1932/33 / Best Actor / Best Picture

Film #25: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

British films have often triumphed at the Oscars with the likes of Chariots of Fire, The English Patient and Slumdog Millionaire taking the top honour. However the first film to be nominated for Best Picture was the next film on our list, The Private Life of Henry VIII.

The film’s plot is basically self-explanatory, as it is about Henry’s relationship with his wives, well most of them anyway. To just give you an example of how historically accurate the film is the opening subtitles tell us that – ‘Henry VIII had six wives, Catherine of Aragon was the first but her story is of no particular interest she was a respectable woman so Henry divorced her’. From there we get what is basically Henry VIII: The Edited highlights. The start of the film sees Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn getting ready for her execution like she was getting ready to go for a good night out. Charles Laughton’s Oscar winning performance as Henry starts off as he barks at some of his staff and then flirts with his new young wife Jane Seymour. After Boleyn’s head is chopped off we flash forward 18 months were Seymour has given birth to a son while Henry is hunting but has died before he gets back. The main crux of the film though is about Catherine Howard, who is one of the more obscure of Henry’s wives, and her ambition to be queen despite her having a relationship with one of Henry’s advisers. There’s also the story of the supposedly ugly Anne of Cleves, who in actuality makes herself ugly so Henry will divorce her, allowing her to return to the man she loves. Once Howard gets her claws into Henry it’s not long before she gets her head chopped off for her affair. There’s just about five minutes of screen time left for Henry to finally get a ‘good wife’ in Catherine Parr who is first seen as Elizabeth and Edward’s nanny and she begins to nanny Henry into his final years the last shot being one of Henry with the infamous chicken leg in his mouth.

It’s fair to say that The Private Life of Henry VIII didn’t exactly herald an auspicious start for British Best Picture nominees. This is primarily as it’s full of historical inaccuracies and bawdy behaviour which gave everybody the image of a fat Henry VIII who loved to shove chicken legs in his mouth. As Henry, Charles Laughton earned his only Oscar and this propelled him and legendary British director Alexander Korda to fame. This is a very well-produced and well scripted film but there are some lines today which would cause anarchy but said by Henry they are meant to be archaic, there’s a nice line about North Americans being savages which I’m sure the American audiences just loved. At just over 90 minutes it’s by no means a historical epic but whatever it is this was the first time that the Brits could be proud of a film that did so well across the pond.


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