The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). 97 minutes. Directed by Alexander Korda. Starring Charles Laughton (as Henry VIII), Merle Oberon (as Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (as Jane Seymour), Elsa Lanchester (as Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (as Catherine Howard), Everley Gregg (as Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (as Thomas Culpepper), Franklin Dyall (as Thomas Cromwell), and Lady Tree (as the king’s nurse).
The Private Life of Henry VIII is a historical film starring Charles Laughton as Tudor King Henry VIII, who lived from 1491 to 1547. As a light and at times comic treatment of the tyrant king’s notorious romantic life, the movie is decidedly strange: both more amusing than a history lesson and more troubling because it is at times so distant from facts. Yet weirdly, its levity remains one of its strongest selling points. Those who are less inclined to watch period pieces due to their perceived stodginess will be entertained by the often racy components of this film, which shares much in common with American pre-Code cinema.
The plot of this film will be familiar to many of you in at least broad strokes. The film begins long after King Henry VIII of the English Tudors has annulled his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the first scenes, his second wife, Anne Boleyn, awaits execution by beheading for treason. As he listens for the sound that signals Anne’s death, he entertains his mistress Jane Seymour, whom he is attracted to but thinks vapid. Anne dies, and Jane and Henry marry. Jane bears a son but dies in childbirth. Henry then consents to marry Anne of Cleves, a German, but she is not enamored of him and after the wedding plots to make herself appear unattractive so that he will not be tempted to consummate their marriage. They agree on their wedding night to have an annulment. Henry’s eye is next caught by the lusty Catherine Howard, who is politically ambitious and involved romantically with a member of Henry’s court, Thomas Culpepper. The king falls in love and marries her but soon discovers her ongoing affair with Culpepper and moves to have her executed as well. In the movie’s final scenes, Henry decides to marry Catherine Parr, but she babies and nags at him, and in the last shot, he breaks the fourth wall by turning to the camera and announcing that with her he is the most unhappy.
The movie adopts a challenging project—namely, of making Henry VIII (whom most people likely think was an unethical tyrant, brute, and cad) seem palatable and appealing. The Private Life of Henry VIII would like for us to think that King Henry was, in fact, relatively humane, understandable, and even charming. Interestingly, it works to accomplish this by focusing not on his political life but on his less accessible private life. So while Henry’s reign was a period of astonishing change for English society, we hear nothing about the breaking away from Rome, the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, and so on. It is a curious narrative that separates an all-powerful monarch from his political reign, as if the process of ruling and the process of marrying in that era were separate enterprises.
The film’s perspective becomes especially challenging when we reflect on commonalities in Henry’s depicted relationships with women. The movie implies that the king is a serial victim of feminine wiles rather than an agent in his own ruinous behavior; he actually bursts into tears in front of a room of men when he learns that Catherine Howard is having an adulterous affair. Thus in focusing on a very particular version of the king’s private life, and at the expense of the history of Henry’s political and social legacy, The Private Life of Henry VIII manufactures its own history, focusing on Henry’s pursuit of elusive, perfect love and marital contentment but simultaneously distancing him from full ownership of his own actions. In order to do so, it softens Henry’s edges and dilutes his maniacal behavior, rampant lasciviousness, and extreme shrewdness. His boisterous laugh, a bit like the laugh of a Santa Claus, echoes through the palace corridors, marking him as a rotund, bearded figure of mirth. He becomes a comic figure, a stock male character dominated by silly women, two-timers, and shrews.
To give some perspective on the movie’s challenging project of turning a very real historical figure with a very real history of brutality into a light and humorous persona, we can look to a central trope in the movie itself. The narrative returns repeatedly to a scene in the royal hair salon, where a barber prepares Henry for a shave. But the shave never occurs—the barber always says something that irritates the king, usually pertaining to consensus among the palace staff that Henry should marry again or produce another heir. This is news that the king is not eager to hear, and inevitably Henry yells at the barber, who runs off before he can do his work. The barber shop scenes, it must be admitted, are an amusing method for registering the almost constant need in the story for Henry to begin looking for yet another wife. But it also calls to mind the idea of shaving, trimming, and making things clean and tidy. This is part of the job that any work of historical fiction undertakes either consciously or unconsciously, but it must be admitted that it is especially true of any movie that purports to tell the story of the quintessential power-abusing monarch as a kind of romantic comedy.
