Charles Laughton is probably best known as an actor’s actor. He was able to inhabit any character he played so thoroughly that it was sometimes hard to recognize that it was the same actor from movie to movie. Almost anyone who is revered today as a great actor counts him as an influence on developing their craft. He was truly iconic. But iconicism has to have a starting point. The Private Life of Henry VIII was his starting point.
Everyone who has ever taken a world history course in high school knows this story. It is one that lends well to dramatic intrigue, but also to comedy. In this version of the story, the beheadings of King Henry’s wives are downplayed in favor of the farcical nature of man never satisfied with what he has. Charles Laughton plays King Henry as a gluttonous man used to getting exactly what he wants for no real reason other than he is king. Easily the most iconic scene in the movie is the scene at the banquet where he is tearing apart a chicken with his bare hands while musing out loud to his court about his needs as a man. He throws the bones carelessly behind his shoulder as he did his previous wives. This scene easily sums up the playfulness both the director and the actors bring to the movie.
Charles Laughton is King Henry VIII. The way we think of him today is a product of this movie and Laughton’s performance. He boastful, funny and easily riled up into displaying his manhood for everyone to see. When a wife gives him nothing but a girl, then there is no place for her because it threatens his manhood. When another wife wants nothing to do with the forced upon marriage, she pretends to be ugly and tricks him into letting her out of it by not consummating the marriage but instead playing cards. (This is my favorite scene in the movie because it pits real life husband and wife against each other and shows the natural charisma they have together. Plus Elsa Lancaster is pretty awesome.) Alexander Korda, the director of the picture, allows Laughton room to breath and time to develop his witty persona. I think that Korda was very aware of Laughton’s abilities before he even cast him for the role and wanted to find a piece that would showcase them. This film was a good marriage of great acting and easy storytelling. Although it isn’t a masterpiece, it is easily the most watchable movie about this time period that I have seen.