Tag: Robert Donat

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

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.

Goodbye Mr Chips (1939)

Robert Donat is superb (and Oscar winning) as an (eventually) beloved teacher in Goodbye Mr Chips

Director: Sam Wood

Cast: Robert Donat (Mr Chipping), Greer Garson (Katherine), Lyn Harding (Dr John Hamilton), Paul Henreid (Max Staeffel), Terry Kilburn (John Colley/Peter Colley I/Peter Colley II/Peter Colley III), John Mills (Adult Peter Colley), Scott Sunderland (Sir John Colley)

Goodbye Mr Chips is the sort of film that feels ripe for spoofing. The sort of idealised stuff-upper lip, Tom Brown’s Schooldays look at the past that should have you spluttering and chuckling. But it’s done with such warmth, such genuine emotion and tenderness, that instead you can’t help but feel yourself welling up while watching it. I certainly did (although I was watching it at half seven on a Sunday morning…)

The film follows the fortunes of Mr Chipping (Robert Donat) from his first joining the school in 1870 as a naïve young Classics teacher, struggling to exert authority over the children, to a beloved elder statesmen of the school in 1933. Along the way, he deals with a host of personal and worldly trials and tribulations, falls in love with a young suffragette Katherine (Greer Garson) who recognises his tender soul, and eventually helps the school through the national trauma of World War I.

It’s a quite beautifully done piece of old fashioned film-making, crammed with those moments of suppressed emotion and unspoken depths that get me every time. Maybe it’s something peculiarly English, but nothing can touch our repressed souls than seeing a kindred spirit struggle to keep his emotions locked down. Chipping loves his job, he loves the children he teaches and he will work tirelessly to give them the best start in life he can. The schoolchildren across 60 years are his children – can he express any of this before his deathbed? Of course not, he’s British.

It’s a film that celebrates the strength of that indomitable British characteristic of keeping on, of struggling forward, of keeping traditions and decency going. It’s a strongly conservative message, I’ll give you that, but it’s carried by such nobility and morality that it stresses the positives of this patriarchal affection. And Wood’s direction avoids over-sentimentality at nearly every point, helped by a wonderfully constructed script by Journey’s End playwright RC Sheriff (among others).

And Chipping himself is such a gentle, unassuming and kindly character – a decent, compassionate man who does everything he can to help others – that the film never feels forced. Indeed, it gives many scenes a real emotion. The courtship between Chipping and Katherine is all the more affecting for understanding how unnatural and difficult it is for the shy and reserved Chipping to open himself up to love. It’s also deeply sweet and endearing to see how Katherine is able to see past his awkwardness and bashful quietness to understand the caring, deeply humane person below the surface, and how hard she works to help this better man flourish.

This humanity is behind everything that Chipping does in the film: from the start it’s clear he cares deeply for the pupils at the school, even if he struggles to build a connection. It’s there on his first day where he tries – ineffectually – to comfort a new boy. At first he is led to believe domineering discipline is needed to keep his authority. What marriage – and Katherine’s love – teaches him is that he can allow people to see his natural warmth, and that personal affection makes discipline all the easier and natural. And makes him a better teacher.

It’s that romantic subplot between Katherine and Chipping that really gets the cockles warmed at the centre of the film. Beautifully played, with sensitivity and tenderness, by both Donat and Garson this is an extremely sweet relationship, where Katherine has to make most of the running to get round Chip’s shyness. You can enjoy – as Chip’s best friend Max Staefel (a lovely performance by Paul Henried) does – the fact that his colleagues expect Katherine to be some sort of aged harridan rather than a beautiful young woman. And it’s clear to see why the boys become devoted to someone warm, friendly and charming like Katherine. In Greer Garson’s first major role, she is superb – a character you feel as strongly about as Chips does, and feel her loss as deeply. 

The death scene – and its reaction – nails everything perfect about Robert Donat’s Oscar-winning performance. Chipping’s shell-shocked, robotic return to work is a brilliant demonstration of his trauma, his determination to not let it affect his work, and (in his quiet, middle-distance staring) his utter inability to get over the pain of losing the most important person in his life. Donat’s performance is superb throughout, convincingly ageing over 60 years during the film, but never losing that consistent sense of Chips being a man who has to learn how to find the balance between the warmer side of his character and the needs of being in a position of authority.

It’s a balance he finds wonderfully, by slowly allowing his humour to be seen by the boys – winning him a reputation as a sort of beloved eccentric, and surrogate father to hundreds of boys. This comes together beautifully as he guides the school through the horror of World War I. The film captures perfectly the shock and horror – under that English reserve – of so many dying for so little, of entire generations of former pupils being lost. Donat’s speech in the church near the war’s end seems to capture these feelings of reeling at the senseless violence.

But what the film does so well is not to make these moments sickly, but play them straight and let the emotions of these moments speak to themselves. We don’t need sentimental camera tricks or swooping music, or zooms into tear laden faces. Robert Donat’s performance brilliantly plays into this – he’s an absolute pillar of gentle reserve and kindness and every moment (he’s in every scene) rings absolutely true. It’s a beautiful, gentle, star turn at the heart of a film that slowly becomes deeply moving.