Today we’re talking about things I love to watch. We will mostly be chatting here about old movies and documentaries–I don’t watch too much in the way of regularly-scheduled network stuff except “Elementary”. I am utterly smitten with TCM, but my cable provider has added something fun called Retro, and as of this month–cue the choir of angels–we now have the Smithsonian Channel. (The special on digging up King Richard III’s skeleton in the Leicester car park was particularly riveting, and I was glued to the documentary about the DNA results of King Tut.)
I’m not sure how the average person uses the DVR, but I always keep a handful of movies there for comfort watching. That kind of viewing is undemanding; it makes me happy, and it invariably involves a film I’ve seen a few dozen times–if not more. It means things like “Evil Under the Sun” and “Chocolat” as well as some classic 1930s screwball comedies. I have a fervent and abiding love for Nick and Nora Charles. (Did you know Nicholas Brisbane was named for Nick Charles?) And I adore the old films about British royalty. My favorite in this genre–and one that TCM replays fairly frequently–is “The Private Life of Henry VIII” starring Charles Laughton.
For a movie that claims to chronicle Great Harry’s private life, it picks up at a strange point–the day of Anne Boleyn’s execution. This seems like a tremendous cheat. Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon longer than his other five marriages combined, yet she’s hardly mentioned. And his tempestuous relationship with Anne certainly deserves better than a quick handful of scenes–although Merle Oberon quipping that people will call her “Anne sans tete” is pretty glorious.
But all is forgiven when Elsa Lanchester makes an appearance as Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife–and the only one lucky enough to divorce him AND stay in his good graces. (Jane Seymour is predictably fluffy and forgettable. That’s not how I personally think of her–I think she was a scheming little cow, but the sooner she disappears from any adaptation, the happier I am.) Elsa Lanchester, whom you may remember as “The Bride of Frankenstein” is utter MAGIC. She’s coy and clever and tricks Henry into giving her her freedom–with a few well-earned perks to keep her in style. Their wedding night scene is unforgettable and even more delightful when you realize they were married in real life.
I have quibbles with the characterization of Catherine Howard–she’s far too old and world-weary and scheming for a girl who was by all accounts not very bright and perhaps only nineteen at most at her execution. And I’m not sure anyone would believe that Catherine Parr harangued Henry ceaselessly about his diet, although it’s fun to contemplate. But Laughton does such a superb job of conjuring Henry in all his overbearing, overweight pomposity that it’s impossible not to enjoy this. It’s much closer to actual history than, say, “The Tudors”, and for generations of movie-goers, Laughton has been the definitive Henry VIII. (His grasp of the role was solidified when he played the aging monarch in “Young Bess”–another favorite.)
Another delightful touch in this film is the use of palace staff to offer commentary on their betters–from the king’s nursemaid to his barber to his kitchen staff, everyone gets their say.