Carry on Henry as Korda’s comedic historical epic cements the popular perception of the monarch
Director: Alexander Korda
Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry VIII), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (Katherine Howard), Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (Jane Seymour), Everley Gregg (Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper), Franklin Dyall (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Mander (Wriothesley), Laurence Hanray (Thomas Cranmer), John Loder (Thomas Peynell)
“A Great Guy With His Chopper” was the tag-line for Carry On Henry starring Sid James as a smirking, rogueish Henry. But it might as well have been the tag-line for this Oscar-winning film, that pretty much cemented the public’s perception of Henry VIII as a lusty, fun-loving king, chucking chicken legs over his shoulder when he wasn’t busy marrying wives. Korda’s handsomely filmed Tudor epic is more knock-about farce than history but was the then most successful British film ever (the first to be nominated for Best Picture) and scooped an Oscar for Laughton as the Merrie Monarch.
The Private Life of Henry VIII skips over the meat of most Henry flicks. Catherine of Aragon is dead (the films comment on her in the opening credits describes her story as being “of no particular interest”, news to scholars of the English Reformation) and with Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) prepping for her head to be lopped off with a sword. From there history is left firmly behind as Bluff Hal flirts with Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) – who has eyes for his pal Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) – marries Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) who uggs up to get out of it – and ends up as a hen-pecked old guy under a blanket, bossed around by Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg).
For those interested in history, don’t expect to find out anything here. Despite walk-on parts for the headline names of the Henrician reign (Cromwell, Cranmer and others dance around the margins) and some impressive sets and Holbein-influenced costumes, this is really a cheeky-comedy, popping gags at the monarch’s famed lothario. Just as well then that the gags are all pretty good, the pace kept up and the energy of all involved adds hugely to the sense of fun.
A lot of that is, of course, led by Laughton as Henry VIII. Laughton charges around, hand on hips, legs splayed and peppers every other line with outbursts of crude laughter and childish tantrums. Laughton, in short, has a whale of time, piling into every scene with lusty relish. There is a twinkle in his eye throughout even the film’s most laboured gags (the sequence of Henry spitting and throwing food over his shoulder while bemoaning “There’s no delicacy nowadays…Manners are dead!” would easily outstay its welcome without his delighted playing of it).
What’s also striking about Laughton’s performance is the depth he gives it under the humour. Korda’s film wants us to enjoy the outlandish, larger-than-life qualities of the king, but it’s not afraid to look at the darker soul below the surface of the man many call “England’s Stalin”. Laughton’s Henry is a man who greets news of Jane Seymour’s death with a few brief seconds of sadness, before a shrug of the shoulders and a cheerful enquiry about his son. His tantrums and egotism constantly dance on the edge of tyranny. He manhandles lords and servants, screams and stamps when he doesn’t get his own way and shows not a jot of remorse or guilt at the deaths he causes (he’s even seen impatiently tapping a window waiting for the sword to fall on Anne).
Despite this though, you still sort of end up feeling sorry for him. Perhaps because Laughton manages to also make him feel strangely naïve and trusting for all his school-boy bluster. Henry is torn apart with grief at the betrayal of Catherine and Culpeper (something he really should have spotted as it is almost literally going on under his nose). Korda presents a few fairly serious scenes, after a lot of comedic banter, with Henry first assaulting those bringing him the news and then collapsing into a shuddering mess of tears. A beautifully-framed shot in his chapel, shows Henry berating himself for the faults of Catherine, Laughton’s tear-stained face communicating his “mea culpas” with a soft, regret-filled quietness.
But what’s stuck in the public perception is the comedy. The film’s finest – and central – sequence covers the short marriage with Anne of Cleves, inevitably played by Elsa Lanchester. She delivers a superb performance of physical and verbal comedic charm. Henry famously was ‘unattracted’ to Anne (I’ve always believed this syphilitic, obese, gouty man just couldn’t blame himself for his inability to get it up so claimed it was the woman’s fault). Legend of Anne’s ugliness have cruelly stuck, but the film presents it as a rather amusing pantomime of fake stumbles and gurning faces used by Anne to save herself from one-day heading to the block under this tyrant.
Laughton and Lanchester’s natural chemistry (the first of their multiple collaborations on screen) sees the real-life husband-and-wife at complete ease and the wedding-night game of cards are the most relaxed and hilarious in the whole film. “The things I do for England…” Henry mutters, but there is a suspicion these two are much better suited than history assumes.
Korda pulls this altogether into a true crowd-pleaser. There is a farcical energy to the crowds providing a wry commentary on the executions. The film is crammed with some gorgeous sets – Laughton’s first entrance is a straight-restaging of Holbein. A sequence where Henry utterly fails to sneak into Catherine Howard’s bed-chamber (due to guards announcing “the King!” around every corner) is quite wonderfully staged. The cast are very fine: Merle Oberon makes a huge amount of Anne’s shrewdness (in the film’s most historically accurate sequence), Robert Donat is very charismatic as Culpeper, Binnie Barnes suitably flirty and empty-headed as a sex-pot Catherine Howard (even if she is considerably older then the real Catherine).
The Private Life of Henry VIII pulls all its material together into a luscious farce, with the odd serious moment, that might not make any sense at all when compared to history but makes a lot of sense when you compare it to stage farce. This was the first – and best – Carry On Henry.