[i]The Private Life of Henry VIII
[/i]dir. Sir Alexander Korda
It most certainly is good to be the King. In this wild romp through Henry VIII's many marriages, Charles Laughton (Academy Award winner for best actor) portrays the corpulent King with charisma, jest and an insatiable appetite for food, good times and pretty little things flitting about in petty coats and skirts. Laughton is a force of nature. Every gesture is decidedly grand and he presents his character as an intense, physical presence with no real desire to run his country whatsoever. What we get is Henry the Cad, a bawdy egomaniac with a very short leash on the women in his life.
Although this film is woefully inaccurate regarding history it nevertheless captures the spirit of the court and it's many participants. The sets are magnificent and create a mood of opulence and passion. It begins with the woeful state of Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) who is about to lose her pretty head due to trumped up charges. Henry is just itching to marry Jane Seymour and can hardly wait for the execution to be finished. Life with Jane is dull but productive as she bears him the son neither the banished Catherine of Aragon or the unfortunate Anne was able to. However, joy turns to tragedy as Jane dies less than two weeks after delivering the future Edvard the VI, King of England. King Henry is rather flustered by these latest developments and it's a joy watching him attempt to deal with his obvious feelings for his dead wife. No matter as word gets around that the German Princess, Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) is available so a meeting is arranged. First, a painter paints Anne as a beautiful damsel and the work inspires Henry to pursue Anne. However, when he meets her he finds a rather comical women who looks nothing like the portrait. Henry is not impressed but because of the necessity of forging an alliance with Germany, the wedding goes through.
After Anne of Cleves deliberately makes her self hideous it is agreed that in exchange for property and compensation, Anne will agree to a divorce. Next in line is the strong willed and ambitious Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) who coquettishly sings a lovely ballad in court that pleases the King immensely.
Their marriage goes quite well until it is discovered that Catherine has been acting indiscreetly with one Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). This leads to both parties being beheaded. Finally, Catherine Parr eases the old King toward the inevitable moment of Royal Death. The film focuses mostly on the marriages and the King's various levels of dissatisfaction with his brides and their imperfections.
Elsa Lanchester is quite funny as Anne of Cleves. She makes wacky faces designed to turn off the king and her movements and accent are exceedingly comical. She seems to have just stepped out of a vaudeville show and lends the picture some levity. Indeed, it's a very comical film filled with over-the-top mannerisms particularly from the King. During one scene he is busy tearing into a chicken and lamenting about the lack of morals and decency throughout the realm. Meanwhile he's tossing the remnants of the chicken over his shoulder and stuffing his face rather gratuitously.
Overall, this is an entertaining exploration into lust, gluttony and the power of the Majesty to pretty much do whatever the hell he wants. Two wives lost their heads, one died in childbirth and one was exiled and died in poverty and misery. Laughton portrays him as an excessive blowhard with little discretion and very ill courtly manners. His is the image that many people focus on when they think about the King. It's bombastic, grandiose, and decidedly hellbent on getting its own way no matter who attempts to stop it. It's a fabulous portrayal but it leaves out some of the nastier aspects to Henry's character. This version is a buffoon with absolutely no self knowledge to speak of. Despite the acts of barbarism Henry is known to have committed, he is nonetheless presented as a sympathetic figure here. In one scene during a wrestling match he foolishly jumps on the table and commands that one of the wrestlers take him on. The sight of the portly King, 50 years old, fighting a superior man just to impress the Queen is quite pathetic. Naturally the King wins and his heroic stature remains undiminished to most of his court. Still, it's tempered with vanity and a desire to be viewed as a virile, physically competent man in a world that so utterly demands such things.