Where would we be without our royalty? Time and again, biopics of our monarchs becomes jewels in the cinematic crown. The success of The Queen at both the box-office and Oscars shows that even our contemporary monarch can generate interest, but equally her predecessors Victoria and Elizabeth I have romped through many a costumed drama.
However, it’s possible that one king rules over all in terms of reputation and notoriety – Henry VIII, now being reimagined as a younger prince in the sexed-up TV drama, The Tudors. Whilst Henry’s notoriety rests in having not been content with one wife, Alexander Korda avoids any such reference in his 1933 playfully boisterous biopic, The Private Life Of Henry VIII, a story which almost sells itself, and a landmark film from the early days of British cinema that has long been unavailable until now.
The drama begins with the impending execution of Anne Boleyn, having dismissed Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in an introductory caption that she was “of no particular interest. She was a respectable woman”. As we move behind the scenes of Anne’s last hours, we find executioners whistling whilst they sharpen their sword, cooks gossiping in the palace kitchen, and spectators bustling around for the best view.
Clearly Korda is less concerned with authenticity but prefers to embelish the legend and give it a soap-opera spin. As the years progress and the wives fall away, Henry is shown in all his larger-than-life complexity, a man of enormous passions, capable of love and tenderness as well as showing a thunderous temper and aggression, betrayed by wives and friends alike, but also capable of loving and being loved by his sextet of queens. And just as the film starts a few years into his reign, it also ends before he reaches his death bed.
Whilst Korda directs Private Life with energetic relish, disregarding authenticity in favour of feeding on the legend that could make headlines news in today’s gossip columns, it’s Charles Laughton’s boisterous portrayal that drives the drama. He gives our Tudor king a richness of personality that fills the big screen with enormous energy and life.
He’s first shown as a man of bullish passion, a testerone-fuelled bull impatient to sate his lust on Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) as soon as Anne (Merle Oberon) is beheaded. He demonstrates equal grief at her death only to reveal a compassionate side when introduced to the incompatible Anne of Cleves (played by Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, better know for being the Bride of Frankenstein).
The bedroom scene where Anne’s naiveté about men and sex leads to a game of cards and an agreement for immediate divorce is a priceless comic treasure. His marriage to Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) instead shows a man who has mellowed and is indeed beginning to discover happiness – even if he still has to demonstrate his waning prowess with an ill-judged wrestling bout.
Henry’s sense of betrayal, when his wife’s affair (with his close adviser Thomas Culpepper) is revealed, seems even more acute and seemingly lonelier. His final marriage to Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg) finds him enfeebled, hen-pecked and white-whiskered, resorting to stealing food behind her back in his closing scene, as he gnaws on a chicken leg – “six wives – and the best of them’s the worst”.
A tour-de-force of a performance from Laughton which won him the Oscar (the first Academy Award for a British film) as well as setting the precedence for any future depiction of Henry (and we can’t dismiss the Carry On teams efforts either!).
As for Korda, he missed out on the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars to Frank Lloyd’s sentimental view of early 20th century British life in Cavalcade, and whilst he went on set up London Studios and produce Things To Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles, and direct The Thief Of Baghdad, none of them achieved the same phenomenal success as The Private Life Of Henry VIII, not even when reteaming with Laughton for Rembrandt, a Hungarian ex-pat making a delicious romp about an English king.
With 2009 being the 500th anniversary of his ascension to the throne, this is a deliciously timely reminder of why Henry VIII is the leading monarch of the movies.
The Private Life of Henry VIII is out now.