Yet before I make it sound as if I reject the movie’s light touch overall, let me say that these reservations aside, I actually found myself enjoying the movie’s weird approach to its subject, its humor and ease. That is because through this ease, The Private Life of Henry VIII does something rather notable. It attempts to make people living in a distant historical period seem real, personable, and relatable, in spite of their distance from us in time, customs, and station. The scene of Henry’s wedding night with Anne of Cleves is a good example of this. Anne has deliberately dressed herself with long braids and headgear so as to appear unattractive and thwart the king’s sexual advances. In their bed chamber, he calmly attempts to discuss the activity that they are supposed to undertake, but she pretends not to understand. Henry looks for some way that he can engage with her. When he discovers that Anne enjoys cards, he initiates a game to break the ice; it is then revealed that she is a card shark—she wins a large sum of money from him and takes him by surprise. Both irritated by each other, they agree to an annulment.
The scene relies on wit and earthy humor to make its characters seem playful, down to earth, and modern, but it also makes them seem refreshingly unpredictable by overturning our assumptions about how they will behave in intimate circumstances. We watch, perhaps with surprise, as the king of England has to uncomfortably explain the birds and the bees to what he thinks is a naïve girl, who we know is actually rather more experienced than she pretends to be; Henry uses an unexpected amount of gentleness and courtesy in this encounter. At the same time, although we might expect Anne to be frightened by Henry because of his position or reputation, she is hardly intimidated by him. Instead she seems completely in control and masterminds the fleecing of a king. The wedding night episode is thus a good example of a scene where the movie toys with our prior understanding of who Henry and Anne are and grows delightful precisely because what it offers is so different from what we were anticipating.
The Private Life of Henry VIII makes it clear that its king is a sexual creature, and while it is not obvious to me that he ever wooed women in situations where they felt comfortable to freely give their consent or turn him down, I was nevertheless interested in the movie’s approach to his lasciviousness. The Henry of the movie actively pursues women, kisses and grabs them passionately, and discusses sex with Anne of Cleves in what seems for a moment as if it will turn into an extremely frank conversation about marriage consummation. The amount of “first night” humor (jokes about wedding night sex) in the latter scene is fairly impressive; the topic of first nights and the depiction of them was to be strictly prohibited in the United States when the Hollywood Production Code was enforced a year after this movie’s release. The Private Life of Henry VIII was censored by the British film board but the existing wedding night humor was left intact.
The image of Henry VIII as a woman chaser likely needs no help from a film such as this one, but interestingly, the perception of the king as a large, gluttonous slob, while not invented by this movie, is certainly fueled by it. It is true that we often see Henry at mealtime eating meat with his hands where his fellow diners are shown laboring with clinking forks and knives. There is one scene where he consumes an entire chicken, and we frequently view him tugging at poultry legs with his teeth. We also see his impressive kitchen, with its piles of game and seafood, its huge pots, and its many servants. We get it: he eats a good deal, throws lavish dinners, and indulges in earthly pleasures.
Although those dinner scenes make Henry look comically crude, The Private Life of Henry VIII also uses them to argue implicitly that when Henry was cruel, he was supported in his cruelty—that, in other words, there was something wrong with Henry, but it was shared society-wide. This is likely true. Take, for instance, the cockfighting event that is staged in the middle of one of his dinners, where we see Catherine Howard and the rest of the court at least as excited about animal abuse as Henry is. We also find evidence of widespread cruelty when the state executes two of his wives: the scenes of people spending time in their seats before the beheading of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, telling jokes and carousing, both amused me with their morbidity and made sense to me. The characters banally accept the brutality of their times.
As a survival tactic, it was likely not unique to crowds. One of the biggest conclusions that The Private Life of Henry VIII offers about its king is that he similarly seems to survive his life, bouncing from woman to woman, never fully processing the effects of what he does verbally, or even silently at length—I think particularly of his reactions to his wives’ executions, where we see him melancholy and preoccupied, but only momentarily. The movie does not dwell for long on the consequences of Henry’s actions, but it is unable ignore their existence. That even the comic version of Henry’s life cannot pretend all the time that he was a good sport means that we should not pretend either.
But that is another way in which the movie resembles its American pre-Code counterparts: it mingles the comic with the profane in a way that was untenable for years afterward. For what it is worth, encountering the bewildering alternate universe in which Henry VIII could make me grin rather than gasp in horror was a strange experience that I not only am glad I had but that I recommend to you. The Private Life of Henry VIII is a good example of the kinds of uncomfortable comedies that people made in the 1930s, and it is a fine example of a British endeavor to surpass Hollywood’s racy and challenging subjects from the same period.