The four films included in the "Alexander Korda's Private Lives" boxed set from Eclipse are: "The Private Life of Henry VIII," "The Rise of Catherine the Great," "The Private Life of Don Juan," and "Rembrandt."
Alexander Korda was one of the most influential British filmmakers of all-time which is somewhat odd considering that he was Hungarian. He is perhaps best known as a producer – if you've watched British films from the 30s and 40s chances are you've seen the London Films logo on a few of them – but was also a prolific director and occasional writer. He is credited as director on over 60 films but the majority were low-budget silent films shot in Hungary, Austria or Germany and have been seldom seen.
Korda rose to prominence right as the British film industry (like the rest of the world) was transition to sound films and he hit it big early with "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933) which was nominated for Best Picture and which won an Oscar for Charles Laughton as Leading Ham. It was a quintessential Korda film, an irreverent, occasionally bawdy period piece about a major historical figure that focused more on his "private life" than his impact on history.
I don't know if Korda had Charles Laughton in mind for the lead in "Henry VIII" from the start, but it feels like the film was crafted as a vehicle for him. Laughton was already a major theater star but had not yet established his cinema legacy. "Henry" would change that. Laughton's fans and detractors agree on one thing: the man was an inveterate ham. With that big body and an expressive face that screamed "emote" from the get go, he couldn't help it.
Sometimes this could be annoying, but in this case the role and the actor were a match made in heaven… or perhaps somewhere else. Laughton plays "Henry VIII" as Falstaff (surely THE role that Laughton was born to play), a glutton and hedonist who manages to be charming even while wallowing in his sloth.
It's a strange film that manages to make a running joke out of Henry's serial wife-chopping ("He gave his wives a real pain in the neck!") though, to be fair, he only axed two of them. The film kicks off as wife #2 is about to kick off. Anne Boleyn (bombshell Merle Oberon) is dispatched with quickly in a darkly humorous sequence so that Henry can quickly marry Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) who did her job by giving Henry his only male son and had the good manners to depart shortly thereafter, dying of complications from childbirth. Much hilarity ensues.
Laughton all but literally eats the scenery, and literally eats everything put in front of him in a long sequence at court. He enjoys every minute of his chow call ('cause nothin' says glutton like a big shank of mutton) and you can even see him starting to crack up at one point. Fortunately, Korda had the good sense to keep the camera rolling and let Laughton run with it.
"Henry" is indisputably Laughton's film but the actor's real-life wife Elsa Lanchester steals every scene she is in. Her Anne of Cleves (wife #4, got a quick annulment) fakes being an ignorant German princess, but turns out to be a scheming card sharp who earns Henry's grudging respect. The single greatest pleasure of the film is watching the two of them share the screen.
Korda returned to the well the following year with "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934) featuring silent star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in his final role. It was inspired casting. Fairbanks was the silent era heartthrob who never made the transition to sound film, partly because of his less-than-sexy voice, but also because he was already pushing 50 (he died in 1939 from a heart attack.) Likewise, Don Juan in the film is pushing 50 and he's the dream of every woman in Seville. But their dream man is the man from the many bawdy books about Don Juan, not the middle-aged, slightly portly man who still thinks he's in his prime.
A young Don Juan impersonator tries to take the old man's place which turns out to be a convenient way for the real deal to disappear and get out from his debts. But when he returns to reclaim his fame (and his women), nobody believes this disheveled devil could possibly be the heroic Don Juan that they all "know."
I was shocked at how much I enjoyed "Don Juan." It's light-hearted fare to be sure, but Fairbanks Sr. is superb in the role. And while Korda is nobody's idea of a stylistic innovator, he makes great use of a series of medium single shots in the film's opening sequence. Don (or the ersatz Don) climbs the balcony of every woman in Seville (that's not a euphemism) and we see in each of their beaming faces just what the fantasy of Don Juan means to them; we also see in the faces of each of their husbands just what the nightmare of Don Juan means.
In "Rembrandt" (1936), Korda reunites with Laughton who tones it down somewhat to play the Dutch master. The first half of the film focuses on Rembrandt's attempts to deal with the loss of his first wife Saskia (never seen on screen). The second half takes a peculiar turn by devoting a great deal attention to the business end of Rembrandt's life, turning legal minutiae into the centerpiece of the painter's battle to maintain artistic integrity in a system that's rigged against him. Elsa Lanchester is brilliant once again as Hendrickje, his second (common law) wife. It's not as strong as the other two films, but still compelling viewing and it breezes along at a crisp 84 minutes.
I have not yet had an opportunity to view the other film in the set "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (1934) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Elizabeth Bergner. Korda serves a producer here with Paul Czinner directing.
The films are all presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio. They are pictureboxed meaning some viewers will see a frame around the image. The Eclipse series is Criterion's no-frills brand, and the transfers are not restored. However, they are progressive and still look pretty strong. "Rembrandt" is the best of the bunch. All the films show some signs of damage and deterioration, but nothing major.
The DVDs are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles are provided to support the English audio. There are some pops and scratches on the soundtrack as you might expect from 70+ year old unrestored films but nothing that detracts from the listening experience.
None, except for the concise and informative liner notes on the inner sleeve of each individual disc. Each movie is housed in its own keepcase and all four are stores in a single thin cardboard sleeve.
None of the films in this set is a cinema landmark in terms of style or historical impact. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed both of the "Private Life" films especially "The Private Life of Don Juan" which is both funny and sharp and provides a wonderful final curtain call for Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
The four films are currently available only as part of this boxed set, and are not sold individually. Like all Eclipse releases, however, the price is right and you won't have to work hard to find the set for about $40, or $10 per movie.