Recently Watched: The Laughtoniest!

When I watched these films, it had been a while since I had seen a movie made before the 1960s, and that felt very odd. I was glad I had these 2 Charles Laughton films ready to watch.

“The Private Life of Henry VIII” is the movie that put Laughton on the map, at least in the U.S., so it’s a little disconcerting that I don’t like this movie much. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I was a huge Henry VIII buff during my misspent youth, and the historical inaccuracies made my teeth grind. It was as though the bare outline of the real Henry VIII’s life was used merely to toss about some semi-witty banter with jokes, such as how his daughter Elizabeth “couldn’t rule a kitchen.” But the biggest part of my problem with the film is Laughton. Early on, he is fidgety, shifty eyed, practically hopping around, and unfortunately made up with heavily penciled eyebrows and sporting a rather thin beard to make him look like the famous painting of Henry VIII. He’s just caricature, but he’s not caricature throughout the film; sometimes his performance is quite measured and pitch perfect, which makes the spazzy bits even harder to understand.

The real stand outs in this film are Binnie Barnes and Elsa Lanchester, both extremely good, and much of the male supporting cast — especially Robert Donat — were terrific. Merle Oberon, bless her heart, has more confidence than ability. Wendy Barrie is an actress I always enjoy, but I quickly tired of her ditzy Jane Seymour. Why didn’t she have a bigger career?


“Hobson’s Choice” was a very successful stage play in 1915 and, at first, seems an odd choice for the rarely-humorous David Lean to direct in 1954. I found the Lean in “Hobson’s” to be a different director than the one who made “Great Escape”, fortunately. Edit: Not “The Great Escape”! I’d correct this, but I don’t even remember what film I meant to type. Probably “Ryan’s Daughter,” the one John Mills won his Oscar for.

The title, of course, is a pun on the family name and the British saying. Laughton plays the head of the household, a boorish drunk who won’t let his eldest daughter marry because he selfishly wants her to wait on him the rest of his life, and won’t let his 2 youngest marry either because he’s too cheap to provide a dowry.

I promise you I got this screencap before even thinking about going to the Criteron page on the film.

Anyway, I don’t really want to say too much more about the film and give away spoilers, because guys, this is a great film. Laughton could have phoned in the role of the elder Hobson and he would have been great, but he honestly embraced the role and gives a stunning performance. The look he gets on his face at the climactic dinner scene when he realizes what’s really going on is phenomenal. It’s one of those moments that defines why we love movies.

“Hobson’s Choice” has more than one such moment. John Mills and Brenda de Banzie are so terrific that I need more adjectives to describe how wonderful they are. Mills of course went on to win an Oscar, but de Banzie went on to do a supporting role in “As Long As They’re Happy” and some television. If there were any justice in this world, she would have had a huge career that spanned the decades.


  1. Ooh, I love both of these movies – or at least Laughton’s performances. You’re right that Hobson’s Choice is better, and indeed I prefer it to Lean’s epics; Henry VIII is, well, inaccurate and inconsistent, but does give Laughton some chances to be larger than life.

    But Hobson’s Choice! You are absolute right: it’s a great film. Such odd/interesting views on gender, John Mills is adorable, and Laughton is at his dipsomaniacal best. Thanks for this great reminder.

  2. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I was a huge Henry VIII buff during my misspent youth

    You and your wacky Tudor obsession! Kids these days and their fads…good times…

    Hobson’s Choice is my favorite Laughton film…although Les Miserables runs a tightly close second.

  3. The Great Escape? Not a Lean film! John Sturges directed.

    You’re right. What the heck film was I thinking of?

    I’ve had Steve McQueen on the brain the last few days, so that’s my excuse.

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