A hot evening in Seville – and the townswomen are abuzz with the rumour that legendary lover Don Juan's in town. A mysterious figure moves through the shadows, serenading at one balcony, stealing kisses at another. It's true – Don Juan is in town, but he's not quite the dashing young thing he was. He's here for a reconciliation with his wife who's cunningly bought up his debts and is threatening to have him jailed. When a young Don Juan wannabe gets killed by a jealous husband, the real Don Juan decides to let the pretender be buried in his place and retire to obscurity. But life as an ex-legend is not the relief he expected.
There were high hopes for The Private Life of Don Juan. After the massive success of The Private Life of Henry VIII, Alexander Korda wanted more of the same. He picked as his subject another (pseudo-)historical figure with a string of beautiful women and a reputation for naughtiness. He got a saucy script and the best production he could afford. And then, like so many British producers, he blew it by starring a has-been American who could no longer create queues at the box office.
Douglas Fairbanks is one of the legends of cinema. For over a decade he was the world's leading man. Starting off as the personification of the All-American, he gradually turned into the leading swashbuckler of his age. His marriage to Mary Pickford made them Hollywood royalty. Together they joined forces with D.W. Griffiths and Charlie Chaplin to found United Artists Studios.
By the time he came to Britain to make Don Juan, age and talking pictures had taken their toll and he was no longer a box office smash. His marriage to Pickford was on the rocks. He hated the script which played to all his fears of getting old. On the plus side, as far as Korda was concerned, Fairbanks still owned a tidy chunk of United Artists which distributed Korda's films in the US.
30s audiences disliked the film. They hated seeing their former hero as a lardy has-been. Ten years earlier he was gracefully sliding down massive curtains or fighting off twenty henchmen single-handed. Now he was fussing about his diet and being ridiculed for his age. He also talked in a curious whine (remarkably like Truman Capote to modern audiences). People don't like seeing their legends like that. Fairbanks never made another film.
Over the years, The Private Life of Don Juan has failed to find an audience. If it's mentioned at all in cinema histories it's as the coda to Fairbanks career or as an example of how the many successes of British cinema are soon spoilt by over-ambition. Critics shake their heads sadly and move on. This is a shame.
What we have here is one of the most fascinating examinations of the difference between legend and reality. Cinema wouldn't see another like it until The Shootist: John Wayne's final film. It's more light-hearted on the surface than The Shootist (in which John Wayne's character dies of cancer) but underneath it's deeply cynical and unsentimental. It's a comprehensive trashing of the myth of celebrity. No wonder Fairbanks hated it.
Now that we're more cynical and less convinced of the god-like status of movie stars, maybe The Private Life of Don Juan will finally find an audience.
Script adapt.: Frederick Lonsdale, Lajos Biro. (o.a. Henri Bataille)
Director: Alexander Korda
Players: Benita Hume, Merle Oberon, Binnie Barnes, Melville Cooper, Joan Gardner, Athene Seyler, Owen Nares, Patricia Hilliard, Clifford Heatherley, Heather Thatcher, Gina Malo, Barry Mackay, Claud Allister, Diana Napier, Lawrence Goldsmith, Bruce Winston, Edmund Willard, Gibson Gowland, Edmund Breon, Hindle Edgar, Florence Wood, Annie Esmond, Morland Graham, Hay Petrie, William Heughan, Natalie Lelong, Veronica Brady, Betty Hamilton, Toto Koopman, Virginia Bradford
"Henry VIII had six wives. Catherine of Aragon was the first: but her story is of no particular interest - she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her."
That's the opening title to this glorious biopic which was the first British film to really make an impact on the World Market since Rescued By Rover. Producer/director Alexander Korda had started his career in Hungary, drifted west to Hollywood via Germany and France and then arrived in Britain in order to take advantage of the quota. He also wanted to make the biggest and best films he could. His production company London Films would dominate British cinema for twenty years. The success of The Private Life of Henry VIII was the cornerstone of this domination.
It opens with court ladies changing the royal bed in order to be able to get Anne Boleyn's initial off the monograms and replace it with Jane Seymour's. They speculate on what it must be like to be in the bed and on what the King looks like in it. One of the ladies is Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) who's recently arrived in court and is ambitious. The core of the film will be her relationship with the King.
In the tower Anne (Merle Oberon) gets ready for her execution while an audience gathers expectantly. Henry (Charles Laughton) is also impatient, though he is momentarily distracted when he meets Katherine Howard. From the first, Laughton's Henry is a man of strong appetites and he just wants to shag Katherine. Only Laughton could get away with such a naked display of lust in a thirties film. However, he's due to marry pretty simpleton Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) as soon as the sword falls on Anne's neck so he can't do too much - yet.
Jane dies in childbirth, leaving Henry free to pursue Katherine. She's got the hots for Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat) but is still happy to let the King have his way with her. He's persuaded that for the good of the kingdom he must marry Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) but he's never met her. When he does, he's appalled. She's a complete nightmare - a country bumpkin with a fondness for garlic and an accent so thick you can cut it with a knife. However, he doesn't realise that she's fallen for one of his courtiers (John Loder) and is putting on an act in order to get out of the marriage with her head still attached to her shoulders.
