Alexander Korda's Private Lives

Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine. Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Korda is especially fond of the private moments in which the perception of the rich, famous and powerful is glimpsed through the eyes of the common folks.

The Private Life of Henry VIII / The Rise of Catherine the Great / The Private Life of Don Juan / Rembrandt

Director: Alexander Korda, Paul Czinner
Cast: Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Douglas Fairbanks, Elizabeth Bergner, Gertrude Lawrence, Merle Oberon, Flora Robson
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: not rated
Year: 1936
US DVD release date: 2009-05-12

Born in 1893 to a Jewish-Hungarian family, director Alexander Korda rose to prominence as a journalist, critic, film producer (founding London Films), and finally, a world-renowned, sought-after feature director. Alongside his brothers Zoltan and Vincent, Korda’s forté became the examination of powerful figures who were ensconced in luxury, albeit with a twist: each of his films included in this no-frills set from Eclipse may take a long, hard look at celebrity, but Korda is equally fascinated by the perspective of who is watching.

He is especially fond of the private moments in which the perception of the rich, famous and powerful is glimpsed through the eyes of the common folks, the working class that surrounds the mythical figures. What goes on behind closed doors is of equal importance as what happens in the public theater of personality, in Korda’s cinematic world, and no action is missed.

Included in this set are four of the director’s Private Lives series: The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Rise of Catherine the Great (directed by Paul Czinner and produced by Korda), The Private Life of Don Juan, and Rembrandt. Missing is his silent version of The Private Life of Helen of Troy, and the Vivien Leigh-Laurence Olivier melodrama That Hamilton Woman, which explores themes similar to each of the films included in his private lives series (and is currently unavailable to American markets on DVD).

The beautiful, detailed craftsmanship showcased by the Korda brothers (Vincent created the meticulous sets) is unparalleled for the time. Theirs was a prestige treatment: tasteful, important and reputable. Through the economical mise-en-scene, framed symmetrically and full of decadent textures, Alexander’s photographic eye and painterly sensibilities can be distinctly sensed and each shot feels full.

There is an attention to architectural detail in each film, and in The Private Life of Henry VIII, the king is shot from a bird’s eye view vantage point, through the ornate moldings of a cathedral ceiling deep inside his castle. This private, secluded view, which is impartial and solidly structured, provides a blueprint for Korda’s Private Lives formula: efficient shots, high production values, and reverence to the figures portrayed. All of the transfers in the new package are fresh and clear, adding to the visual interest.

Korda doesn’t really experiment or innovate, so much as he attempts to perfect the technical elements in an overly-perfect, balanced way, so it is probably inaccurate to call him an auteur, though his prowess in constructing an image is impressive. Korda’s way of directing virtually defines what a “working director” was like during this period, and he perfected this antiquated way of filmmaking that reveled in music, art, culture and the other chi-chi pastimes of the wealthy, skewering it is a benign way, keeping stressing characterization and the tangible production values.

In The Private Life of Henry VIII, Korda sets his sights on what the maids and townspeople have to say about the prominent figures and it immediately recalls the criss-crossing, everyday spirit of a contemporary Robert Altman movie. In The Rise of Catherine the Great we are treated to Empress Elisabeth (the vivacious Flora Robson) shouting and carrying on, again, behind closed doors, bemoaning the lack of parity in men and women.

Had Korda directed The Rise of Catherine the Great himself, perhaps this sheen would have made the film better. As directed by Czinner, the lusty saga is turned into a watered-down, vaguely feminist melodrama. It is unfortunately quite boring. Thankfully, the other three all have his signature stamp on them, and while The Private Life of Henry VIII still holds up beautifully (thanks in no small part to the larger-than-life turn by Oscar-winner Charles Laughton), full of audacity and attitude, Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan comes across as a sweet lark.

Faring much better than the limp Elizabeth Bergner of The Rise of Catherine the Great, Douglas Fairbanks, in his final screen role, is spirited and alive. The Private Life of Don Juan is imaginatively composed with latticed views of Spanish ladies in mantillas on verandas, waving their lacy, ribboned fans in the moonlight as they await the great lover’s next move. The imagery is both stereotypical and striking, and somehow also quite dreamily romantic, though the film was considered a disaster of Titanic proportions in its day.

These supple textures are found in each of Korda’s visions, but here, in combination with the symmetrical use of light and shadow to create shapes and interest, Korda excels at showcasing his technical prowess. Sparkling jewels set in the metallic crinolines of the ladies’ dress fabrics only add emphasis in these operatically-staged first minutes of The Private Life of Don Juan.

Korda is also very concerned with pattern, as evidenced by a bold use of it throughout the Private Lives series. In The Private Life of Don Juan he deliberately places contradictory harlequin-diamond-quilted skirts and boldly-striped costumes against the stark architecture of a castle’s foreboding entrance and the clouded, bright afternoon sky, creating a linear, almost compartmentalized canvas.

The aging lothario with a raging libido echoes both Henry VII and even The Rise of Catherine the Great to an extent, and while clearly, there are some misogynist overtones to the classic tale, Korda wisely plays it lightly, deftly, rather than trying to wring out a half-baked proto-feminist agenda like Czinner’s The Rise of Catherine the Great does, failing miserably, lost in it’s own antiquity. Rembrandt brings back Laughton again, and manages to be the most fully-realized of the entire set, but it is the emotionally-in-tune The Private Life of Don Juan that is the true gem, with a wry, winking sense of bygone romanticism.

This dilettante is wrapped in luxury and privilege, and Korda’s preoccupation and fascination with wealth, other people’s sex lives, genius, power and celebrity ties all these Private Lives together in the end and can perhaps be used to shed a little light on the somewhat vague persona of the director himself, not to mention ourselves as all of these themes are still paramount in our pop culture bubbles and keep thousands of tabloids in business.

The Eclipse “directors” series is marketed as a “selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions”, which means that while you are getting a solid product, there are no in-depth booklets, interviews, extras or any of the fancy packaging you might have come to expect from Eclipse’s parent-producer, Criterion. Previously featured on the label were the early films of Ingmar Bergman, the documentaries of Louis Malle, and late Yasujiro Ozu, each a master in his own right, each selection of historical and academic importance, each rather unfairly forgotten by film-goers at-large.

Korda (who enjoyed great critical and commercial success in his time), fits snugly into the prolific, often-obscure Eclipse pantheon primarily because his films, while competent documents of the ever-evolving use of technology in relation to the craft of filmmaking, have remained, until now, largely as overlooked as his legend. In comparison to the auteurs mentioned above, the well-constructed Korda’s oeuvre sadly seems thin, lacking in artistic imagination. Make no mistake, though, that Korda’s films are always gorgeously built and pleasing to the eye, at their inoffensive worst.






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