Alexander Korda’s Private Lives
Directed by Alexander Korda et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 94/93/87/84 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: May 12, 2009
Review Date: April 24, 2009
Alexander Korda arrived in England to begin producing and directing films in 1930 having already traveled the globe directing pictures from Vienna and Berlin to Hollywood and Paris. After six films in England that made no special noise, he produced and directed The Private Life of Henry VIII which broke box-office records around the world and established England once again as an international filmmaking capital. With his production company London Films, he attempted to continue his success with a series of biographical films done on an ever more lavish scale.
English monarch Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) is eager to dispatch wife number two (Merle Oberon) before marrying wife number three, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). When she dies in childbirth, Henry moves on to Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), and finally Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg). Through all of the troubles with his various wives, the blustery king wrestles with a ravenous appetite, the advancing years, and his declining health, always looking for a woman who will fulfill his needs without possessing ulterior motives which conflict with his kingly domain.
The film that put England on the filmmaking map in 1933 today looks creaky and rather lacking in substance. As a biography of England’s most famous king, it’s pretty worthless since his two most interesting wives (the first two) are either skipped over or barely touched on. Production values, however, are lavish-looking (though history records the film was shot on a moderate budget; it doesn’t look it), and the cast includes quite a few notable names. Of course, Charles Laughton’s performance is the film’s primary reason for remembrance. He’s alternately brash, braggadocios, spiteful, gluttonous, foolish, and pathetic, a mesmerizing all-encompassing tour de force that earned him an Academy Award. His solo scene where he lectures his subjects on table manners as he devours a capon with nary a thought to propriety is one of early sound cinema’s most memorable sequences, and all of his moments playing opposite his wife Elsa Lanchester still sparkle today with sprightly good humor. Wonderful actors like Merle Oberon and Wendy Barrie barely have cameos in the production, but Robert Donat manages to steal a moment or two as the lovelorn Thomas Culpeper who engages in a clandestine affair with wife number five Katherine Howard.
Mentally unstable Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is the heir to the throne of Russia upon the death of his aunt the Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson). Forced into a marriage to Catherine (Elizabeth Bergner), Peter’s feelings run hot and cold depending on his mental health on any given day. After becoming the Czar, Peter quickly alienates many in the army and the cabinet with his erratic behavior paving the way for his young wife to become the reigning monarch of the Russias, the budding Empress Catherine the Great.
Alexander Korda produced a lavish, opulent Russian court, but it’s all in service of a talky, undramatic screenplay. The direction by Paul Czinner covers the rudimentary plot points well enough and shows some interesting compositions, but it was the other 1934 rendition of the Empress’ story, Josef von Sternberg’s byzantine dream film The Scarlet Empress, which today is most remembered and celebrated. (Both movies, however, were box-office flops.) Elizabeth Bergner (wife of the film’s director) is fetching enough as the young czarina gaining slowly in strength and confidence, but it’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who surprises in a well thought out portrayal of the unstable Peter. And how many times in her long career did Flora Robson ever get to play sexy? She’s quite wonderful in the film.
The aging lothario Don Juan (Douglas Fairbanks) has tired of the constant pursuit of women. He doesn’t even have to try any more for a woman to swoon into his arms; he can murmur a couple of empty phrases, toss her a rose, and she’s his. When a young swain who has begun impersonating the famous lover in order to have an easier time with women is killed by a jealous husband, the real Don Juan sees his “death” as a chance to live free under an assumed identity and without the constant attention of women. Six months in the country, however, finds him getting restless for female companionship, and he returns to Seville only to find reclaiming his identity isn’t an easy matter.
Douglas Fairbanks’ last film performance shows the old master still retaining some of the cocksure posturing and charisma that had made him a silent film superstar. True, there’s more girth around his middle, and the face sports a double chin and webs of age lines, but the script offers him a final chance to act a comedy of manners that‘s good fun, and he seems to be having a rollicking time. The succession of female conquests includes Merle Oberon, Gina Malo, Benita Hume (who plays the wife of Don Juan), and Binnie Barnes, but none get more than a few moments in which to shine. The show is all Fairbanks’, and director Korda offers him a beautiful production for his cinematic swan song.
Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) is in great demand as an artist when his wife of a half dozen years dies sending him into a ten year period of blackness. His painting style changes, and he falls from favor forcing him eventually into bankruptcy. Though housekeeper Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence) has nursed a desire for the painter for decades, she is furious to find him eventually falling in love with the maid Hendrickje (Else Lanchester) and eventually leaves his employ. Hendrickje brings the painter great joy and a desire to work again though her own frail health signals another possible period of depression for the unlucky painter.
Charles Laughton once again impresses with a tender, tragic take on the unfortunate artist. Korda has directed him with complete security (despite the actor’s own notorious insecurity about his talent) and offers him several monologues (a couple of which quote passages from the Bible) that are further evidence of Laughton’s genius as a film actor. Gertrude Lawrence who rarely appeared to advantage in movies has a good role here as the self-sacrificing housekeeper driven to the end of her rope while Elsa Lanchester does what she can with the underwritten second wife’s role. John Bryning has a couple of terrific scenes as the loving Titus, son of the downcast painter.
The film’s 1.33:1 original aspect ratio is reproduced here windowboxed in Criterion’s usual manner. Eclipse titles have usually undergone no remastering, and that’s certainly the case with this film, so scratches, dirt, and debris are all still present. The grayscale gives adequate (but no more) black levels, but the picture is certainly sharp enough for its advanced age. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is windowboxed. There are plenty of scratches (in a couple of places multiple ones running in a lengthy vertical pattern) along with dust specks and debris. Sharpness, however, is a notch better than in the previous film, and the black levels are also a bit improved. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is windowboxed as expected (the main titles are severely windowboxed), but apart from a few light scratches, the film looks infinitely better than the two previous Korda entries. The film does look a bit darker than the others (many scenes take place indoors or at night), but black levels are acceptable and sharpness well above average.
The best looking by far of the four films in the package, the movie’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio is as expected windowboxed. Sharpness is quite good, and the grayscale is marvelous, important in a film about an artist whose use of light and shadow is mimicked in the gorgeous cinematography of Georges Périnal. Black levels, while not optimum, are the strongest of the four films, and a bit of print damage and some scratches don’t mar appreciably the beauty of the image.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is loaded with age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. Dialogue is usually (but not always) discernable, but the ravages of time have done some dirty work on this early sound film, and there’s occasional distortion when the king barks orders or when volume levels were increased to catch speakers who were not close enough to the microphones.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track contains hiss that gets heavy at times and there is also some distortion when singing voices rise to certain pitches. You’ll hear unmistakable crackle and some pops on the soundtrack as well with the audio clearly showing its age.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track contains constant hiss though its volume is lower than the hiss present in the previous two films. There’s a bit of crackle, too, but again, much less than that on the previous entries in the box set.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track does contain hiss that’s constant through the film’s running time. Some of the higher levels of music also sound a trifle shrill and unpleasant. Otherwise, though, the mono sound is solid and engaging.
The Eclipse line of films from Criterion don’t come with any bonus features, but each film in its own slimline case does contain some thoughtful liner notes by Michael Koresky.
The four biographical films contained in Alexander's Korda's Private Lives constitute four of the most famous British-made films of the 1930s. All are well worth seeing for their glorious production design and some magnificent performances despite the audio and video age-related defects in the presentations. Highly recommended!