I just made the discovery today that one of my most treasured “classic” films, a relic from the deepest, most Oedipal-laced fluid of my childhood memory well, is finally getting a DVD release through Criterion’s ancillary Eclipse label: Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. I doubt there’s a film buff who writes for or reads this site that has yet to enjoy this comfy mock-drama period piece, but I find it interesting that the movie is only just now being digitally printed, and in a fairly inconspicuous format. Eclipse doesn’t restore prints in the painstaking manner of Criterion’s flagship releases, and Henry also comes in the standard bundle, with a few other historically-minded Korda productions from the same era; in other words, it’s likely to be gobbled up by fans of Korda and the magnificent Charles Laughton as voraciously as Henry devours and discards those turkey legs, but causal moviehound parents looking for something saucy and vintage to screen for the kids on Sunday afternoon will likely pass it up. This is a damn shame, because some of the fondest memories I have from my preadolescent years (read: some of the only memories that do not trigger debilitating conniptions of vaguely sexual self-loathing) involve curling up on the den sofa and watching Charles Laughton chew and ham his way through a sloppy script.
Once upon a time Laughton was my favorite actor. In addition to being a journalism geek and a band-o in high school I was a drama nerd, and participated in a number of (admittedly hideous) local productions, including the countywide-renown Children’s Theater, which staged adaptations of books like “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” for elementary school classes. Our cast and crew were expected to perform, in front of an easily-distracted audience, in some cases 10 times a week for three or four months. What I admired in Laughton, who I obviously never observed on stage, was his ineffable presence; his ability to leverage the girth of both his body and public persona — the stodgy, puffy, playful, and British “Charles Laughton” personality — into a role. It was something that — as a fairly belligerent and overweight 16-year-old — I could see myself doing as I struggled to make a bit part interesting week after week.
Laughton would never lose himself in a role; he’d simply find the character’s attributes lurking within his own psyche and mold an appropriate version of his personality (or, at the very least, the personality he shared with the public…the darker side of the actor, particularly in regard to his sexual orientation, has been well documented by Simon Callow and others). When I think of Mutiny on the Bounty or even the Hunchback of Notre Dame it’s not images of Captain Bligh or Quasimodo that erupt in my mind, but of Laughton relishing his own performances, allowing Bligh’s sneering imperiousness to drip from his tongue or lingering nearly too long on some pathetic lamentation from the resident of the Notre Dame cathedral. I can nearly see him in the make-up chair, his face stony and his bottom lip curled up, like an antiquarian bust of Caesar. As with the best actors in the theatrical tradition, Laughton brought the vigorous heart of the backstage to the proscenium.
By the time I reached high school and the small stage there, I had a number of Laughton tours-de-forces under my cinematic belt — including three films in particular, also favorites of my dad, the key scenes of which still blossom in my mind with the mention of Laughton’s name. The first is Henry, of course, which I’ll be happy to acquire in May. The other two are Witness for the Prosecution — an oft-revived Agatha Christie noir ably shot by Billy Wilder wherein Laughton plays crippled, steals swigs of booze when his nurse isn’t looking, and gets marvelously duped by Marlene Dietrich — and the seldom seen Ruggles of Red Gap, which shows a much softer side of the actor as he portrays a befuddled uppercrust butler forced to migrate to the old west when his employer loses a card game (to Charlie Ruggles, no less!). I’ll always cherish Ruggles predominantly for its denouement, wherein the protagonist recites the Gettysburg Address in an effort to poeticize Americana in the midst of some tense savagery. Laughton was a consummate recitationist (I still hold close to the vest my LP copy of his “Storyteller” album, wherein he intimately reads from the Bible and The Dharma Bums while on a book tour), which may also serve to get at his élan; to him, performance was a gesture of entertainment, a means of sharing some crucial piece of personal information with an audience but also, in a more crude sense, simply having fun with a crowd. Exchanges like the iconic one in Henry wherein he plays cards in bed with Anne of Cleves on their wedding night (played raucously by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester) contain such joviality (not to mention sublimated innuendo) that one can’t help but smile, enraptured.
Charles Laughton himself said it best when responding to the Marlon Brando’s and such of the world in the wake of the Stanislavski generation: “A method actor gives you a photograph. A traditional actor gives you an oil painting.” I think he meant this to be vindictive, but it’s a remarkably astute observation about how the relationship between artifice and verisimilitude has shifted over the years, in film as well as many other performing arts (it’s also ironic, since Laughton portrayed Rembrandt himself in a biopic that will also be included on the Eclipse set). Think of how many times you’ve read a critic browbeating an actor for seeming inauthentic. And yet authenticity was never a priority for Laughton; he seemed more concerned with pressing the pen of his star power to a film’s center and gracefully marking his signature. To draw a clumsy contrast, we marvel at how an actor like Sean Penn brings Harvey Milk back to life: but we delight in how Rembrandt’s story enlivens the power coil of Laughton.
It’s hard for a guy like me to choose. Marlon Brando’s photography (or, for that matter, Dustin Hoffman’s, etc) is filled with such ferocious energy and cerebral angst that it makes one want to become a card-carrying methodist. But occasionally the pictures feel over-exposed, painfully visceral — they rub the senses raw. In moments like those, I know what to do. I get comfortable on the couch, stash a couple bags of fruit snacks in my pocket (another childhood addiction) and go home to the fluidity and dexterity of Uncle Charles’ inimitable brushstrokes.