Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933): Historical Drama Starring Charles Laughton in First and Only Oscar Winning Performance

United Artists (UK) (London Films Production)

Though he looked much older, Charles Laughton was only 33, when he played the lead role in the historic biopic The Private Life of Henry VIII.

The Private Life of Henry VIII
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Using Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis’ scenario, British producer-director Alexander Korda was determined not to be hampered by the strictures of the Production Code (which will be formally imposed a year later)

The film took liberties with historical facts, and dared showing King Henry VIII as a lusty man, eating like a slob, then tossing the leftovers, sleeping around with various women, and perceiving politics as fun games.

The proceedings are peppered with anachronistic dialogue and humor, which made the movie popular and entertaining.

Released on October 12, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, it broke box-office records, indicating American appetite for foreign fare of this kind.  The film was shrewdly marketed as one of high-brow quality, without neglecting the tale’s comedic elements and potential for broader appeal.

As the Variety critic noted: “It’s costume and history of another country, but it has laughs, spice, and its presentation is of the best.”

MGM’s Irving Thalberg was impressed with Laughton’s performance and later cast him in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), which was initially planned as a vehicle for his wife-star Norma Shearer.

The female cast was impressive, including Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn, Binn Barnes as Katherine Howard, Wendy Barrie as Jane Seymour, and Elsa Lanchester (who became Laughton’s real wife) as Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Parr as Everley Gregg.

Also in the cast are Franklin Dyall, as Thomas Cromwell, and Robert Donat, as Thomas Culpepper. Like Laughton, Donat would be recruited by Hollywood for prestige literary production and would win the Actor Oscar in 1939 for “Goodbye Mr. Chips.”

The production values are modest, particularly the set design by Vincent Korda (Alexander’s brother), a function of the below average budget (estimated at less than $150,000) and brief shooting schedule

Even so, the picture is well photographed by the gifted French lenser George Perinal.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Picture, produced by Alexander Korda
Actor: Charles Laughton

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

“The Private Life of Henry VIII” competed for Best Picture with nine other films: “Cavalcade,” which won the Oscar, “A Farewell to Arms,” “Forty-Second Street,” “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” Lady for a Day,” “Little Women,” “She Done Him Wrong,” “Smiling Through,” and “State Fair.”

“The Private Life of Henry VIII” was the first British film to be nominated for Best Picture and to score a huge success at the box-office, largely due to Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning performance. “She Done Him Wrong” is the only Mae West to be nominated for the top award.

Laughton would receive two more Best Actor Oscar nominations, in 1935 for The Mutiny on the Bounty, and in 1957, for Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution.


Directed by Alexander Korda
Written by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis
Produced by Korda and Ludvico Toeplitz
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Stephen Harrison
Music by Kurt Schröder

Production company: London Film Productions

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: UK (August 17, 1933)

Running time: 97 minutes
Budget £65,000
Box office £750,000