Judge Clark Douglas certainly hopes his private life is never made into a film.
Our review of Academy Collection: The Envelope Please, Volume 1, published March 8th, 2010, is also available.
Lush 1930's moviemaking at its best!
The fine folks at Criterion have been putting out magnificent DVD releases for years. Sure, they cost considerably more than the average DVDs, but the remarkably in-depth supplements typically make the prices well worth it. While it may be relatively easy to convince someone to buy a lavish, expensive release of something like The Seventh Seal or Brazil, it may be a bit more difficult to market more obscure gems successfully. So, Criterion created the Eclipse collection, which offers box sets of noteworthy (but often little-known) films by famed directors like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and others with easier-to-swallow price tags. The 16th entry in the series is Alexander Korda's Private Lives, offering four period films of the 1930s directed by the famed cinematic showman.
The first installment is 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII, a wickedly funny historical satire offering a portrait of one of England's most controversial historical figures. The film slips into standard drama mode every now and then, but the vast majority of the time it has a sparkle of subversive cheekiness. It's incredibly lacking in terms of historical accuracy, but the sheer level of fun to be had here more than makes up for it. The film skips the King's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, actually opening at the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The tone of the film is set quite swiftly as we see Anne pondering whether her hair will look good when her head is chopped off. There's an amusing exchange between a Frenchman and an Englishman on which country is better at performing elegant executions, and more amusing conversations between peasants about the execution. "Oh, that's a lovely new dress she has," a woman says. "I haven't gotten a new dress in a year." "Well, you'll get a new dress," her husband replies, "At your execution."
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the performance of the magnificent Charles Laughton in the title role. Laughton portrays the king as a jovial monster, thoroughly self-serving and selfish at every turn. As the tone of the film is one of satire, Laughton's performance is primarily geared towards generating laughs rather than inspiring fear, but he does a magnificent job. It's a real marvel to see Laughton sitting at the dining hall chomping on mutton and guzzling wine, throwing bones and goblets behind him as he proceeds with messy glee. My favorite scene comes on the wedding night of Laughton's marriage to Anne of Cleaves, in which the King comes to the horrifying realization that his wife doesn't know what is supposed to happen on a wedding night. A bit of delicately hilarious conversation leads to what must surely be the most mutually satisfying divorce agreement of all time. The film is only 94 minutes long and attempts to cover a lot of ground, breezing through the life of Henry VIII with energetic efficiency. It's a fun lark that I quite enjoyed.
Korda followed up The Private Life of Henry VIII with the similarly entertaining The Rise of Catherine the Great. However, the film has a rather different tone in general, partially because Korda was serving as producer rather than director this time around. Paul Czinner made a fine substitute, actually offering a considerably more "cinematic" experience than Korda and also offering a somewhat different sense of humor. While most of the humor in Henry VIII came from the witty wordplay, The Rise of Catherine the Great offers a good deal more in the way of physical comedy and elaborate cinematography. Still, the overall experience is one that trades in historical accuracy for a sense of humor. The tale of the marriage between Catherine II (Elizabeth Bergner) and Peter III (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is chronicled with amusing wit. It's technically a bit stronger than Korda's previous film, partially because it never takes the opportunity to go for a joke when the situation doesn't call for one. I admire The Rise of Catherine the Great, as it's a well-rounded and satisfying viewing experience, but I enjoyed The Private Life of Henry VIII just a bit more.
The elder Fairbanks (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) plays the title role in The Private Life of Don Juan, a title that deliberately attempts to cash in on the considerable box office success of Henry VIII. The film marked the final performance of silent film star Fairbanks, who never was able to successfully find fame in the world of talkies. When the film was released, Fairbanks was criticized a great deal by most critics, who claimed that he simply wasn't capable of carrying a non-silent film. While it's hardly an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Fairbanks rather good here in the role, particularly considering the way he satirizes his own image as a romantic screen idol. The Don Juan of this film is an aging sad-sack who is well past his prime, no longer able to have the same effect on women that he once did. The film is one of many small pleasures, including a lovely proposal scene that stands out as the highlight of the film. The film also offers a very fine supporting turn from Merle Oberon, who had turned up briefly as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Korda's direction is a bit clunky at times, but the film is a lightweight pleasure that I enjoyed.
The final film included here is Rembrandt, which allowed Korda and Laughton to team up once again. The film is much different than the others in the set, partially because it actually attempts to provide a thoughtful and sobering portrait of the great painter rather than turning his life into a giddy comedy. Laughton and Korda reputedly did a great deal of fighting throughout the film's production, but somehow both managed to remain in peak form throughout. Korda's direction is considerably more artful and nuanced than usual, while Laughton's performance is one of his finest turns of the era. It's a sad, surprisingly deep film that quietly drifts through the final 27 years of the artist's life with observant sadness. The one thing it has in common with the other films is something of an elegiac feel; all of them seem to be saying goodbye to one thing or another.
The films vary a bit in terms of video quality. The first three films are all pretty messy, with plenty of flecks, scratches, and bits of grime throughout. Criterion has obviously put some work into cleaning them up, but these are a bit below that company's usual standard (of course, these Eclipse films have typically looked a bit less impressive than the standard Criterion releases). Rembrandt has fewer scratches and flecks than the rest of the films, but suffers from a bothersome flickering effect that is present throughout much of the film. There's a considerable level of hiss on all four audio tracks, though it's worst on The Private Life of Henry VIII (which also features very muffled dialogue on occasion). The sound is generally average considering that these films are over 70 years old. There are no extras included on any of the films, though the inside of each case offers a few paragraphs of historical background info on each production.
Three fun romps and one very solid drama join forces to create a very satisfactory box set. Alexander Korda's Private Lives earns an easy recommendation.
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