . John Loder
Catherine Parr . . . . . Everley Gregg
Archbishop Cranmer . . . . . Laurence Hanray
Duke of Cleves . . . . . William Austin
Holbein . . . . . John Turnbull
Duke of Norfolk . . . . . Frederick Culley
French executioner . . . . . Gibb McLaughlin
English executioner . . . . . Sam Livesey

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