If the Criterion Collection’s earlier Eclipse release Lubitsch Musicals provided an obscure glimpse at the genesis of the infamous “Lubitsch Touch,” the four films collected in Alexander Korda’s Private Lives (three making their Region 1 DVD premiere) trace the early-1930s gestation of what might be dubbed the “Korda Cudgel.” Both immigrants arguably invented their own genres by importing dry, eastern-European chivalric wit to lubricate audiences for intimate pre-code innuendo. But the similarities end there. It’s easy to forget that there’s a world outside the garrulous bedrooms of Trouble in Paradise, whereas the grandiose staircases and turrets of The Rise of Catherine the Great effectively distract us from the pitiful grievances of the St. Petersburg monarchy—and, mercifully, from Elizabeth Bergner’s gratingly girlish performance. And where Lubitsch leveraged the bourgeois fantasy of sex to dapperly hint at private prurience, Korda’s faux-royalty and cultural icons seem determined to catch us imagining them bawdily humping like horny peasants. One blushes at the way the lust of Rembrandt mingles the phallic with the urban; seducing a country girl with descriptions of Amsterdam, the eponymous painter says, “They hang sausages in the windows and the fountains spurt wine.” And then his tongue eagerly fills her mouth.
This frank hedonism is not without its shortcomings. Of the 15 filmmakers thus far perfunctorily canonized by the no-frills, aficionado-targeted Eclipse line, Alexander Korda is the first that qualifies as a throbbing autuerist migraine. Not so much a director as a box-office dreamer with bloated, high-priced reveries, most of the characteristics of his discernable signature have rendered his productions partially unwatchable Anglo-kitsch relics (Korda was a Hungarian émigré, but assimilated into the commercialism of British middlebrow art with aplomb). Very probably the godfather of the modern historical dramedy, Korda helmed projects marred by grotesquely exaggerated performances and a voracious, ever-ballooning appetite for spectacle. Still, Korda’s finest period pieces remain irresistibly vintage cinematic confections, in spite of their floundering casts and blatant historical misrepresentation. Does it matter that the conflict of Rembrandt pivots upon the myth that “Night Watch” bewildered art patrons and demolished the innovative artist’s career? The reality—that Rembrandt descended from the public’s graces gradually, as the aesthetic zeitgeist began to cycle away from sharp chiaroscuro—would have made for a dreary, meandering drama. And the decision to wholly expurgate debut-wife Catherine of Aragon from The Private Life of Henry VIII allows us to arrive at the scintillating beheadings and menacing turkey leg tossing swiftly. Korda knew how to husk a biography and present only the peppered pulp.
Of course, the hammy, hammering homoeroticism of Henry’s fowl nibbling and chucking would be a chore to swallow were it not for Charles Laughton’s bumptious screen presence. The two “Private Lives” herein featuring the young drama titan at play, inebriated on the potential of his own actorly girth and potency, easily eclipse the set’s remainder. In contrast, both the elder and younger Douglas Fairbanks are adequate if a trifle crusty in their respective roles as a senescent Don Juan (in The Private Life of Don Juan) and the power-hungry Grand Duke Peter (in Catherine the Great), but their performances fall short of the audacity required to properly occupy the breadth of Korda’s imaginative metropolises (Duke Peter’s Russian palace is cornea-molestingly ornate). This duo of filmic misfires further proves the already-apparent truism that it never paid to be subtle in a Korda production; ostentatious coruscating was required to redeem ghastly underwritten scripts. Don Juan in particular, while wryly speculating how dotage sans Viagra might have forced the notorious lover of Seville into a career ritard, squanders its sly reflexivity—this would be the valedictory film of the once-dashing Fairbanks—with a labored love rectangle that mere star likeability cannot supplant.
With Laughton, however, Korda found not only a leading man to match his vision’s magnitude, but an actor-auteur; the retrospective success of both Henry VIII and Rembrandt clearly rests on the ebullient manner in which the main performer conquers his cavernous stage—and brings along dutiful spouse Elsa Lanchester for the ride. The incomparable cinematography/set design team of Georges Périnal (the photographer who illuminated The Blood of a Poet and Le Million) and Vincent Korda (the director/producer’s brother) also ensure that the splendor of Laughton’s historical sandboxes spill beyond the camera’s aspect ratio with baroque punctiliousness; their meticulous microcosms daringly compete with the bullish Charles for our attention. In fact, Périnal and the other Korda are likely most responsible for the consistency in tone, if not quality, across Alexander’s oeuvre: When the slightly more professional Paul Czinner gets comfy in the director’s chair for Catherine the Great we scarcely notice the shift.
It’s easy to dismiss Korda’s career as visually swollen and thematically hollow: The four works collected in Eclipse’s Private Lives often feel more like filmed stageplays than cinema proper, given the occasionally awkward framing and needlessly stentorian acting. It’s just as easy, however, to be swept up by the quartet’s effervescent pomp. Korda’s legacy is ultimately not one of aesthetic innovation, but of awe-inspiring hubris, which is perhaps why Laughton was such an appropriate collaborator: The rotund thespian excelled at depicting fallen bullies and belligerent fools whose unflappable pride possessed a masterly shadow of self-doubt. Korda’s similarly ego-driven philosophy might have been best summarized by Laughton himself, appropriating scripture as the decrepit, impecunious Rembrandt. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, blissfully unaware of what the tautology signifies and simply savoring its linguistic euphony. “All is vanity.”
Per the Eclipse MO, the best available prints have been utilized sans full restoration. While this is an understandable decision for Catherine the Great and
As with all Eclipse sets, there are no supplements aside from Michael Koresky's astute liner notes. One can't help but point out the missed opportunity: A highly relevant supplement featuring the extant footage from Korda's Private Life of Helen of Troy would have instantly promoted this set to essential status.
Accuracy, schmaccuracy: Korda's horny history lessons are best taken with a grain of salt, but outshine Rossellini's fuddy-duddy philosophy portraits with pop badassitude.