Tuesday 20 April 2021

Movie Review: The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933)

A costume drama-comedy, The Private Life Of Henry VIII is dominated by an over-the-top Charles Laughton performance, and otherwise enjoys a few laughs in amongst the flying chicken bones.

It's the 1500s in England, and King Henry VIII (Laughton) impatiently awaits the beheading of his second wife Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) then immediately marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). She conceives a son but dies at childbirth. Henry is crestfallen, but under pressure to increase the number of of male heirs he agrees to another marriage.

Although he is attracted to Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), a member of his court, the King reluctantly accepts an arranged union with Anne of Cleaves (Elsa Lanchester) from the German royal family. However once Henry sets eyes on Anne he finds her unattractive, triggering more marital troubles.

A British production directed by Alexander Korda, The Private Life Of Henry VIII features the husband-and-wife team of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester having some on-screen fun. With the historical context and seismic changes triggered by Henry's actions either completely ignored or reduced to monologue fragments, the film is less concerned with history and more focused on caricaturish portrayals.

And so Laughton creates the enduring cinematic image of Henry VIII as a boorish, unsophisticated, uncouth, lusty man driven by impulses, lording over his court with frequent bellowing and disgusting table manners. Almost defining what it means to chew the scenery, literally in some cases, Laughton casts a huge shadow over everything and everyone else, most of his various wives reduced to snippets of screen time.

First wife Catherine of Aragon never makes it to the screen, while Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour come and go in a flash. Elsa Lanchester enjoys chemistry with her husband and plays Anne of Cleaves purely for laughs, matching Laughton for pantomime buffoonery. Catherine Howard is portrayed as ambitious but always in love with courtier Thomas Culpeper (a wasted Robert Donat) in an example of two people reduced to elementary descriptions.

Korda directs with flair and brisk pacing, moving the action quickly between the many royal chambers. The set designs are reasonably impressive, and enjoyment is found in the gaggle of animated court servants, attendants and staff gossiping behind the King's back as they go about their daily business. 

As a child-like introduction to a complex monarch, The Private Life Of Henry VIII is good for a few clucks.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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