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Private Life of Henry VIII, The (London 1933, Charles Laughton, Robert Donat)

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Alexander Korda’s classic biopic of Henry VIII was the first British-made film to win an Academy Award – for Charles Laughton’s brilliant performance in the title role – and Variety called it ‘among the best anywhere and by far the top British picture’.

Various stories exist about the genesis of The Private Life of Henry VIII. Korda’s own favourite was that he had been inspired by hearing a London cabbie singing the Harry Champion music hall song I’m ‘Enery the Eighth I Am. Another had Laughton’s agent Richard Norton remarking on the similarity between his client and a statue of the monarch during a meeting with Korda, who was seeking a vehicle for Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester. Korda had his regular screenplay collaborator Lajos Biro write a treatment with ‘historical consultant’ Philip Lindsay: the final screenplay was credited to Biro and another Korda writer, Arthur Wimperis, and Korda himself also had a hand in the finished scenario. The scenarists ruthlessly eliminated the first of the monarch’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, claiming in a prologue that she was ‘far too respectable to be included.’

Ann Boleyn is briefly played by Merle Oberon before being beheaded, while rather more footage is devoted to Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), who dies in childbirth. Laughton, undaunted, then marries Anne of Cleves, superbly portrayed by Lanchester in a strange wig and an even more remarkable teutonic accent. Their marriage ends in divorce, after which Laughton weds and beheads Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) for adultery with the monarch’s court favourite Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). At the close of the film, Henry is portrayed as an amazingly docile husband, dominated by his final wife, sharp faced and shrewish Catherine Parr (Everly Gregg)…

production details
UK | London Films | 97 minutes | 1933

Director: Alexander Korda
Script: Lajos Biró, Arthur Wimperis,

cast
Charles Laughton as King Henry VIII
Robert Donat as Thomas Culpeper
Franklin Dyall as Thomas Cromwell
Miles Mander as Wriothesley
William Austin as Duke of Cleves
John Loder as Thomas Peynell
Claud Allister as Cornell
Gibb McLaughlin as The French Executioner
Sam Livesey as The English Executioner
Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn
Wendy Barrie as Jane Seymour
Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves
Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard
Everley Gregg as Katherine Parr
Laurence Hanray as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer
Terry-Thomas as Extra (uncredited)