Alexander Korda and his brothers might be thought of as a sort of Hungarian version of the Warners--siblings who each had their own distinct talents and who forged a great film canon from them. Alexander was the producer and director of the bunch, and after some journeyman years stateside, he set up shop in Great Britain where he founded London Films and built it into one of the most prestigious glamour mills on that side of the pond. Criterion's Eclipse Series now brings us four of the best Korda London productions, each with their own charms and idiosyncrasies. If the Oscar winning turn by Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII is perhaps the biggest calling card to the set as a whole, discriminating film viewers may actually find more to enjoy in at least moments of the other three included in the set, The Private Life of Don Juan, Catherine the Great and Rembrandt. If you're looking for historical accuracy in any of these films, you'd do better to ferret other films (notably some august BBC television productions). If you're looking for just good, old fashioned entertainment, with some surprisingly contemporary humor at times, any of these films will fill the bill admirably.
The best known film in this bunch is undoubtedly 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII, featuring Charles Laughton's Oscar-winning turn as the much married royal. This film is awfully creaky by today's standards, and is completely laughable as history, but it does feature a host of outstanding performances, capped by Laughton's completely boisterous take on the lusty Tudor. The fact is, the film doesn't really purport to be history, even by 1933 standards, starting as it does with the funny disclaimer that it won't even spend time on Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as she was a woman of virtue and therefore not really worthy of any screen time. The whole film is filled with that sort of insouciance, and it makes the bending and actual breaking of various facts a little easier to swallow.
Front and center in this film is Charles Laughton, certainly one of the more unusual types to ever attain screen stardom in those days when image and glamour seemed even more important than they are today. Laughton struts and storms and is pretty much impossible to take your eyes off of. The film starts with the execution of Anne of Boleyn (Merle Oberon, who would go on to wed Korda), and then we're off on a whirlwind tour of her successors in Henry's bedchamber. The most memorable of these is no doubt Laughton's real life wife, the equally eccentric looking Elsa Lanchester, here portraying Anne of Cleves. This is the acme of strangeness and comedy in the film, when Anne decides to make herself unattractive (and, sorry to be politically incorrect, but I think that should really be more unattractive given Lanchester's less than fulsome charms) in order to get out of an unhappy marriage. It's one of Lanchester's more eccentric performances, something quite remarkable when you take in such portrayals of hers as The Bride of Frankenstein.
The Private Life of Henry VIII manages to fleetingly inject a little humanity into the proceedings, despite basically being a royal comedy of manners, and this is mostly due to Laughton's incredibly expressive face. He's able to convey a loneliness and sadness with just a drooping eye, and it's actually in these quieter moments that Henry really comes alive, less of a caricature and more of an actual character.
The Private Life of Don Juan is a remarkable little gem for several reasons. It was Douglas Fairbanks' swan song as a film star, and it is one of the few talkies the legendary action-adventure hero made in his long and diverse career. The 1934 film is also a rather unexpectedly thoughtful rumination on the vagaries of fame and celebrity, and plays magnificently with Fairbanks' own advancing age.
The basic setup of the film finds Fairbanks a somewhat over the hill Don Juan, struggling to escape a middle aged paunch and increasing debts, which his forlorn wife (Benita Hume), whom he abandoned years ago, is holding over his head in the hopes of a reconciliation. The film approaches elements of French farce when a wannabe (Juanabe?) pretender to the Latin Lover's throne enters the picture, convincing the residents of Seville that the "real" Don Juan is on the prowl again, cutting a wide swath through the women of the city. That pretender is killed in a duel, letting the actual Don Juan finally escape the legend and attempt to live a somewhat normal life.
Of course Don Juan discovers over time that a quiet life of contemplation is not exactly what he's cut out for, and he attempts to return to his former hunting grounds, only to find out that no one believes he's the real Don Juan. This film is laugh out loud hilarious at times (Juan's penchant for starchy, pudge-making foods is a running gag), but then turns rather reflective and ruminative in equal measure, with often cogent comments about the fleeting nature of fame. "Let them remember you how you were ten years ago," states Juan's compadre at one point, and it seems as much about Fairbanks the actor as it does about his character.
