Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture (Outstanding Picture) of 1932/1933
- Type: Biopic, Comedy, Drama
- Other AA Wins: Best Actor in a Leading Role(Charles Laughton)
- Other AA Nominations: 0
- Director: Alexander Korda
- Studio/Producer: United Artists / London Film Productions / Alexander Korda and Ludvico Toeplitz
- Cast: Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester, Binnie Barnes, Everley Gregg, Robert Donat, John Loder
- Production Notes: Cinematography by Georges Perinal, Written by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis
- Viewing Order: 30 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
The film opens on the eve of what will be the beheading of English King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon). While she takes in her final hours solemnly, the rest of the kingdom laughs, jokes, and gets the marriage bed ready for the next wife. This seems pretty harsh, but at least Anne gets screen time, albeit cut short (sorry!), as opposed to Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, whose existence is summed up in the pretty bleak opening title card:
“Henry VIII had six wives. Catherine of Aragon was the first; but her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her.”
This not only burned Catherine for being so uninteresting that she didn’t even feature in an hour and a half long film about Henry VIII and his wives, but also managed to throw shade at the other five wives as not respectable and that’s why their stories wereworth telling. Ouch.
However, as most portrayals of Henry and his wives center around the first two wives, the betrayed Catherine of Aragon and the ambitious Anne Boleyn, the omission of one and the five minutes of screen time for the other was an interesting twist.
Upon Anne’s death, the film quickly moves through each of Henry’s subsequent marriages. Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) gives birth to a son and then dies offscreen in childbirth; comically German (apparently a German accent makes you automatically hilarious) Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) is a turnoff, but the king enjoys her company enough to divorce her and keep her as a pal; medieval teen Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) dumps her boyfriend Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) for the king then resumes the affair after she’s crowned queen only to be caught and beheaded, and fussy Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg) mothers Henry to frustration as the film fades out.
While certain bits and characters were moderately enjoyable, I’m not sure I could call the film entertaining as a whole. It jumped from story to story (and wife to wife) so quickly that it felt more like a race than a fluid story. The film’s underlying chauvinistic slant was also hard to stomach. Henry frequently badmouthed and mistreated his wives in the film, which wouldn’t be so hard to swallow on its own considering the real life context, but it was the film’sclear expectation that the audience would laugh along with Henry as he called Jane Seymour “stupid” behind her back and broke the fourth wall to whine to the audience about his final wife, “Six wives and the best one’s the worst!” This is clearly supposed to be funny, but considering we just watched an entire film about him beheading and mistreating his wives, it’s hard to get the joke.
The gross historical inaccuracies were additionally hard to get past, especially when it came to the cast of characters.
Jane Seymour was portrayed as vain and frivolous (with a 1930s short haircut to boot) instead of pious and restrained, as most biographers and Tudor historians describe her. In fact, pretty much every wife who was given screen-time (save maybe Anne Boleyn who wasn’t shown long enough to delve too deeply into her character) was either completely misrepresented or whittled down to one trait that their entire onscreen persona was based on. The Private Life of Henry VIIIportrayed Anne of Cleves as a card shark, Catherine Howard as an ambitious schemer, and Katherine Parr as a nag. Basically, this seemed like a cop out instead of a genuine effort to show what the people the film centered on were really like.
This didn’t just end with the women. While Henry isn’t necessarily supposed to be likable (when you order the beheadings of that many people, that’s sort of the reputation you can expect to be working with), the film reduced him to not much more than an overly amorous glutton devoid of complexity who daily mangled and gorged on an entire chicken carcass with his bare hands and whose incessant badmouthing of each of his wives got old very fast. Charles Laughton took on the role admirably despite this, though I’m not sure I agree with the Best Actor academy award he gained from it.
The standout was Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves, who not only was the most engaging and certainly most amusing wife, but also brought out Laughton’s best performances in the film when he was opposite her. Perhaps that Lanchester and Laughton were married in real life had something to do with it.
Exotically beautiful Merle Oberon also made quite the impression, even with her diminished screen time. She and director Alexander Korda initially crossed paths in England and he began putting her in his films. Merle as Anne Boleyn (and the part itself) inThe Private Life of Henry VIII were last minute additions but Merle made the most of her time . Her scenes are especially a breath of fresh air when compared to that of Binnie Barnes and Wendy Barrie, who don’t show much charisma or raw acting talent in their roles.
Behind the Scenes:
At the time The Private Life of Henry VIII was hailed as the best film to come out of England thus far. Charles Laughton’s win for Best Actor marked the first time a non-Hollywood made film won an academy award.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
Charles Laughton had a lot to do with this as he was already a popular actor and his performance did not disappoint. Mimicking America’s own obsession with royalty, this film was also the first real glimpse at the long-term love affair the Academy would have for period films about royals.
How does it hold up today?
Not great from a historically accurate standpoint. Though many critics of the time hailed the film for its detail and accuracy, we now have much more evidence from post-1930s historians that refutes these claims.
However, most still seem to love watching Laughton chow down on chicken. That much has not changed.
- IMDb rating= 7.1 out of 10 (with 3,517 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 100% fresh by critics (16 fresh votes vs 0 rotten) and 75% fresh user ratings (out of 1,290 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1932/1933’s Best Picture?
Perhaps if I wasn’t a Tudor buff, I may have enjoyed this more than I did, but it was hard to get passed the blatant and sloppy errors the film made in regard to setting up the accuracy of the story correctly. That it was presented as if it washistorically accurate was a misstep. Even Laughton and Lanchester couldn’t keep this one from sinking to the bottom. We’ll see where it lands…
*My full 1932/1933 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched
- Higham, C., & Moseley, R. (1985). Princess Merle: The romantic life of Merle Oberon. New York: Pocket Books.