Monday, November 3, 2008

He's Henry VIII he is

Monday nights in prime time in November on TCM are given over to Star of the Month Charles Laughton. This first Monday in November sees a bunch of biopics starring Laughton. The best of them is The Private Life of Henry VIII, airing at 11:30 PM ET.

Laughton plays the title role, as the English king who had six wives. However, we don't actually see the first of them -- Catherine of Aragon. As the opening of the movie tells us, her story is of no particular interest because she was a "decent and respectable woman". From this, we can deduce that the film isn't going to be just a straight biography, but one that sets out to have a bit of fun with history. Indeed, we only see a bit of wife #2, Anne Boleyn, as the story starts on the day of her execution. But then, this biography isn't really about the wives; it's about Henry. If anything, it's a personal story of the man, as we really see very little of the affairs of state, or of whatever disputes England had with other European countries. There's no Thomas More here.

And as for Henry, Charles Laughton is brilliant. His Henry VIII is larger than life, full of life, and charismatic to boot. If anything, this Henry is a boy who never grew up, trapped inside the body of a man who by accident of birth has to be the English monarch. Laughton looks as though he's having a blast making this movie, and steals every scene he's in, if you can say that the lead steals scenes. Watch for Henry taking on a wrestler at a banquet, in order to show one of his wives that he's still got it, or a gluttonous Henry irritating wife #6 (Catherin Parr) by continuing to eat even though she's telling him how bad it is for his digestion. Laughton won the Best Actor Oscar, and in doing so became the first person to win a major Oscar for a non-Hollywood movie. He richly deserved it, too; this is one of the very best performances of the entire first half of the 1930s, and probably wasn't surpassed until Laughton himself played Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty two years later. (The only performance that comes close is Paul Muni's in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, who was up against Laughton and lost.)

Even though Laughton is good, we shouldn't overlook the rest of the cast. Robert Donat plays King Henry's right-hand man, Thomas Culpeper, and is fine; the Queens Consort include Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), and character actresses Wendy Barrie and Binnie Barnes.

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