There are delightful supporting turns by Merle Oberon as (are you ready?) Antonita, a "dancer of passionate temperament" as well as Melville Cooper as Juan's aide-de-camp. The entire film has a joie de vivre mixed with a certain nostalgia that makes it uncharacteristically deep for this type of soufflé.
1934 was a banner year for Catherine the Great. The more famous and revered film about her remains Marlene Dietrich's The Scarlet Empress, but the Korda production The Rise of Catherine the Great offers an opulent production, if nary a fleeting glance toward historical accuracy. Elisabeth Bergner plays the title role in this film directed by her husband Paul Czinner. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. assumes the duties of Peter, nephew of the Grand Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) and betrothed of Catherine (nee Sophie), a man whose instability and probable mental illness ultimately leads to Catherine's ability to assume the throne. The film almost plays like a parlor comedy for its first half or so (albeit one played absolutely straight), as Catherine pretends to have dalliances in order to make Peter jealous and finally consummate their marriage.
Bergner, who never really took off as an English language star despite having an accent no worse than a number of other Europeans (Luise Rainer for example), shows considerable range in this role. Starting as a wide eyed naïf (literally--you think her eyes are going to pop out of their sockets several times early in the film), and then moving through various stages of coquettishness to ultimate ruthlessness (if somewhat chaste, per the filmic times), Bergner's Catherine may be nothing like the real historical figure, but she is loads of fun to watch. Fairbanks, Jr. never really attained the gravitas his father exhibited in such films as Don Juan, but he manages at least a hint of mental turpitude here, modulated with the elegance and suavity that became his trademarks.
The real stunner in this film is Flora Robson. Robson, frequently cast as a shrewish harridan, is here actually quite lovely, even improbably beautiful in several soft-focus shots. Yes, she's imperious and overbearing, but she brings a warmth and humanity to the role that she got to display too seldom in her long career, and the film is largely hers as a result.
1936's Rembrandt reunited Korda with Laughton and Lanchester, and is notable for being one of a very few screen performances by stage legend Gertrude Lawrence. Lawrence is probably largely unknown to today's youth, but she was a leading light (some would say the leading light) of the British stage for decades, and was the subject of the mammoth Robert Wise Julie Andrews biopic Star! from 1968.
This biography finds Laughton considerably more subdued than he was in Henry VIII, but no less effective. Playing the Dutch artist as a temperamental but soulful child-man, Laughton is magnificent in a film that probably hews closest to historical accuracy of all the films in this set. Lanchester is incredibly effective as Hendrickje Stoffels, a maid who becomes Rembrandt's common law wife after the death of his first spouse, a wealthy woman named Saskia van Uylenburgh. Lanchester is a revelation as a simple peasant girl who through that very simplicity manages to touch one of the great masters of painting to his core.
The real interest of the film, though, is watching Lawrence in one of the only nine films she made in her storied career. Playing Rembrandt's housekeeper cum companion Geertje, Lawrence bites into her role with surprising venom at times. Geertje is an interesting character, a woman who means well and tries to keep Rembrandt's affairs in order (something he was incapable of doing and which helps lead to his financial downfall later in the film), but who seemingly can't help being a ceaseless nag about it all, something that ultimately undermines her personal relationship with the artist.
There are some marvelous moments scattered throughout Rembrandt--listening to Laughton's dulcet tones recite passages from the Bible, as well as some passing instructions on how to properly beg (which rightly or wrongly reminded me of the flipside portryal of this "art" in Mel Brooks' early comedy The Twelve Chairs). The film is deliberately paced and less ostensibly dramatic (with a capital D, so to speak) than other artist biopics like Lust for Life, but in that very stasis there's a certain dignity and decency that seems to properly portray the Dutch master.