The Mad King: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

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To view The Private Life of Henry VIII click here.

Henry VIII rose to the throne in 1509  after his father, Henry VII died. His father was the last man to ascend the throne through battle, Richard III being slain on the field in The Battle of Bosworth. But son Henry VIII never earned his throne through battle and was born with a sense of monstrous entitlement that would carry over into adulthood, and make its impact on the entire empire. In fact, his time on the throne would see the power of the monarch expand beyond anything previously imagined. Four hundred years later, in 1933, Alexander Korda would bring Henry’s personal life to the screen with The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton in the title role. It became a box office hit and, to this day, Laughton’s portrayal of Henry is what most people think of when they think of Henry VIII, even if they’ve never seen the movie or heard of Charles Laughton. It’s like Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it or heard of Newton (though, if not, shame on you), your idea of a pirate probably comes from him. But Laughton’s performance, as good as it is, stands in service to a film that has only 97 precious minutes to tell a tale that could easily fill three hours and then some.

The movie begins with Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) preparing for her execution while Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) prepares for her wedding. As soon as Anne loses her head, Jane will be free to marry King Henry VIII. As director Alexander Korda contrasts between the two ladies, and the two separate moods of the room, the tension mounts. Crowds gather for Anne’s beheading while maidens in the castles remove the “A” from the royal bed’s pillows and replace it with a “J” before the king returns with his betrothed. The joy of Jane’s impending nuptials turns to disquiet as we wait for the current wife to die. The maidens in the room talk about the situation and how awful it must be for Anne. Finally, one maiden comments, rashly, that she would call the king something else altogether if she saw him. Another asks her to tell her what it would be and before she can finish her thought, Korda finally shows us our man Laughton, standing in the door like the famous Hans Holbein painting come to life. The resemblance to the painting is, indeed, remarkable, but before it can sink in we are terrified for the maiden.

“No, tell me!” he shouts.

The maiden, Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) wisely responds, “Your majesty… and a man.”

If you know your British history, you know she will be in Henry’s life later. Henry clearly likes her cleverness and charisma, and she likes the fact that he’s the king.

Soon after, the sword falls upon Anne’s neck and Henry is free to marry Jane, who gives him a son but dies in the process. When he gets the news of her death, he looks ahead for a moment, says a “rest in peace” out of basic respect then excitedly goes to see his son.

His next wife, in the best scene-stealing performance in the movie, and easily the equal of Laughton, is played by none other than Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real life wife. Lanchester, as Anne of Cleves, is anything but happy to marry Henry and the feeling is mutual. Before entering the boudoir to consummate the marriage, Henry turns back towards his guards and sighs, “The things I do for England.” Once inside, Lanchester strikes up a game of cards with the king and soundly beats him. They make a deal that will grant her an opt-out of the marriage for a stipend and a man of her choice from his court. And that takes us back to Katherine Howard and her ambitions to sit beside the king.

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Katherine seems ready to play the coy seductress for Henry’s sake to get what she wants, but once she has him her heart goes to Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) and that spells disaster for both of them. Before it does, Henry genuinely falls in love with her, a first for him and his wives. He’s giddy and adventurous again, even showing off for his bride by taking on a wrestler at one of his own dinners (and the wrestler, we can assume, wisely loses on purpose after making it look like a tough match). He’s heartbroken and sobs when he discovers her affair and when she is executed, he is truly distraught, the first and only time we see such emotion.

The Private Life of Henry VIII was an international hit, putting a lot of people on the map all at once, from Laughton to Korda to Lanchester to Donat to Oberon. Laughton’s performance as Henry won him an Oscar for Best Actor and understandably so. His performance is full of interesting choices, like his odd inflections or raised voice at selected moments that make the character seem off-kilter and unpredictable. This was a king who had his second and fifth wives executed, after all, and would probably today be considered a sociopath. But both the movie and Laughton give Henry a veneer of humanity in a couple of different ways. Firstly, they leave out Catherine of Aragon entirely and make no mention of the world changing consequences surrounding her divorce from Henry. Secondly, they ignore pretty much all of the details about Boleyn’s execution and what led to it. Henry is portrayed more as a boisterous lover of life than a selfish, demanding and callous monarch. And largely, that approach succeeds.

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One of the worst criticisms a movie can receive is that it’s too long. A movie that stays past its welcome can be a maddening thing, especially when it has so many good elements in place. The Private Life of Henry VIII is the opposite and that is, of course, a good thing. Korda could have extended the movie by a half hour and actually improved upon the end result. Each marriage rushes by too quickly and I would have loved to see more from each one, especially the third one to Anne of Cleves. In fact, when they were developing the film, it was going to be just about that relationship and it absolutely would have worked. But perhaps Korda knew better and opted for “leave them wanting more” instead.

In this day of historical soap operas about landed gentry and royal families filling the cinemas and the airwaves (streamwaves?), The Private Life of Henry VIII is the father of them all. And over eighty years later, still one of the best.

Greg Ferrara

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2 Responses The Mad King: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Posted By Melvin Lee : June 30, 2017 1:38 am

Totally agree with your review Greg. Fabulous movie and a lot of fun. I was delighted to find it on DVD in Japan years ago and I put it on whenever I need a lift.

Posted By Renee Leask : July 5, 2017 6:06 pm

Clearly, not enough people reading this blog know “The Private Life of Henry VIII!” It is highly entertaining and surprisingly modern, one of those “old movies” that redefines the term.

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