"The Private Life of Henry VIII," (1933), a black and white 97 minute comic classic of British cinema, carried a lot on its shoulders when released. It is, of course, a costume drama, based in British history, a loose - make that very loose-- biography of Henry VIII, 16th century Bluebeard/tyrant, England's most powerful and wealthy ruler. At the time it was made, Sir Alexander Korda, its producer/director, battled the idea that costume dramas were box office poison; he had a very difficult time raising the £60,000 needed to make it, and had to ask its cast to await its premiere for their pay checks. But the film did well, was the first British picture to win an American Oscar, and enabled him to put his London Film Company on a sure footing, by extension helping to ensure the future of British cinema.
In the film, Charles Laughton, (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Animated), Hobson's Choice (The Criterion Collection)), makes the already larger-than-life King Henry VIII seem even bigger in an acclaimed, famous performance that centers on the ruler's romantic life. Highly-praised director Alexander Korda, (THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, REMBRANDT) shows a mercurial king who is governed by love, lust and politics. The classic film traces Henry's six marriages, including the tragic story of Catherine Howard, and his near-disastrous fourth union with Anne of Cleves, played by Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester,(The Bride of Frankenstein, Bell, Book and Candle), which dominates the movie. Robert Donat, (Goodbye, Mr Chips), plays the surely unlucky in love Thomas Culpeper. Merle Oberon, (Wuthering Heights), Korda's gorgeous first wife, oddly enough, gets hardly any screen time as she plays the equally unlucky in love Anne Boleyn, the second wife; Wendy Barrie, the third, Jane Seymour; Binnie Barnes the fifth, Katherine Howard; Everley Gregg the sixth, Katherine Parr.
The Tudor period of English history is, of course, essentially dramatic, an age of international warfare, social unrest and growing religious discord. Add the overweening life arc of Henry, who transformed from handsome young monarch to debauched obese tyrant, a dangerous man wielding absolute power, which is unrivaled in its striking nature. So it's no surprise that today this period is extremely popular, often treated in literature, theater, and film. See the American Showtime television series THE TUDORS; THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, the film based upon Philippa Gregory's book of the same name, the historical fiction works by Alison Weir; or the multi-award-winning literary historical novels by Hilary Mantel, WOLF HALL, BRING UP THE BODIES. I believe there's even a stage play in London about the Tudors at this time. It seems, nevertheless that this material was not so popular or well-known at the time the motion picture was made.
However: Henry VIII is not expected to be king of England until his older brother Arthur dies. Henry then marries Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon. But a while later, Henry is crazed with lust for Anne Boleyn, who denies him; highly religious Queen Catherine will not give him an annulment or divorce; he therefore breaks with the Catholic religion, anoints himself the head of the new Church of England, in order to be able to grant himself his intensely desired divorce to marry Anne. But he rather quickly tires of Anne, and it's therefore "Off with her Head," so that he can marry Jane Seymour, who will give him his fiercely desired male heir, while, unfortunately, dying in childbirth. Jane will then, as we see, be followed by three more wives, each with varying degrees of luck. English schoolchildren learn the wives by reciting "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. (There was also, of course, many a mistress --including Anne Boleyn's sister Mary --- can we now hear a chorus of "It's good to be King??") The court of Henry VIII was certainly rife with intrigue, rivalries, jealousies, ambitions, romances; none were better placed to understand this than the women at its heart. Yet they get scant attention and low billing in this picture.
Mind you, I studied the history of this momentous century at a fine university: granted, my studies were largely centered on Italy, rather than England. But there were certainly intersections: Henry was, after all, desperately negotiating with an Italian pope for his annulment or divorce.
You can call me humorless, people have. But it seems to me that, in 1935, with World War II already offstage, only two fantasy-minded Mittel Europeans - both Korda and Lajos Blau, his scriptwriter, were born in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, Korda in what is now Hungary, Blau in Romania --could have made a comedy about a king who murdered - granted, with legal sanction, which wasn't so hard for a king to get - can we now hear another chorus of it's good to be king-- two wives. I'd have been picketing the film from its premiere, and consider it now seriously dated. However, according to IMDb, would-be buyers should further beware, the failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film's copyright resulted in its falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (or usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film. Caveat emptor.