Charles Laughton's Oscar-winning performance as Henry VIII rises above the stuffy limitations of the period piece to give us a portrait as rounded and exuberant as any on film. Laughton is well-supported by fine actresses as his wives, particularly Wendy Barry as the doomed Jane Seymour and Merle Oberon as the dim but delightful Anne Boleyn. Director Alexander Korda is the chief beneficiary of Laughton's larger-than-life performance, as his conservative helmsmanship fails to provide the film with a distinctly personal stamp. However, the sensual gusto in the scenes of Henry's indulgences is enthusiastically presented, and Korda deserves credit for giving us a very human portrait of this controversial figure. The film also benefits from some insidious dialogue by Arthur Wimperis (based on the story by Lajos Biro) that punctures the pomp of the English costume drama with tongue-in-cheek humor. Particularly entertaining are the exchanges between Henry and his prospective and coquettish wives (and mistresses), while some of the minor characters deliver wickedly insightful social criticism directed more at the state of the world's economy in 1933 than at the film's period.
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Charles Laughton became an international star by chewing both mutton and scenes in his Oscar-winning turn as King Henry VIII. Alexander Korda's British super-production also put the British cinema on the map, which, until this film, received precious little respect in the international film community. The film, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, details the private life of the famous British monarch. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is barely mentioned -- explained away by a prologue which states that she was "too respectable to be included." Henry then marries Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) but she is soon beheaded. His next wife, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), dies during childbirth. His next wife is Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester, in a prelude to her Bride of Frankenstein role), whom Henry reluctantly beds with his famous sigh, "The things I've done for England." They divorce and Henry next marries Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), who also finds herself beheaded when she has an affair with Henry's friend, Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat). Finally, Henry is brought down to size with his final wife, Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg).