The Private Life of Henry VIII Movie Review
Director: Alexander Korda
Starring: Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester, Binnie Barnes, Everley Gregg, Robert Donat, Franklin Dyall, Miles Mander, Laurence Hanray, William Austin, John Loder, Lady Tree, John Turnbull, Frederick Culley, William Heughan, Judy Kelly
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Charles Laughton)
Other Nominations: Best Picture
Let’s get one thing straight. No one can tear apart a chicken leg like Charles Laughton.
In what would become one of his most famous roles, Laughton stars as the garrulous and captivating King Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Now, if you’re looking to learn about Henry’s military victories or his work with the British Navy or basically any of the historical events perpetrated by this fascinating ruler, this movie is not for you. Much like its title implies, The Private Life of Henry VIII is a naughty farce that takes viewers straight into Henry’s throne hall: the bedroom.
In what seemed like a risky move for 1933, the movie begins with a flock of ladies in waiting talking excitedly about Henry’s proclivity as they change his bed sheets. One woman declares, “I wonder what he looks like in bed,” while another goes so far as to sniff his sheets. Gross.
Now if there’s one thing we all know about Henry VIII, it’s that he had his fair share of wives. Of course, condensing six marriages into one 97-minute movie means cuts had to be made. For instance, Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is reduced to a mere mention on a title card at the beginning of the movie which says, “…her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman.” So, sorry Katherine. Boring bitches to the left.
Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (arguably the most famous and influential of his wives), doesn’t get much attention either, as the film starts on the night of her beheading. With Anne in the gallows and soon-to-be third wife, Jane, in the chapel, Henry leaves his second marriage and enters his third on the same night. I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was even that quick.
The film goes on to include Anne of Cleves (played by Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester), Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr as Henry’s fourth, fifth and sixth wives, respectively. So, really we only get four and a half wives for the price of six. But, that’s no matter. The real star of the show here is Henry himself.
In a performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, Laughton appears to be having the time of his freaking life portraying this larger-than-life king. He bellows, he hunts, he swigs tankards of mead. He eats a chicken with a primal gusto that truly defined Henry VIII as a gluttonous, Falstaffian ladies man.
Historically, Henry VIII was an accomplished leader, but he was also said to be brutal, selfish and unpleasant, all of which makes for a highly entertaining movie! In the last scene of the film, Laughton breaks the fourth wall and declares to the audience that, of his six wives, the last one – and best one – was the worst one. From a historical perspective, I feel like the same can be said for the man himself: Eight Henry’s…and the best of them’s the worst.