I’m a little bit of a Tudor dynasty buff. As an undergrad, I took a class about the Tudors and Stuarts. I love reading about and watching anything related to Tudor history. Recently, I spent half of my spring break being productive and getting ahead on coursework… and the other half doing a marathon re-watch of the inaccurate-but-entertaining Showtime TV series The Tudors.
I’ve been on a bit of a costume drama/historical fiction kick in general lately, but watching The Tudors has reignited my interest in Henry VIII’s reign. In a little twist of fate, TCM happened to show 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII in March. Of course, I jumped at the chance to finally watch it!
I’ve seen The Other Boelyn Girl, The Tudors, Anne of the Thousand Days, 1920’s Anna Boelyn, and plenty of documentaries… but this 1930s flick had somehow escaped me, until now.
As the title would suggest, The Private Life of Henry VIII simply tells the story of Henry and his six wives. As the saying goes: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”; Henry famously had two of his wives executed, found reasons to divorce or annul his marriage from two others, and saw one die in childbirth. This film was directed by Alexander Korda, and stars Charles Laughton in the leading role.
“Henry VIII had six wives,” the opening title card states. “Catherine of Aragon was the first; but her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her.” A cheeky and fun way to open the film, throwing some low-key shade at Henry, though I was sad to see Catherine of Aragon skipped over. We never even see her on screen! The narrative begins on the day of Anne Boelyn’s execution, while Jane Seymour is about to be ushered in as Henry’s third wife.
Laughton’s performance as Henry VIII is pretty good. He does well with the material, and brings to life a lot of Henry’s well-known traits, such as his overconfidence and self-centeredness. Even the way that Laughton stands emphasizes Henry’s arrogance.
But the characterization of Henry isn’t quite as complex as I’d prefer it to be. Henry’s internal conflicts and insecurities regarding the lack of male heir are not explored. I think a lot is sacrificed, story-wise, by handling Henry’s first two marriages so briefly.
Henry’s third marriage isn’t given much coverage, either. The portrayal of Jane Seymour is very shallow. She seems preoccupied by status and wealth, in one scene interrupting a meeting to ask Henry which head piece she should wear at their wedding, and whether or not he likes her dress. Just a few minutes later, her son is born and she is dead, leaving no time to add more dimension to the character.
Of course, film as a medium has its limits, time-wise. It’s difficult to cover six marriages and many years in the life of a monarch with a 97-minute run time. But even an extension to a flat two hours would have benefited the film, allowing a few more moments with which to explore Henry’s first three wives more deeply, as characters.
Though I take issue with some of the shallow characterizations in this film, it is an entertaining watch, and very fast-paced. When I briefly paused the film a few minutes after Jane’s death, I was surprised to find that I was already over thirty minutes in. It felt like I’d only been watching for five or ten minutes!
Things improve greatly when wife #4, Anne of Cleves, enters the picture. Here, she’s portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, the real-life Mrs. Charles Laughton. Henry’s famous disappointment with Anne’s physical appearance is preserved from history to screen. The scenes of their meeting and divorce proceedings are some of the film’s best. (The way Laughton plays Henry’s reaction to seeing Anne of Cleves in person for the first time is down-right hilarious!)
The Private Life of Henry VIII doesn’t adhere perfectly to historical record, nor is it the best of the many Tudor-based films and television programs in existence. But overall, it’s a good watch. I enjoyed it, and the scenes between Laughton and Lanchester alone make it well worth watching! The score: 3.5/5