Sunday, September 20, 2009


I suspect this is a film more known of than seen these days; it was the first British movie to be a substantial hit in America, and it won Charles Laughton an Oscar, but it plays out in a jerky, tableaux-like style and it's a fairly low-budget affair compared to the kind of "pomp and circumstance" production values we're used to for historical films about royalty. But Laughton's wonderful performance almost single-handedly makes it worth seeing. The film mostly stays true to its title which allows it to skimp on scenes of big crowds and affairs of state; most of the action takes place offstage, as it were, at the palace. The film might be better called "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (like the pompous but fondly-remembered 70's instrumental album by Rick Wakeman) as the choppy narrative focuses on the relationships between Henry and his wives. The first wife is left out altogether (a title card says she was "too respectable" to be of interest), and the action starts on the day that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, is to be executed for adultery, though the fact that she did not bear Henry a male heir was a strike against her, too. We're caught up to speed by overhearing court gossip, and introduced to Katharine Howard (Binnie Barnes), a scheming lady-in-waiting who aspires to work her way to be Queen. Merle Oberon, in one of her first credited roles as Anne, gets to look sad and lovely for a minute or two, and then is gone. As soon as the execution bells are rung, Henry marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) who does have a son, but dies in childbirth. The fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleaves (Elsa Lanchester) is fluttery but smart, and though Henry takes a liking to her, she refuses to sleep with him, apparently because she's having an affair with the man Henry sent to bring her to England (John Loder); they wind up playing cards on their wedding night and their marriage is annulled, though they remain friendly.

Katharine Howard finally gets her wish, after carrying on an affair with Henry (a high comic point is a scene in which Henry tries to sneak away to her chambers while his royal guardsmen keep snapping to attention and shouting "King's Guard" when he passes by); she becomes wife #5 and he's happy for a time until he discovers she's having an affair with one of his men-at-arms (Robert Donat), and it's off with her head. In old age, he marries his children's maid (Everley Gregg) who becomes a nag trying to keep Henry healthy. Laughton seems a natural for the part: rotund yet spry, strutting around every inch a king yet carrying on like an overgrown child. A scene of Henry talking about refinement and manners as he eats like a pig, tosses bones on the floor, and belches is certainly a highlight of Laughton's early career. A modern audience would probably expect an epic and would be disappointed, but as a light character study, this remains worth seeing. [TCM]

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