DVD Review: Alexander Korda's Private Lives

Alexander Korda’s Private Lives are fantastical works of fiction, loosely based in reality. These four films feel as if they are unhampered by the truth, unencumbered by the attention to such details as realistic depictions of people who existed. Instead, Korda has chosen to find a story within our expectations, and allow it to rest firmly on the foundations we are all too familiar with, a strange approach which yields a remarkable output.

The box set contains four of Korda’s last films, including the 1933 Oscar-winning film, The Private Life of Henry VIII. Certainly the most famous of the four films included, Henry VIII marked Korda’s first major film to garner attention both at home in England and abroad. It was in this film that Charles Laughton originated and cemented the image of King Henry as a gleeful woman-chaser, the rotund and playful king addicted to wine and frivolity. The Rise of Catherine the Great, released in 1934, takes in the full measure of Catherine the Great’s rise to the throne of Russia, including her marriage to Peter II. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. takes a turn as Peter II, providing a strange counterpart to his father, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s, appearance in The Private Life of Don Juan. The fact that The Private Life of Don Juan was also released in 1934 leads us to believe that these were Korda’s busiest times, as the success of Henry VII must have provided the means to continue his work on a larger scale. Korda’s real life wife, Merle Oberon, shines in this film as the love interest of Don Juan. 1936’s Rembrandt finds Korda and Laughton together again, though this time to tell the tale of Rembrandt van Rijn and his steady decline from the height of success. All four of the films show a dedicated understanding of black-and-white filmmaking, and Korda seems comfortable within these confines, as the scenes are constructed with a true artist’s attention to detail and composition.

With so many films coming out within a strenuously short time period, one wonders about Korda’s own private life. The truth is fascinating, from humble beginnings in Hungary, to a stormy marriage with actress Merle Oberon, a knighthood, and even a turn as the director of United Artists in Hollywood. These four films were among the last that Alexander Korda would ever make. That fact alone is enough to make them feel more important, more definite, as if they may have been Korda’s push for infamy, one that is sadly unrealized in America, though Korda may be more well known in Britain, where the majority of his films were made.

For a Criterion release, the packaging leaves much to be desired; the four films are in individual cases with a flimsy outer sleeve. For such opulent films, I would have expected some more explanation, perhaps a booklet containing an essay outlining their significance and importance. Criterion seeks to preserve, protect, and promote, presenting a gold standard where films are concerned. It’s possible that not enough scholarship has ever been devoted to the four films to merit any kind of explanation, but still the questions remain. Why were these films made? Who was Alexander Korda, and what was his interest in historically inaccurate yet enjoyable films? Why the obsession with personifying people who had been stripped of their privacy? Another film, 1927’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy, is not included, and one wonders why since it seems an obvious choice. Though this set is an essential piece of film history, the collection almost serves as a mere archival item, staunch and sufficient.

Everyone knows a history buff, someone who drones on at parties about World War II and the impact of the Ming Dynasty, and this box set may very well be the perfect gift for that someone. Though they’ll balk at the historical inaccuracies, the films stand alone as entertaining and charming. The stars of old mingle with those who shall forever remain undiscovered, as Korda attempts to delve past what it is that we think we know of the kings and queens, the legends and the legendary, and gives us his version of the past. At times slightly raunchy and raucous, at others contemplative and filled with quiet wisdom, Alexander Korda has left us with his vision of what might have been.

Alexander Korda's Private Lives will be released on May 12, 2009.