Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Recently, there's been a public relations effort by Hollywood to portray Henry VIII as a thinner, sexier monarch like in the recent Showtime cable series THE TUDORS starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyer as the Tudor King. In reality, Henry VIII was a large, heavy set, some might say pudgy ruler. I appreciate Hollywood's attempt to make Henry look slimmer in hopes of drawing in a younger target audience. But if you want to see a more authentic version of Henry VIII played by an actor with a closer body type to the real Henry, look no further than 1933's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII starring the fantastic and always entertaining Charles Laughton.

I became a Laughton fan last year after watching his compelling performance as the obsessed police inspector Valjean in LES MISERABLES (1935). Laughton seemingly owned all the plum roles in the 1930's playing Dr. Moreau in THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), Captain Bligh in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), and Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939). After binge watching THE TUDORS a few years ago and aware that Henry did not really look like actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyer, I wanted to see an actor with the same beefy physique as Henry play the ruler. Laughton uncannily resembles Henry. If Laughton had been born in the 16th Century, he might have passed as Henry's twin brother.

A tender moment between Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) and Wife #5 Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes)
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII was directed by Alexander Korda from a screenplay by Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis. PRIVATE LIFE is a cliff notes version of King Henry's life and relationships with five of his six wives. In fact, the film's prologue states that Henry's 1st wife Catherine of Aragon is not in this movie. "She was a respectable woman so Henry divorced her," the credits tell us. The film begins in 1536 with the impending execution of Henry's 2nd wife Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) and the immediate wedding to Henry's 3rd wife Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). Once Anne Boleyn is beheaded by a French Executioner (Gibb McLaughlin), King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) weds Jane Seymour. Jane gives Henry the male heir he so desperately desires but Jane dies during childbirth. It has only been 25 minutes into the film and Wife #2 and Wife #3 are already gone.

Henry mourns the loss of Jane. Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell (Franklin Dyall) knows the king needs to be married for the sake of the country and suggests Henry marry Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), the German daughter of the Duke of Cleves (William Austin). By marrying Anne, Henry can calm some of the countries upset with Henry for divorcing and exiling Catherine of Aragon. Henry requests a painting of Anne. The German painter Hans Holbein (John Turnbull) paints Anne's portrait but she requests he make her look unappealing. Besides, Anne is in love with the man sent to bring her back, a man named Peynell (John Loder) from Henry's court.

Henry VIII (Laughton) with Wife #3 Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie)
But Anne of Cleves does her duty, crossing the English Channel and marrying Henry to become Wife #4. By now, Henry has fallen in love with Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) from his court and Anne has a lover in Peynell. Henry and Anne agree to get an annulment one night while playing and cheating at cards with one another in bed. Once again, Henry is alone and morose. His Privy Council which includes Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Lawrence Hanray) urges him to seek yet another wife. Henry weds Katherine Howard. By all appearances, Henry and Katherine seem happy and in love with each other. Except Katherine is having an affair with Henry's courtier and friend Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). When one of his advisers Wriothesley (Miles Mander) reveals the affair to Henry at a secret council meeting, Henry almost strangles him.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII ends as it begins with another beheading (the lovers Katherine and Thomas) just as the film opened with Anne Boleyn's execution. Henry grows fatter, older, and lonelier. Anne of Cleves visits him. She recommends he marry Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg), a widow with children already. Katherine Parr is more maternal. Henry marries Wife #6 Katherine Parr who takes care of  Henry like one of her children, pampering and scolding him simultaneously. As the film ends, Henry looks at the camera and proclaims, "Six wives and the best of them's the worst."

As I mentioned earlier, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF  HENRY VIII is a Readers Digest version of Henry's life. It plays more toward the romantic and comedic. It races through Henry's marriages and doesn't linger on the executions or political and religious turmoil that Showtime's THE TUDORS spent four seasons covering. Previous projects focused on Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn (PBS's 2015 WOLF HALL) or the political intrigue of the Boleyn family in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008). In PRIVATE LIFE, Anne Boleyn scarcely makes an appearance even though she's portrayed by well known actress Merle Oberon (in one of her earlier roles). It's Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester as Anne of  Cleves who receives the most time on the screen (it's good to be the wife of the lead).

Perhaps one of the earliest paintings done by Hans Holbein the Younger of Henry VIII, circa 1536
Henry VIII is portrayed more humorously in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII than recent shows and films. Charles Laughton plays the king as a big spoiled kid. Laughton gives Henry a large hearty laugh that permeates throughout the castle, making all his court and servants smile and laugh when they hear it. When the king's in a jovial mood, so is his kingdom. It might be an inside joke that the film's title is THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII because Henry's life is anything but private. In one funny scene, Henry tries to sneak over to Catherine Howard's bedroom in the middle of the night for some naughtiness. But the King's Guard announces his every move, shouting "The King's Guard" as his element of surprise is ruined. PRIVATE LIFE has plenty of sexual innuendo for 1933 and for a British film. Henry has to explain the birds and the bees to Anne of Cleves who still believes storks bring babies.

