When I pick up a film from the early thirties with a long ridged title like The Private Life of Henry VIII, I have my doubts. Honestly, I expected some dry, very historical account of Henry’s life with a stuffy British narration. I could not have been more wrong.
The first clue to how this film will play out is in the opening text explaining that Henry’s first wife is of “no particular interest. She was an honorable woman, so he divorced her.” Then the film starts just before Anne Boleyn’s execution. While Anne (Merle Oberon) is enjoying her neck while she can, Henry (Charles Laughton) and his whole royal staff is getting ready for his wedding to Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). She dies in childbirth, but thankfully produces a son. Soon, the whole kingdom is saying that Henry should marry again.
During a dinner scene, we see the classic Henry VIII everyone would love to play. He’s on his throne, a huge turkey in front of him just tearing it apart and rambling with his mouth full. “There’s no delicacy nowadays. No consideration for others. Refinement’s a thing of the past! Manners are dead!” And he proceeds to burp and toss the bones behind him casually. When the topic of remarrying comes up at dinner he starts to bellow, “What am I, a breeding bull?”
He then goes on to marry Anne of Cleaves (played by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester). This short marriage is one of the funniest moments in the film. Before the marriage, Henry doesn’t even want to marry this dopey girl, but if he sent her back to Germany they would be outraged. Just before he enters the chamber for his wedding night he sighs, “The things I’ve done for England.” Even better, Anne of Cleaves is completely oblivious to wedding night activities. “That story about children being found under gooseberry bushes isn’t true,” Henry tells her. The scene only gets better.
Seeing that this was the first non-US film to be nominated for Best Picture, this could have been one of the first looks the world had at British comedy. Some of the jokes are hysterical and feel nearly Monty Python inspired. When peasants are gathering for the execution a man asks, “Do you mind taking off your hat, we can’t see the block.” Later, in a bit of dialogue a British man tells the French executioner, “Enough British executioners are out of work as it is.” And when Henry is trying to sneak up to Cathrine Parr’s bed chamber every guard he passes loudly announces him.
I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. It’s a great mix of history, biography and keeps fluid and personable with a great amount of comedy. The characters feel like a great ensemble around Laughton and he executes his Henry perfectly and earned that Best Actor award. If you want a fun brush-up on Henry VIII or want to see some early British comedy, I would suggest this film.