The (not so) Private Life of Henry VIII

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.



    • Haha! I’m not an expert in British history, but the old English customs this film portrays are fascinating – especially the scenes in the kitchen that show how food was prepared. It felt authentic (and very expensive).


  1. So this flick is set post-Anne Boleyn!! Anne Boleyn was my favourite wife of his, when I studied about Henry VIII in school. She was bold, and she was beautiful!!
    My favourite film set in the Tudor/Elizabethan era, happens to be ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ (1969). In fact, it’s my favourite from the late 60’s, and part of my Top-10 greats!!
    Few years ago, I read most of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’; the basis of which is set during Henry’s divorce, and subsequent marriage to Anne!! I couldn’t finish the novel. I also have the sequel, ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, with me untouched!!
    ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) sounds more like a comedy, than an historical epic, in the vein of ‘Carry on Henry’ (1971); which was pretty good too!!
    ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ is a movie on my ‘watchlist’, am still waiting to come across it, like many a movies in my ‘watchlist’.
    Great Review!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you get the chance to see this one, and I’d be especially interested in your thoughts on Merle Oberon as Anne Boylen. I thought she gave a haunting performance even though she’s on the screen for only a few minutes.

      “Anne of a Thousand Days” is on my list. I remember my grandmother had this in the form of an old beat-up paperback. There were movie stills in the middle of the book, and I thought Genvieve Bujold’s costumes were stunning. Thanks for reminding me about this film. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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