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Although DVD has made accessible many English films that saw only limited release in the United States, many classic titles remain viewable only in dim gray-market versions made from battered 16mm prints. The Criterion Collection has already addressed the problem with its series of Michael Powell gems. Now its satellite company Eclipse brings us Alexander Korda's Private Lives, a quartet of fine films by the famed producer-director.
After directing silent films in America the Hungarian expatriate Korda settled in London and hit his stride as England's most prestigious producer. Korda made good use of the artistic assistance of his brothers Zoltan and Vincent and attracted top talent from across Europe. French cinematographer Georges Périnal filmed all four of the historical biographies in this set, and Austrian Lajos Biró was a writer on three of them. By prying into the love lives of monarchs and artists, the films offer witty observances on the larger subjects of romance and marriage. Warners' responded with its own series of popular, award-winning biographies that became acting showcases for Paul Muni. Korda's productions now seem superior in every respect.
1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII made both Korda and actor Charles Laughton famous; Laughton won an Academy Award with his uproarious interpretation of the king with the failed marriages. Henry is vain, petty and supremely selfish, yet he's also simply fulfilling the role into which he was born. The Price of Power is paid mostly by those forced by circumstance to defy Henry's authority. The unlucky Anne Boleyn, seen only briefly, is played by Merle Oberon, a ravishingly beautiful discovery who would soon marry producer Korda. Binnie Barnes has the strongest role. Her Katherine Howard waits patiently to become the Queen consort, only to find unhappiness in an ill-fated affair with one of Henry's aides, Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat). The skillful script begins with a French executioner preparing his sword, reminding us that more than one of these women will end up with their dainty necks on a chopping block.
But the overwhelming impression of The Private Life of Henry VIII is comedy. Frisky ladies-in-waiting make small talk over which one of them will next be invited to Henry's bed. The jolly crowds come to see a great lady lose her head -- and to critique her wardrobe. One spectator complains to her husband that she wants a nice gown too. He assures her that she'll get it -- at her execution.
Previously seen as a mad doctor and a Roman emperor in Paramount films, Charles Laughton is nothing short of spectacular. He trots through scenes and struts proudly on his skinny legs. The film's most celebrated image comes at Henry's dinner table. He stuffs his mouth with roast fowl, tossing bones over his shoulder while complaining about the lack of manners at his court.
The funniest scenes show Henry's calamitously brief marriage to Anne of Cleves, played by Charles Laughton's supremely eccentric wife Elsa Lanchester. Anne practices making grotesque faces in the mirror and behaves like a dotty German peasant. In their wedding bed, she promptly draws Henry into a game of cards, and wins by cheating!
The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) was released a few months before Josef Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, a film version of the exact same historical events. Korda's film lacks the delirious visuals of the Marlene Dietrich vehicle but is a much more rounded drama. Actress Elizabeth Bergner is the German princess taken to Russia to marry a Grand Duke. Her new husband Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) turns out to be a mental case given to gloomy moods and paranoid suspicions. A successful marriage is impossible.
Flora Robson adds to her gallery of strong monarchs with the lustful Empress Elizabeth, who soon realizes that her daughter-in-law is far more stable than her son. In this telling, Catherine only pretends to have affairs with a regiment of officers, as a ploy to regain Peter's interest. Peter responds by flaunting a lover at court. He can't wait to assume power, not realizing that the nobles, the army and the people are all firmly behind Catherine.
The director this time is Paul Czinner, Elizabeth Bergner's husband. His work is visually smoother and more delicate than Alexander Korda's, but The Rise of Catherine the Great was also much more expensive to produce.
The delightful The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) is the lightest film in the stack, a farce with much to say about the nature of romantic illusion. It's the final film role of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who quit acting because of the notion, encouraged by the press, that his voice was unsuited for talking pictures.
Frederick Lonsdale and Lajos Biró's script, from a play by Henry Bataille, shows the Spanish lady-killer outpaced by his own legend. In Seville to patch things up with his lady Doña Dolores (Benita Hume), Don Juan dallies with the dancer Antonita (Merle Oberon) and suddenly faces the prospect of debtor's prison. All appears saved when a young rake masquerading as the great lover is killed by an irate husband. After attending his own funeral, Don Juan hides at an inn under an assumed name, but finds that seduction isn't easy without his reputation to do all the work. He's shocked when the barmaid (Binnie Barnes) would rather settle for a gift.
Worse still, when Don Juan returns to Seville, he can't get anyone to acknowledge him. Ex-lovers, blinded by their own romantic illusions, are convinced that the real Don Juan was much younger and more handsome. Don Juan is now the subject of plays and scandalous books; he's become a marketable franchise. The legend has not only taken over, it no longer has room for the real man.
Aided by the expressive settings designed by his brother Vincent, Alexander Korda directs The Private Life of Don Juan with a new sweep and flair. The aging Fairbanks is still graceful in action scenes. Better yet, he understands completely the situation of a man whose image is beloved by so many. The bored Spanish wives that swooned at the mention of Don Juan now reject him as an impostor. It's a bitter pill to swallow.
The most mature and melancholy film in the set is 1936's Rembrandt, a tender and insightful contemplation of the artist's relationship to society. Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton, superb) is successful and happy working in his studio in Amsterdam when his beloved wife Saskia dies. Less willing to suffer fools and hypocrites, Rembrandt antagonizes his patrons and develops serious financial problems. Housekeeper Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence) raises his son Titus and holds off the debtors but Rembrandt becomes so morose that he attempts to flee to his hometown in the country. He then finds calming inspiration with Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), his new maid. But complicated debt issues prevent Rembrandt from marrying Hendrickje or even selling his own work. Outraged church officials excommunicate Hendrickje for living out of wedlock.
Rembrandt doesn't try to cover the painter's entire life story, and instead advances a series of telling episodes. We never see Saskia; her place is taken by Rembrandt's touching speech explaining how one woman can be all things to one man -- an ironic inversion of Don Juan, who searches for the perfect woman by bedding thousands. Rembrandt receives support and criticism from his paying pupils Fabrizius and Flinck (Edward Chapman & John Clements). The painter's practice of using beggars to model as Biblical figures produces an amusing episode with Roger Livesey (of I Know Where I'm Going!) posing as King Saul. Highly sentimental moments make their point without being oversold, giving Rembrandt an honest emotional kick.
Korda's direction is sensitive to the rhythms of the story, aided greatly by cameraman Georges Périnal, whose lighting frequently suggests the master's dramatic portraiture work. Rembrandt van Rijn is one of Charles Laughton's best roles, yet we're informed that the actor was torn by self-doubt and inner frustration. Laughton's next film for Korda would be the disastrous, unfinished I, Claudius. Merle Oberon's car accident was the official reason for the production shut-down, but the raw dailies seen in the documentary The Epic that Never Was show Laughton to be so conflicted that he cannot stammer out a performance.
Each of the four Korda films is a grand concept requiring the input of superior talent, and each makes good on its promise. The transfers in Eclipse's Alexander Korda's Private Lives set show occasional wear but are far better than prints available on television, especially Rembrandt. The audio is also much improved, with hiss-free music and dialogue. The Eclipse presentation format does without extras, but the brief individual essays by Michael Koresky provide efficient and informative introductions, as well as an overview of this part of Alexander Korda's career.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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