The idea is to study historical figures by peeping through their bedroom keyholes -- Ken Russell would shoot it into the stratosphere, though Alexander Korda has the advantage of wit and sanity. Tudor England is a series of ribald scrims, a perfect stage for Charles Laughtonís rousing rendition of the King as a horny bear in doublet and tights. The six wives provide the circular structure. Catherine of Aragon was "respectable" thus "of no particular interest," the story skips ahead to Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) in the morning of her beheading. Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) is a scatterbrain who expires after giving Henry a male heir, Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester, uproarious) is a willful kook and a cardsharp who bargains for a divorce, to the relief of both parties. Korda and his humorists make sure the usual biopic solemnity is not part of this royal court: The chipper audience by the chopping block and the hatchet-manís indignity at the Frenchman stealing his job ("A crying shame, with half of the English executioners out of work as it is") set the tone, from there itís only natural for Laughtonís monarch to gnaw promiscuously on roasted fowl and declare manners dead in between belches. "The things Iíve done for England..." The courtship of Katherine Howard (Binnie Barners) allows Laughtonís most inspired comic moment (trying to mime suavity while sneaking into the maidenís chamber at night), and his most moving one (sinking into his throne upon news of her infidelity). The henpecked prologue with Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg) restores the droll timbre, the punchline is delivered straight into the camera, out of W.C. Fields. Cinematography by Georges Pťrinal. With Robert Donat, Franklin Dyall, John Loder, Miles Mander, Laurence Hanray, and William Austin. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce