*. I hadn’t seen this in a while and was surprised at how well it held up. But I shouldn’t have been. Have the Tudors ever gone out of style? When The Private Life of Henry VIII came out it was a gamble for producer-director Alexander Korda because historical costume dramas weren’t considered a big draw. But he knew if anyone was going to buck that trend it would be Henry. That this would also be the first non-Hollywood picture to win an Academy Award (Charles Laughton for best actor) and to be nominated for best picture was just icing on the cake. (It was only the sixth Academy Awards though, so this distinction has to be qualified somewhat. Also, the best picture winner that year was Cavalcade, a movie few people today have seen or I suppose would even want to see.)
*. I also shouldn’t have been surprised because Charles Laughton is good in everything, and he’s everything here. There have been plenty of Henrys since (and Emil Jannings had been excellent in the 1920 Anna Boleyn), but Laughton owned the part, and has owned it for nearly a hundred years now. In appearance he might have stepped straight down from a Holbein canvas. And the way he tears that chicken apart was a piece of business that he apparently dined out on for quite a while. Who can forget it?
*. But there’s more to Laughton’s performance than just the way he eats. And it’s not all “larger than life.” Acting styles have changed quite a bit in the last hundred years, but the way Laughton plays Henry stands up both in the more boisterous moments and for the quieter ones. I don’t think he overplays his reaction being told of Catherine’s infidelity, for example, and that’s not an easy scene.
*. The best part of the movie, and it’s all pretty good, is the wedding night of Henry and Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife). Which is also not surprising given that Korda had come to the project wanting to find a Laughton-Lanchester vehicle and that the story was originally only going to be about the marriage of Henry and Anne. As it is, they can’t resist bringing her back at the end, however unhistorical that may be.
*. The only off note in the wedding night scene is that it’s so obvious the two are getting along it’s hard to understand why they didn’t stay married. But this is very much a cartoonish take on Henry’s reign, to the point where there’s no sense even bothering trying to figure out how it all holds together, either as history or just judged on its own terms.
*. The Tudors, much like the Julio-Claudian emperors, remain popular because they were a real-life soap opera. Sex. Power. Ambition. Violence. People who can be charismatic or engaging on a superficial level, but underneath you know they’re bad. Plus the fact that dynastic and court politics are still very much with us, even in a democratic age.
*. I think it’s a commonplace that the more you read about Henry, or any of the Tudors, the less there is to like. They were all shits. Even Edward VI was a little prig. This is the wonderful thing about Laughton’s performance. He is a bluff, hearty fellow but at the same time you never lose sight of the fact that he’s a bully and a despot and that he really doesn’t care about much of anything except satisfying his own appetites. Look at his face as he watches the scaffold being built for Anne Boleyn. He’s not a sadist, but he has no feeling for others. Which is the prerogative of royalty. Everyone laughs at your jokes, even when they don’t hear them.
*. Merle Oberon, in her first major role, makes quite an impact playing Anne Boleyn. Rouben Mamoulian would say “I don’t think in the history of the theater or the movies, has such a small part made such a great impression.” I wouldn’t go that far, but she is good. But credit Korda too for framing her so well on the scaffold.
*. Korda does what he can without a lot of production value to work with. There are flourishes. I like how the cock fight sets up the wrestling match where Henry displays his own virility, and the way its broadcast in giant shadows on the tapestry walls. That works on several levels. And the way the laughter of the court spreads down below stairs works well too. It tells you a lot about how a court operates (and I don’t mean how the meals are prepared).
*. As you’d expect, it’s talky. But the talk is good. Henry sighs about what he has to do for England when going to his bridal chamber with Anne. He scoops Samuel Johnson a quarter millennium by referring to another marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. All of this stuff just rolls along.
*. The lack of a big budget gives it even more of the feel of a play. The sets are probably what date it the most, as they just look like stage walls knocked together. But still it all works because it really couldn’t miss with Laughton in such a role. He could have been playing the part in a barn and without any costumes and it still would have been alright. And so the movies have kept coming back to this material, again and again. Even Laughton would be back twenty years later in Young Bess. It’s good to be the king.