Charles Laughton is the star of the month on Turner Classic Movies in November. I write about The Private Life of Henry VIII, his first major starring film role and the film that earned him his Oscar for Best Actor, for TCM:
| The Private Life of Henry VIII
Alexander’s Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII
(1933) is unanimously cited as the film that first defined British cinema in the sound era. It treated a quintessentially British subject – the reign of the colorful and quite probably mad King Henry VIII – with both elegance and humor, gave it an illusion of grand production values and produced and released it with a mix of high culture and popular showmanship. It starred Charles Laughton, the acclaimed British stage actor who was making a name for himself in Hollywood with flamboyant performances in The Sign of the Cross
and Island of Lost Souls
(both in 1932). With an eye toward the international market, Korda premiered the film at Radio City Music Hall in New York City a month before it opened in London and ballyhooed it into a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Private Life of Henry VIII is a choppy, uneven film, to say the least. Even biographer Michael Korda (nephew of Alex and son of Vincent) wrote that the film had “no central vision behind it.” It came together out of opportunity and necessity. Popular legend has it that Korda hit upon the subject when he heard a London cabbie singing the tune, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” It makes for a great story and it may even be true, at least to the extent that hearing the humorous music hall hit reminded Korda of how the monstrous king had been embraced as a colorful comic figure by the populace. But the truth is that Korda had been looking for a subject that was distinctively British, dramatically dignified yet with risqué opportunities, and, most importantly, could be built around Charles Laughton, who Korda had befriended during his Hollywood years. Korda had already made one “Private Life” film in Hollywood (the 1927 silent film The Private Life of Helen of Troy) and was partial to historical subjects, as much for the opportunities for spectacle as for the innate prestige. The fact that Laughton resembled the famous Hans Holbein portraits of the king made it an ideal project. Laughton’s rotund, hearty Henry, bouncing between thoughtful statesman and tyrannical man-child, became the definitive screen portrait of the childish tyrant king.
Read the complete feature here.
The film plays on Turner Classic Movies on October 26 and on November 3. Also see my piece on the subsequent Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton collaboration Rembrandt.