This isn't to convey that PRIVATE LIFE is entirely a comedy. Henry's emotions run the gamut: petulant, happy, morose, cheerful, and flirtatious. Director Korda even stages a fight scene for Henry when he challenges a wrestler entertaining the court to impress his new wife Katherine Howard, defeating the wrestler but almost killing himself in the process. But PRIVATE LIFE avoids the bloodletting that made me finally stop watching THE TUDORS opting to show a more human and humorous side to the king. Laughton's portrayal of Henry VIII would earn him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1933.

Henry (Laughton) with Wife #4  Anne of Cleves (real life wife Elsa Lanchester)

We never see Wife #1 Catherine of Aragon. Wife #2 Anne Boleyn is barely showcased and almost presented as a martyr. Jane Seymour, Wife #3, is portrayed as stupid and childish, a perfect match for Henry but she dies after giving birth to his son. Anne of Cleves (Wife #4) is supposed to be ugly but Lanchester's beauty can't be hidden underneath her funny gaments and accent. Anne is the nicest of the wives. Catherine Howard comes off as the most ambitious and smartest of the bunch, a woman who sought the crown but paid the price.  Catherine's ambition and infidelity will cost her and Culpeper their heads. Katherine Parr rounds out the six wives and appears the most practical. Interestingly, the movies spells both the later Katherine's with a K while history tells us their names were spelled Catherine.

As for the actresses playing Henry's wives, Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves has the showiest part. With her big luminous eyes and funny accent, Lanchester almost steals all her scenes from Laughton in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. Lanchester would play both the Bride and author Mary Shelley two years later in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Lanchester and husband Laughton would make 11 films together (some of them early short films) including another Alexander Korda biographical film REMBRANDT (1936) and Billy Wilder's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). Merle Oberon may be the most well known actress besides Lanchester to play one of Henry's wives but Oberon only appears in the first twenty minutes as Anne Boleyn before she loses her head. Ironically, director Alexander Korda discovered Oberon and cast the beauty in PRIVATE LIFE. They would be married in 1939 and divorced in 1945. Oberon would soon land bigger parts in films like THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), and THE LODGER (1944).

Binnie Barnes who plays Henry's 5th Wife Katherine Howard is also very memorable. She has the most dramatic and interesting role, seemingly in love with Henry but having an affair with Henry's closest friend Thomas Culpeper. Her character is the closest we see to the drama and intrigue that more recent projects about Henry VIII have targeted. Binnie Barnes would appear in over 75 films including George Cukor's HOLIDAY (1937) with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

Henry (Laughton) and Katherine Howard (Barnes) watched over by Katherine's lover and Henry's friend Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat)
The last well known actor to appear in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII is Robert Donat. I've known Robert Donat forever from Alfred  Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS but it's the only Donat film I've ever seen until now. PRIVATE LIFE is only Donat's 4th film and he's clearly cast as a romantic supporting character with his thin mustache and tights. But his matinee good looks served him well as he followed up PRIVATE LIFE with the lead role as Edmond Dantes in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1934) and then as the accidental hero Richard Hannay in Hitchcock's fantastic British spy thriller THE 39 STEPS (1935). Not to be outdone by Laughton, Donat would win the Best Actor Academy Award for GOODBYE MR CHIPS (1939). Donat was dogged by poor health throughout his career and only made films sporadically after GOODBYE MR CHIPS.

Director Korda made THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII in England where it was a smash hit both in Britain and overseas. Eventually, director Korda and actors Laughton, Lanchester, Donat, Oberon, and Barnes would all end up in Hollywood, all with varying degrees of success. If PRIVATE LIFE were made today, the closest actor I could see portraying Henry with the right body type would be John Goodman.

Korda's decision to jettison some major characters in Henry's life and focus on the wives is a good decision. Thomas Cromwell who's a major character in WOLF HALL and THE TUDORS is but a bit player in PRIVATE LIFE and Cardinal Wolsey another important player in Henry VIII's world doesn't even appear (probably because he was involved with the Catherine of Aragon storyline which is also missing from the film). Korda's success with THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII stems from the casting of Charles Laughton who throws his considerable weight and exuberance into the role of Henry VIII making the King of England a likable, sympathetic historical character. Explore PRIVATE LIFE as it may be the closest  you'll ever come to seeing the real Henry VIII.

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