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Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)
DirectorAlexander Korda
Production Co.London Film Productions
Story and DialogueLajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis
Director of PhotographyGeorges Périnal

Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry VIII); Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper); Binnie Barnes (Katherine Howard); Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves); Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn)

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Life and loves of the larger-than-life English king.

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The second release from Alexander Korda's newly constituted London Films, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was a huge critical and popular success, establishing Korda's reputation and setting the tone for future releases. A fresh and exuberant epic, with high production values and a witty script by Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis, the film was dominated by a vivid, larger than life performance by Charles Laughton, evoking a King who is arrogant and coarse, but with a childlike vulnerability.

Korda directed the film himself, recruiting an impressive cast, including his future wife Merle Oberon, the gifted comic actress Elsa Lanchester (Mrs Charles Laughton since 1929) and Robert Donat.

Henry VIII displays many of the best qualities of Korda's vision, as well as many of its flaws. Brilliantly performed, beautifully designed and endlessly entertaining, it is a model of the intelligence and good taste with which Korda and London Films would be associated. At the same time, it is unashamedly shallow, while as a historical record it is no more 'true' than, say, Carry On Henry (d. Gerald Thomas, 1971).

As Katherine Howerd (Binnie Barnes) bravely tells him, Henry is both King and man: it is the man, not the King, who is the real subject of Korda's film, just as its title suggests (this was the second in what was to be a trilogy of Private Life films for Korda, beginning with The Private Life of Helen of Troy (US, 1927) and ending with The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)). The film focuses on the notorious marriages, beginning with the execution of Anne Boleyn and thereby omitting key figures like Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More altogether, and all but ignoring the the split with Rome and the tyranny, intrigue, and shrewd politicking which characterised the real Henry's reign. In this way, it portrays a much warmer, more human Henry than we might recognise from the history books.

The Private Life of Henry VIII was the first British film to be a hit in the United States, and it was a good thing it was - as Lajos Biró commented, "Korda had put his shirt, coat, hat, and everything he had on Henry. If it had failed, he would have been cleaned out". The film's success, however, proved hard to recapture. For all of Korda's efforts, no other London Films release was to make a comparable impact in America.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. King and man (3:54)
2. Henry the man (3:22)
3. A shrewd player (4:17)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Man for All Seasons, A (1966)
Nell Gwyn (1934)
White Falcon, The (1956)
Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)
Donat, Robert (1905-1958)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)
Lanchester, Elsa (1902-1986)
Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)
Oberon, Merle (1911-1979)
Périnal, Georges (1897-1965)
Alexander Korda and London Films
Costume Drama
Henry VIII On Screen