The Hungarian-born film producer/director Alexander Korda traveled to Hollywood in the early days of talking pictures, but it wasn't until a move to London in 1932 that he established himself as one of the top film makers of the day — at the same time helping raise the overall level of the British cinema. His studio, London Films, became a major force thanks in part to its 1933 release "The Private Life of Henry VIII" — the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
That same "The Private Life of Henry VIII" is the cornerstone of the new box set Alexander Korda's Private Lives [Eclipse/Criterion], and a worthy cornerstone it is. "Private Lives" in that these are four biographical films of larger-than-life characters, short perhaps on biographical accuracy but loaded with what you might call lust for life. Loaded with color, too, although these are black & white films; Korda's younger brother Vincent was an art director, and he seems to have lifted the scenery whole from the collective works of master painters. (Even the extras crowding the scenery are meticulously authentic.) This is a mightily glorious world Vincent Korda has contrived for our delectation, but that is only one of the attributes of Alexander's cinematic quartet.
Two of the films are, officially, private lives: "The Private Life of Henry VIII" and "The Private Life of Don Juan" (which, of course, is not a biography but does fit in as flavorful portrait of a long ago time and place). The other two items deal with the private side of public lives, "The Rise of Catherine the Great" and "Rembrandt." The private life idea came from a film Korda made in his Hollywood days, "The Private Life of Helen of Troy," which is not included here (and which starred Korda's first wife, Maria Corda).
"The Private Life of Henry VIII" is, indeed, a fascinating and close to wonderful film. Standing front and center is Charles Laughton, who at the time was a British stage star. His portrait of Henry, walking around on peg legs like a prototype model of the Pillsbury dough boy, is instantly captivating. You need only view the banquet scene — in which he rips off the hind sections of a chicken (a capon, actually), chomps on the rich mid-section, and carelessly but accurately tosses the remainder over his shoulder — to understand how this performance made him an international film star overnight. He took that year's Best Actor Oscar, and it's difficult to see how anyone could have wrestled it from him. This is a performance that actors looking for tips on larger-than-life portrayals might profitably study. "Henry VIII" was something of a family affair, and naturally so considering all those wives. Korda was joined by his brother, as already noted. Merle Oberon, Korda's friend and eventual wife, played Anne Boleyn (looking stunning in a rather brief appearance, as she early on loses her pretty head), while Mrs. Laughton — better known as Elsa Lanchester — played wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves. This role is not historically drawn, exactly, but the Laughtons at home — duelling with playing cards on Henry's marital bed — garner plenty of chuckles.
Laughton won his 1933 Oscar in early 1934. The year 1935 saw memorable roles in three American films: as Javert, taunting Fredric March, in "Les Miserables"; as Captain Bligh, taunting Clark Gable, in "Mutiny on the Bounty"; and chasing Zasu Pitts in the title role of the rollickingly funny "Ruggles of Red Gap." Then it was back to Korda and London Films for a very different type of performance as "Rembrandt" (1936). Again, Laughton can't fail to impress, especially as the character begins to age in the later parts of the film. Ms. Lanchester is in attendance once more, giving a very strong performance as Hendrickje. The severe-looking villainess is played, somewhat surprising, by sparkling stage star Gertrude Lawrence. Coming to the screen on the heels of now legendary performances opposite Noel Coward in Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30, Lawrence looks shrewish and decidedly non-glamorous. A closeup in her climactic scene reveals what seems to be a decidedly oversized nose, which presumably accounts in part for her less-than-dynamic film career.
The other two films came in 1934, between "Henry VIII" and "Rembrandt." "The Rise of Catherine the Great" tells of — well, the rise of Catherine the Great. Elisabeth Bergner plays Catherine II, opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as her ill-fated husband Peter III. "The Private Life of Don Juan" takes us to Seville, where the aging playboy — played by Mr. Fairbanks' father, silent screen great Douglas Fairbanks — satirically deflates his reputation. The reputations of both Don Juan and Fairbanks, that is. This was Fairbanks' final role, in which he is abetted by Ms. Oberon.
All four films have been radiantly restored; I don't have the old versions at hand for comparison, but they seem pristine compared to what I remember of past viewings. You really do get a feeling of the time and place from these films; the Amsterdam of Rembrandt is especially evocative. The films come from Eclipse, the low-price wing of Criterion (self-described as "a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions" — and they might well add the word "invaluable" to that phrase). No, they don't have any of the extras that Criterion lavishes upon its main releases. The film's the thing, to adapt a phrase, and the films themselves get the full, expert treatment.
Criterion has, at the same time, given Mr. Korda a place in their main catalogue with the separately released That Hamilton Woman [Criterion]. In England, this film was titled the less cumbersome "Lady Hamilton"; I suppose they figured that overseas audiences didn't know who Lady Hamilton was. (The film opened in New York in April 1941, four months before the London premiere.) Nobody went to see the film for the tale of Emma Hamilton, anyway, or Horatio Nelson either. They were going to see Scarlett O'Hara. Vivien Leigh, just off "Gone with the Wind" and "Waterloo Bridge," is radiant in one of her finest performances; hubby Laurence Olivier is there too, but all eyes are on Vivien.
The story offers "a gripping account of the scandalous adulterous affair between the British Royal Navy officer Lord Horatio Nelson and the renowned beauty Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of a British ambassador." Korda, and his brother Vincent, also see fit to fill the screen with the Napoleonic Wars — Sir Larry loses an eye, an arm, and eventually his life — and some pretty formidable sea battles.
We are told that this was the favorite film of Winston Churchill, who claims to have watched it more than 80 times; this in a day when you couldn't just pop in the VHS or wait for it to appear on TV. Korda and Leigh's "That Hamilton Woman" is duly impressive, but I don't imagine I could get through it more than twice or thrice. Criterion has paired the high-definition digital restoration with audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie; a new interview with Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander and a noted book editor and writer; a 1941 radio promo for the film, entitled "Alexander Korda Presents"; and a booklet from critic Molly Haskell.
And lest there are any fans of Angela Lansbury out there — I'm sure there must be a few — let us add that Disney DVD has just released a new, "Enchanted Musical Edition" of Walt Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks. That's the 1971 charmer about an apprentice witch, played by the post-Mame/pre-Sweeney Todd Angela, who takes on three evacuated London children during World War II. Together, they fly around the country side, aided by Oscar-winning special effects, and help defeat the Germans. "Bedknobs" doesn't succeed in wiping "Mary Poppins" from your memory, despite obvious attempts by the studio to make this a worthy successor. (Director Robert Stevenson, producer/screenwriter Bill Walsh, the songwriting Sherman Brothers and orchestrator/conductor Irv Kostal are all in attendance, as is co-star David Tomlinson, who played Mr. Banks.) Even so, viewers are likely to find this one a pleasant surprise.
Most of the special features are carried over from the "30th Anniversary Edition" of 2001, with the major addition being "The Wizards of Special Effects" hosted by Jennifer Stone. (This is a tie-in to the current Disney series "The Wizards of Waverly Place.")
(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)