Directed By: Alexander Korda
Starring: Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Franklin Dyall
Tag line: "EVERY WOMAN GOT IT IN THE NECK - Eventually"
Trivia: The first non-Hollywood film to win an Academy Award, Charles Laughton won the 1933 Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance
Unlike many of the movies that cover the reign of England’s Henry VIII (Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons, and, more recently, The Other Boleyn Girl), 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII skips some of the most dramatic moments of the infamous monarch’s life, including his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon; their eventual divorce; Henry’s split with the Catholic Church (which supported Catherine); his personal struggle with former friend and advisor Sir Thomas More (whose faith would not permit him to acknowledge the divorce); and his tempestuous second marriage to Anne Boleyn, who, after failing to give Henry a male heir, was accused of incest, adultery, and high treason, for which she was executed. By omitting these historical events, The Private Life of Henry VIII offers a rare glimpse into the King’s later years, and reminds us that, while Catherine and Anne may have been his most noteworthy spouses, Henry still had four wives to go.
As the film opens, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) is moments away from being executed. At the request of her husband, England’s Henry VIII (Charles Laughton), a shot will be fired the minute Anne’s head hits the ground, at which point he will immediately marry wife #3, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). During their time together, Jane gives birth to the son that Henry so desired, but she does not survive the delivery.
Soon after Jane’s death, the royal court urges Henry to wed yet again, and while he himself has his eye on Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), his ministers recommend a more politically prudent union with Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester). To secure the marriage, Henry sends Thomas Peynell (John Loder) to Germany. But instead, Peynell himself falls in love with Anne, and after she and Henry are married, Anne does everything she can to convince the king that the wedding was a mistake. Henry happily agrees, and grants Anne a quick divorce (on her own terms).
Once again a single man, Henry openly courts Katherine Howard, who, unbeknownst to him, was once romantically involved with his closest advisor, Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). But Katherine’s ambition was boundless, and she seduces Henry in the hopes he will make her queen. In Henry’s eyes, Katherine is the true love he has been longing for all these years, and considers their marriage a happy one. But as the king grows older, Katherine’s attentions return to Culpeper, and the two rekindle their affair. How will Henry react to the news that his beloved queen has been unfaithful? Well, seeing as he has one wife yet to go (Katherine Parr, played by Everley Gregg), I’m guessing you can figure that out for yourself!
By all accounts, Henry VIII was a larger-than-life King, and to play him, you needed a larger-than-life actor, which, in my book, made Charles Laughton the perfect choice for the role. From the moment he appears on-screen, Laughton’s Henry is both energetic (his eagerness to wed Jane Seymour is apparent) and somewhat arrogant (“My first wife was clever”, he says to Thomas Culpeper, “and my second was ambitious. But my third... Thomas, if you want to be happy, marry a girl like my sweet little Jane. Marry a stupid woman!”). Often bellowing his lines as opposed to delivering them, Laughton makes for a very convincing King, and his sometimes harsh demeanor (he can barely hide his displeasure when he meets Anne of Cleves, who he considers unattractive) is, at times, tempered by a genuine depth of feeling (his love for Katherine Howard is all-consuming, as is his heartbreak when she deceives him). And, of course, there’s the now-famous banquet scene, where Laughton allows Henry’s bad table manners to shine through while eating chicken.
There are other good performances to be found in The Private Life of Henry VIII, including Merle Oberon, whose brief appearance as the doomed Anne Boleyn is touching and memorable; and Robert Donat as Culpeper, a man torn between the king he admires and the woman he loves. But it’s Charles Laughton’s tour-de-force portrayal of the boisterous monarch that makes The Private Life of Henry VIII the fine film that it is.