The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933, Alexander Korda)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

As a rule, Hollywood upholds masculinity; patriarchal status quo finds few enemies in the decades-spanning annals of tough-guy action pictures and virile romances. It’s for this reason that films willing to ridicule, break down, dismiss and destroy the image of the idealized, powerful Macho Hero stand out starkly in mainstream cinema. Not surprisingly, one of the most famous instances of such subversion in the early talkie era comes not from America but Britain; Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII functions well enough as a larger-than-life fantasy of Tudor monarchy for those infatuated with such things. But its essence is laid out early on by Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), long before she is to become Henry’s penultimate wife: “Were you not the King, I would say you were a man.”

We meet the King — seeing him first in that very scene — as a fiery, gluttonous tyrant and, slowly, watch him become a frail, pathetic man, stealing away bits of chicken and muttering nonsense about the ol’ ball-and-chain. Korda masterfully plays to both our voyeuristic impulse to watch this gigantic figure gradually lose his bluster and also to our fascination with authority and power. The film is splendidly, adroitly staged and directed, with brilliant use of elaborate sets, but it sinks its teeth into us because Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII is so convincing as a monster, as a corpulent maniac and as a humiliation.

Laughton was always capable of intimidation but seldom received an opportunity to roll around in sensuality or cravenness; he may not occupy Henry VIII as the man actually was — much of the film’s accuracy is easy to call into question, to say nothing of its total omission of any of the King’s actions as a head of state — but he disappears into this meaty, multifaceted part, and the physicality he brings to it is invigorating to watch. There is the famed sequence, later aped by Tom Jones, that has him yelling and complaining at Cromwell and everyone else while devouring a bony piece of pork and swilling beer; he is a believably disgusting, decadent figure but also strangely intimidating, easily as much so as Laughton’s unforgettable Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Despite every manner in which Laughton would later be remembered for a stern stature far beyond his small, plump figure, he seems to expand and fill out his astoundingly large and formidable and distant King.

That is, until one crucial moment. The picture is formatted to give attention to all but one of Henry VIII’s six wives and the specific manner in which each marriage led to one miserable conclusion or another. (A comic highlight is Elsa Lanchester’s eccentric turn as Anne of Cleves.) We open with Anne Boleyn’s execution and go from there, with a title card slyly avoiding the many dramas that plagued the King’s personal life prior to that moment. Much is made of the irony of Henry’s constant complaints of loneliness; when he at last marries Howard, he seems to have met his match, gazing at her adoringly as they gamble together, unaware that she is carrying on an affair under his nose with Thomas Culpeper (an amusingly shrimpy Robert Donat). To demonstrate his prowess after she makes a joke about his diminished physical condition, he takes on a young wrestler in front of the entire court — and wins, then nearly passes out from exhaustion. It’s a moment of tragic humor, which applies ultimately to the film in its entirety. The King’s insecurity and his tendency to react violently to what he perceives as unfair or annoying — a beheading here, a bone tossed behind him there — casts him as the classic, stereotypically stymied Alpha Male who can’t stand not to get his way. He’s separated by King Kong only by degrees, by the average spoiled child only by his ability to dish out violent displays of power and wealth.

If, as the film’s title implies, Korda meant to wholly avoid political statement (which seems doubtful), he’s undercut by the King’s personal behavior as a case study in abused power; indeed the thesis gets muddied by the very existence of Boleyn, and certainly by the dignity and poise with which Merle Oberon approaches the role in the brief sequences before her (unjust, as implied by the film) beheading. The story of Private Life is really one told many times of power and patriarchy run meaninglessly amok, but seldom with such wit and flair or as such glossy, fast-moving entertainment. That’s why in the end it’s not really the tale of the monarch or any of his wives but of the cooks we see gossiping about the bed-hopping going on around them, or the regular people in the crowds gawking at gory executions. By undercutting the rich and powerful heads of state in all their flaws and immoral, murderous tendencies but also indulging our fascination with them, Korda’s film becomes a nearly perfect piece of populist art — and a funny, raunchy night out to rival any modern comedy.

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