What follows is the comic highlight of the film as their wedding night degenerates into farce. "The things I've done for England" he sighs as he approaches the honeymoon suite. His attempts to convince his bride that just doing the ceremony isn't enough for them to be married are wonderful. Husband and wife Laughton and Lanchester always played well together, but this scene must be the best they ever did. Henry abandons his attempt, defeated by her invincible innocence, and they play cards. The look on the faces of his courtiers as he bursts out of his chamber and demands money for his bride is a picture.
Anne gets what she wants and puts Henry off marriage for good. Well, a couple of months anyway. He's soon hitched to Katherine and blissfully happy. Katherine's not so happy and starts sleeping with Culpepper. When his courtiers summon up enough courage to tell Henry, it's time for another round of executions.
Old age: and Anne of Cleves tells Henry he's lonely and she'll pick the wife for him. She picks kind, motherly Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg) who turns out to be a scold and a nag - and yet Henry's happy at last.
This film is packed with wonderful performances, but it's Laughton's film all the way. He got himself an Oscar and it was richly deserved. He can do the "Henry as a big, fat slob" scenes easily, but it's the quiet scenes which really impress. His happiness with Katherine Howard while everyone knows he's a cuckold is poignant without being mawkish. His open lust for the women around him is one big two-fingered salute to the censors who couldn't argue with the accuracy of his performance.
The film was a huge hit and, thanks to Laughton, it's still very entertaining; but was it really good for the British film industry in the long term? Well, it got Korda's London films a useful distribution contract with United Artists in the US, and gave him the security to finance some of the most ambitious films made here (e.g. Things to Come, The Four Feathers, The Thief of Bagdad). However, it was also the first of those false dawns that have plagued the Industry ever since.
Within a year, Laughton, Lanchester, Barnes and Barrie were working in Hollywood, and Merle Oberon would soon follow (although admittedly Laughton had already had some success there). Soon, any British actor who got halfway good in films would get on the boat to America leaving only those who preferred the stage (and had the film technique to prove it). Never mind, we've never had a shortage of acting talent here.
Script: Arthur Wimperis, Lajos Biro
Director: Alexander Korda
Players: Lady Tree, Franklin Dyall, Miles Mander, Claud Allister, Gibb McLaughlin, Sam Livesey
The Boulting Brothers take a pop at the army with Ian Carmichael as the innocent dupe caught up with a jewel robbery.
Script adapt.: Frank Harvey, John Boulting. (o.a. Alan Hackney)
Director: John Boulting
Players: Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price, Terry-Thomas, William Hartnell, Jill Adams, Peter Jones, Thorley Walters, Ian Bannen, Victor Maddern, Kenneth Griffith, George Coulouris, Derrick de Marney, Miles Malleson, Michael Trubshaw, John le Mesurier, David Lodge, Glyn Houston
Fraud and murder at a magazine publishers. Top-starred John Bentley tries to clear his name, while Kathleen Byron is lucky enough to get bumped off before the end of this cheap drivel.
Script: John Gilling
Director: Francis Searle
Players: Thea Gregory, Stuart Lindsell, Garard Green, Ivan Craig, Lloyd Lamble, Arnold Bell, Frank Henderson, Bruce Beeby
Paul Robeson's finest film and the best portrayal of life in the Welsh valleys. Penn Tennyson may have romanticised the life a bit but this is miles better than Hollywood's "How Green Was My Valley". Robeson is given a job in the mine so he can join the choir. When the mine is closed, the village fights to reopen it.
Script: Penrose Tennyson, Jack Jones, Louis Goulding, Roland Pertwee
Director: Penrose Tennyson
Players: Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Edward Rigby, Rachel Thomas, Janet Johnson, Clifford Evans
A rich playboy pursues a shopgirl by rigging a lottery giving her a free trip to the south of France and pretending to be a waiter at the hotel.
Silly musical with the odd good song and gag.
Script: Roger Burford, Val Guest, Robert Edmunds
Director: Marcel Varnel
Players: Arthur Riscoe, Frances Day, Claude Dampier, Muriel Aked, Peter Haddon, Sebastian Smith, Robert Nainby Antony Holles
A Canadian WWII pilot is nursed back to health after a breakdown, but then has to cope with crash landing in Burma. Much better than it sounds, with Gregory Peck giving a fine performance.
Script adapt.: Eric Ambler. (o.a. H.E. Bates)
Director: Robert Parrish
Players: Win Min Than, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Lee, Anthony Bushell, Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook, Jack McNaughton, Josephine Griffin, Ram Gopal, Peter Arne, Dorothy Alison, Mya Mya Spencer, Harold Siddons, Lane Meddick, John Tinn, Soo Ah Song
A few elocution lessons does wonders for a Covent Garden flower girl.
Shaw's classic play gets classic treatment from cast and crew alike.
Script adapt.: Anatole de Grunwald, W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis. (o.a. George Bernard Shaw)
Director: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Players: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell, David Tree, Everley Gregg, Leueen McGrath, Esme Percy, Violet Vanbrugh, Iris Hoey, Viola Tree, O.B. Clarence, Irene Browne, Kate Cutler, Wally Patch, Ivor Barnard, H.F. Maltby, George Mozart, Stephen Murray, Anthony Quayle, Cathleen Nesbitt, Leo Genn, Cecil Trouncer, Eileen Beldon, Frank Atkinson