Charles Laughton... Image:

Charles Laughton as Henry VIII is a seasoned flirt. Image:

We’ve been musing about the busy British monarch Henry VIII (1491-1547), and wondering how his personal life might look if you framed it on a baseball card.

You know Henry, he of six successive wives, the fate of each summarized in this rhyme:

Divorced, beheaded and died
Divorced, beheaded, survived

Before we proceed, however, we must ask all British Historians (amateur and professional) to please leave the room. There’ll be no in-depth discussions here about Henry’s foreign or economic policies. Our random thoughts are based on opinion, and we don’t want to muddle things with historical record.

Having said that, here’s how we would summarize King Henry’s matrimonial career:


Maybe you’re thinking the life of Henry VIII would make an excellent movie. Funny you should mention it!

Let’s look at the 1933 drama, The Private Life of Henry VIIIstarring the fab Charles Laughton and stunning costumes by John Armstrong. This film covers Henry’s personal life from the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution until his last days in 1547.

This is a cheeky film, and it holds no reverence for Henry. In the first scenes, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon in a brief but haunting performance) is preparing for her execution, while Henry prepares to marry Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) that Very Day.* “Chop and change” is how folks in the film refer to it.

Sadly, Seymour dies when giving birth to their son, and Henry is pressured to find a new wife. He’s attracted to the young Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), but instead decides to marry the German Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) for Political Reasons.

(Alas, Henry is not attracted to Anne of Cleves; when he marches to her bedroom, he growls, “The things I’ve done for England!”)

This marriage is short-lived, and Henry marries Howard – only to become enraged when he discovers her infidelity. (Henry, you see, has two sets of rules when it comes to this type of conduct.) So Howard is executed and Henry, in his last years, marries the stern Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg) who bosses him around no end, but proves to be a good nurse for his ailing health.

Whew! That’s a lot of goings-on in 97 minutes. The plot, as we’ve outlined it here, sounds like an outrageous melodrama. But it’s not. There are many reasons why this film is superior business, such as Alexander Korda‘s direction, Vincent Korda‘s sets, and Charles Laughton’s mesmerizing performance.

Henry VIII is... Image: Cultural Civilian

Henry VIII is nothing if not calculating. Image: Cultural Civilian

The Private Life of Henry VIII is an absorbing character study. Not only does Laughton bear a striking resemblance to the monarch, he nearly convinces us he is Henry VIII.

When we first meet Laughton-as-Henry, we discover a charismatic fellow, one who’s used to female attention. Yet there’s something in Henry’s manner that suggests he knows these flirtations are only because he’s King.

Laughton’s Henry is self-absorbed, uncouth and cagey, but he’s not without humanity. This is how Laughton makes us admire his character in spite of ourselves.

In one scene, Laughton is hurrying to meet a Lady Friend and, just outside her door, he produces a small mirror to examine his hair and beard. Here is the King of England, preening for a date like a young adolescent, and it’s oddly endearing.

While Catherine Howard is being beheaded, the camera studies Laughton’s face. He’s distressed by the execution, and when it is finished, he is in tears. This is rather rich coming from “chop and change” Henry; nonetheless Laughton is somehow able to generate our sympathy.

Laughton won an Oscar for his portrayal of Henry VIII; this during a year when legendary actors Leslie Howard and Paul Muni were also nominated.

We recommend The Private Life of Henry VIII. You may think a 1933 film about an overstuffed monarch is not for you, but we think Charles Laughton could change your mind.


*Remember what we said about historical record?
Read The Guardian review HERE.
For more information on Henry’s unfortunate wives, click HERE.


The Private Life of Henry VIII: starring Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Franklin Dyall. Directed by Alexander Korda. Written by Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis. London Film Productions Limited, 1933, B&W, 97 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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