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Alexander Korda's Private Lives [Criterion Collection] [4 Discs] [DVD]

Release Date:05/12/2009
Great Britain's film industry was not held in especially high respect through most of the silent era and the earliest days of sound, but producer and director Alexander Korda helped change that his 1933 feature The Private Life of Henry VIII; the film's sharp but intelligent wit and cheeky perspective on royalty and power gave it a distinctly British stamp, but it also proved that the English could make a film with all the gloss and sophistication Hollywood could muster. The Private Life of Henry VIII was a major international hit and earned leading man Charles Laughton an Academy Award; it was the first of several films Korda would make that offered a sly glimpse into the private lives of public figures, and four of them have been brought together in this DVD set from the Criterion Collection's Eclipse series. Alexander Korda's Private Lives includes the films The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Rise of Catherine the Great (aka Catherine the Great), The Private Life of Don Juan and Rembrandt. All four features have been transferred to disc in their original full-frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and while The Rise of Catherine the Great and The Private Life of Don Juan look as clean and well-detailed as one would expect from a Criterion release, the other two films have been taken from less pristine film elements. This is especially unfortunate for Rembrandt, given the quality of the original cinematography, though neither film is seriously flawed by their relatively minor visual imperfections. The audio for all four films has been mastered in Dolby Digital Mono, and the fidelity is good for films shot in the early to mid 1930s. The dialogue for the four features is in English, with optional English subtitles but no multiple language options. While each film is accompanied by a short essay by Michael Koresky, no other bonus materials have been included, as part of Criterion's efforts to make the Eclipse sets available at a reasonable price. Given how elusive these four films have been in the United States and how large a role they play in the history of British film, this set is well worth having for self-styled film scholars, and the four features are all good to excellent entertainment as well.

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    The Private Life of Henry VIII
    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). ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi

    Catherine the Great
    This historical drama recounts the events that led up to the rule of Russia's 18th-century Catherine the Great. Arriving from Germany as a young woman who is to wed Grand Duke Peter, she soon becomes caught up in the court intrigue and marries the lit-fuse duke. As the Grand Duke's mother lays dying, she relates her fears about her son's mental states, leaving Catherine to contend with his irrational and cruel behavior. When he goes too far with his antics, he is overthrown and put to death, though not by her wishes. Soon, however, Catherine is made the new Czaritza and restores order to her country. Elisabeth Bergner stars with Douglas Fairbanks in this British production. ~ Kristie Hassen, Rovi

    Lightning steadfastly refused to strike twice for the director/actor team of Alexander Korda and Charles Laughton. Though the pair had scored an international success with the 1933 quasi-biopic The Private Life of Henry VIII, they couldn't make the magic happen again with 1936's Rembrandt. Laughton's performance is solid throughout, and Korda's recreation of Rembrandt's Holland is meticulous, but the film suffers from a lack of overall dramatic tension. Except for his artistic achievements and the deaths of his two wives, nothing really "happens" to Rembrandt--at least nothing as colorful as the escapades of Henry VIII. The best element of the film is the successful effort by cinematographer Georges Perinal to recreate the famous "Rembrandt lighting" effect in each scene. Laughton is given fine support by Elsa Lanchester (his real-life wife), and by legendary stage star Gertrude Lawrence in a rare film role. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

    The Private Life of Don Juan
    Producer and director (Alexander Korda) followed up The Private Life of Henry VIII (one of the first internationally successful British films) with this historical comedy. After years in exile, the great lover Don Juan (Douglas Fairbanks) returns to Seville, the city of his salad days. However, Don Juan is now married and middle-aged, and his days as a spoiler of women seem to be behind him. When he learns that a young man in town (Barry McKay) has been posing as him and making time with the local ladies, Don decides to prove who the great lover truly is and attempts the seduction of Antonia (Merle Oberon), a beautiful dancer. However, Don's doctor informs him that girl-hunting will tax his fragile health, and his wife Dolores (Benita Hume) will no longer turn a blind eye to his infidelity. When the impostor is killed by a jealous husband, Don is relieved, as his "death" allows him to retire from his career as a rake with his reputation intact. But when the old itch returns, Don makes the sad discovery that if he can't convince women he's Don Juan, they simply aren't interested in him. The Private Life of Don Juan provided one of the few speaking roles for silent screen swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, and proved to be his last picture. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

    Cast & Crew

    • Charles Laughton
      Charles Laughton - Henry VIII
    • Binnie Barnes
      Binnie Barnes - Katheryn Howard
    • Merle Oberon
      Merle Oberon - Anne Boleyn
    • Elsa Lanchester
      Elsa Lanchester - Anne of Cleves
    • Image coming soon
      Everley Gregg - Catherine Parr

    Product images, including color, may differ from actual product appearance.