Sunday, April 12, 2009

I'm Henry the VIIIth, I am

Once while driving across Iowa during a summer storm, I looked out my window and saw the corn, as high as an SUV's eye, swirling in an ominous cyclonic pattern. My radio which was tuned to the AM weather band, cut out. The air was thick and had a pea green cast and I was certain that I was going to be picked up any moment and hurled to Oz or my death. Suddenly, my radio came back on loudly playing Herman's Hermits "Henry the VIIIth I am." I'm going to die, I thought and the last thing I hear is going to be this ridiculous song. No sooner did this register in my fear paralized brain than my Isuzu Trooper past a line of trees, a shelter belt around a graveyard, and the cyclonic wind stopped. A wall of rain hit the car and the radio returned to static. I drove blindly, my wipers barely keeping up with the rain somehow knowing that I'd escaped the tornado and pondering the significance of a radio signal trapped in weather pattern. Perhaps, I'd merely dreamed the whole thing, like Dorothy.

I bring this up because I recently heard that Alexander Korda got the idea for making his film The Private Life of Henry the VIIIth (1933) when a cab driver began whistling "Henry the VIIIth I am" well known in music halls before Herman's Hermits took it to the rest of the planet, including Iowa. I wonder, what was the weather was like outside that London cab? Raining like mad, I'd bet anything.

There is another, contradictory tale, about Korda that says that he got the idea for the film while standing under the famous Holbein portrait of the monarch and realizing that he looked a lot like Charles Laughton. I doubt this version of the tale, since Life magazine published a photo of Korda, and Laughton co-star Robert Donat standing underneath that same picture in 1948. Either Life set out to recreate this moment of inspiration or people are remembering a picture they saw and attaching more significance to it than it warrants.

I recently rewatched both of Charles Laughton's performances as Henry the VIII in Private Life and Young Bess (1953) and I'm positive that I assigned a lot more significance to the later performance than it warrants the first half dozen times I watched it. If I believed in guilt I would list Young Bess as definitely among my guilty pleasures having loved the movie for years for it's absurd dialog, Stewart Granger's legs and Charles Laughton's huffing and puffing Henry. His first Henry is tender, childlike and whimsical when he's not lopping off heads, his second is more a collection of tics and catch phrases than a flesh and blood character. I'm sorry to say this, because I love it anyway. It's not just that the movie is so bad it's good, it's that sometimes it's so good, it's good. I love the way that Laughton always stands as if he's straddling and imaginary globe and how Jean Simmons imitates this stance at every opportunity. I love that Bess and Tom (Stewart Granger) always discuss ships and they make talk of mizzen masts and gunwales sound downright naughty. I love the sentimental portrayal of the relationship between boy King Edward and Bess which has more of a basis in the demands of injecting phony "family values" into 1950s movies than with historical reality. (Not that anything in either of the movies is much more than malarkey in that respect. It's not so much what they get wrong, which is quite a lot, it's the over-simplification and over-dramatization of what they get right. Why is that in every movie about Henry the VIIIth he is always out hunting when Elizabeth was born? I've never been able to figure out where that comes from, other than costume drama tradition. )

Lots of actors have played the infamous king, from Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days to Jonathan Rhys Myers in the recent television series The Tudors and most have brought something new to the character, but Charles Laughton pretty much made the template. Far and away my favorite Hank 8 flick is The Private life of Henry VIII (1933). I always think of it as a comedy, though it's usually billed as drama (I guess all those ladies loosing their heads isn't as funny as I think.) The biggest delight is the relationship between Henry and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester). The pair have great comic timing with one another and despite their divorce Anne ends up being the only wife to remain on friendly terms with her notorious ex. Much of the drama is provided by Henry's fifth wife Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) and her lover Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). Barnes portrayal is an interesting one, managing to strike a balance between seeming sympathetic and overly ambitious at the cost of her life and her lovers. Donat is great as usual and one gets the feeling that the kind is more hurt by his old friend's betrayal than he is by loosing another wife. The movie ends on an up note with an elderly king henpecked into hiding his turkey legs from sharp-eyed Katherine Parr (Everly Gregg). Merle Oberon has a surprisingly small part as Anne Boleyn, whose story is perhaps too long and complex for the length of the film.


Rupert Alistair said...

I too have always wondered why The Private Life of Henry VIII, devoted such a small portion of its story to Anne Boleyn, the most infamous of his six wives (and it left out Katherine of Aragon altogether!).
My favorite version of the life of this larger than life monarch is the BBC version of "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" with Keith Mitchell as Henry.

Rupert Alistair

Kate Gabrielle said...

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Anonymous said...

Oh dear me dear me, Stewart Granger’s legs—what a lightening flash of a memory *that* conjured … coffee spurted onto the keyboard … condemnatory peering from neighboring cubicles … screen flipping back to my excel spreadsheet …

a loyal new disciple of your blog has been gained, thank you so much for this!

Sinclair said...

Ah, Stewart Granger! What a whole and entire package, including the legs! They don't make them like HIM anymore!