1932/33 – Best Actor & Actress
Two very different films cover the major acting awards for this year. For this portion, I’ll be focusing my discussion on the individuals given the award for each film in the acting categories, as well as focusing a bit more holistically on the film nominated for Best Picture. If you want more information on what my goals are check-out my Purpose & Format page.
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) – Best Actor: Charles Laughton ; *Best Picture Nominee*
Loosely based on historical events, written for the screen by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis, directed by Alexander Korda, and starring Best Actor winner Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Elsa Lanchester, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) tells the story of the loves and losses of the larger than life monarch, King Henry VIII of England. Beginning on the morning of the execution of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (Oberon), on charges of treason (adultery), Henry and his new bride, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), await news that they are free to move forward with their wedding. Believing that he has finally found the perfect wife in Jane, Henry, presented as a young and vibrant king at the start of the film, is thrilled when she gives birth to the son and heir his previous wives could not. However, with Jane’s sudden death in childbirth, Henry once again finds himself without the romantic attachment he craves. When Henry becomes aware of increasing pressure from his subjects and court to find a new wife, he agrees to an alliance-focused marriage to a young German princess named Anne of Cleves (Lanchester). However, the marriage quickly reveals itself to be an unappealing union for both parties and after a quick divorce Henry once again finds himself without the wife he desires. Growing older and frailer, Henry soon turns his attention to the young Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), a lady-in-waiting at the court. While this union appears to give him the true wife and marriage he has always dreamed of, Henry soon finds himself in an all too familiar position yet again.
First, let me get this out of the way: This was a Best Picture nominee?! Don’t get me wrong, the costumes and sets were fantastic, and I suppose it was an entertaining movie, but I think I was just distracted by how completely inaccurate it was in the specifics of Henry’s wives/marriages. It got the big picture stuff more or less correct, but motivations and emotions were highly inaccurate. However, if I view it exclusively as a movie, it mostly kept my interest. Laughton’s win, however, is completely understandable; he was a powerhouse presence who played the subtle changes in Henry as he aged so well that I didn’t really notice it until the end of the film. He was able to play the commanding and dynamic powerhouse that was young Henry equally as convincingly as he was the elderly and fragile king. He embodied this character in a way that I imagine few other actors would have at the time, and his physical likeness did not hurt this ability, although that alone did not create the character.
I think my biggest distraction in this movie was how oddly sad and sympathetic they made Henry, as if his six marriages were only the result of unfortunate circumstance for a man just trying to find love, at the expense of the real stories of his wives, who were all victims of the will of powerful men. The film’s opening statement about Catherine of Aragon, that her story was of little interest, and the choice to start the film with Anne Boleyn’s execution completely removes their voices. Henry’s relationship with Catherine was anything but uninteresting and his relationship with Anne went on for years, led to the formation of the Church of England, and her execution for adultery (ie. treason) was cooked up by other ambitious men and was entirely false. Jane Seymour is perhaps the only one who was shown even a little accurately, but again Henry’s relationship with her is oddly misrepresented, as he did not view her as a stupid woman and indeed favored her over all of his wives, choosing to be buried next to her, as she was his only “true” wife because she gave him the son he so desperately wanted. His entire short marriage to Anne of Cleves is so woefully misrepresented that it would take me too long to pick apart and the film’s depiction of Catherine Howard (why the film misspells her first name I do not understand) as a “woman of the world” is odd, considering how very young she was and Catherine Parr is unfortunately boiled down to nothing more than a nagging matron figure, doing her a huge disservice as well.
That being said, I know this was largely a comedy, and if I look at it in a vacuum, this was an entertaining and beautiful to look at film. The comedic timing and connection between real-life married couple Laughton and Lanchester, as Henry and Anne of Cleves, cannot be overpraised and their wedding night card game was an odd highlight for me. Overall, this was an entertaining movie, which ultimately I enjoyed watching, but it should never be recommended to anyone as a historical drama. Instead, it’s an odd blend of drama and comedy using Tudor England as a nontraditional setting for a fairly typical modern relationship story.
Morning Glory (1933) – Best Actress: Katharine Hepburn
Based on an at the time unproduced play by Zoë Akins, written for the screen by Howard J. Green, directed by Lowell Sherman, and starring Best Actress winner Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Adolphe Menjou, Morning Glory (1933) tells the story of Eva Lovelace (Hepburn) a young woman who has come to New York with dreams of stardom on Broadway. While waiting to see if she can speak with the owner of the Easton Theatre, Louis Easton (Menjou), Eva begins a friendship with experienced character actor Robert Hedges (C. Aubrey Smith) who agrees to help her by introducing her to Joseph Sheridan (Fairbanks, Jr.), a playwright who is working on casting for his new play. However, when Eva presents herself as too naive and eccentric, Easton passes on casting her. As Eva spirals due to the lack of work, another chance encounter with Hedges (Smith) brings her back in contact with Easton and Sheridan, but will it help her find her big break, or will Eva simply become another “morning glory”?
In terms of performance, Hepburn is mesmerizing, but I can’t say the same for this film as a whole. I can see why her win is the only recognization it received, as the storyline is dry and feels overdone and even Hepburn is not given a truly memorable part, she just has a presence and strength that can shine through even the worst dialogue. The only truly standout part of the entire film was the sequence in which Hepburn’s character recites two famous Shakespearean monologues, one from Romeo & Juliet and one from Hamlet, but even this was loosely connected to the already incredibly thin plot. However, what it did was demonstrate how strong Hepburn is, and will become, as an actress in Hollywood, fighting against stereotypes and typical female characters. This role does little for that fight, but this scene, especially her performance as Hamlet himself, gives us a small glimpse into the powerhouse that Hepburn will become in very short order.
Unfortunately, I have little else to say about the movie, but as Hepburn’s win was the film’s sole award recognition I suppose that seems fair. Overall, this is currently my least favorite movie so far this award year, which is an impressive feat considering how much I disliked The Invisible Man…
Current Ranking for 32/33 Films:
- King Kong
- Duck Soup
- The Private Life of Henry VIII
- The Invisible Man
- Morning Glory