The film industry, as we know it, is often considered to have begun with the work of the Lumière brothers in France in the mid-1890s, but films were made in Great Britain from the same earliest days. William Friese Greene patented a process of moving pictures on celluloid films in 1890. The British film industry, like those of other European countries, suffered from the overwhelming competition of American films in the 1920s. In 1927 Parliament passed the Cinematograph Films Act, which required a certain proportion of films screened in the United Kingdom be produced there. The result was what were called ‘quota quickies’, poorly produced British movies often shown to scanty audiences in British theaters, where American features drew much larger crowds. It was obvious that the only success British films could have would be in competing directly with Hollywood films, and they would have to be successful not only in Great Britain but also in the United States. The first picture to do this was Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, made in 1933, starring Charles Laughton, which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and which made a half-million dollars in the States, more than any other British film had ever earned there.
Alexander Korda was a Hungarian émigré, born in 1893, who made films in Hollywood from 1927 through 1932 before settling in Britain and founding London Films. Often working with his brothers, Vincent, as art director, and Zoltan, as director, and sometimes with his second wife, the actress Merle Oberon, Korda produced a series of well-remembered British films, including this one, which he also directed, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Things to Come (1936), The Four Feathers (1939), and The Thief of Bagdad (1941). During a wartime sojourn in Hollywood he produced and directed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Later he returned to Britain and continued to produce films, including The Third Man (1948), and Richard III (1955).
Rembrandt’s screenplay was by Carl Zuckmayer. The movie was made from June to September, 1936 and was released in December of that same year. The cinematography was by Georges Périnal, who had worked with René Clair in France on his great early films before a long career in British films. The art direction was by Vincent Korda. The picture starred Charles Laughton, with the stage star Gertrude Lawrence as Geertje and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester as Hendrikje. Roger Livesay, who we’ll see as the lead in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in four weeks’ time, appears as a beggar who models for Rembrandt.
Michael Koretsky has written in the notes Criterion has attached to this DVD release, “Nevertheless, the final product was one of Korda’s most delicate works, a purposefully meandering take on the loneliness and passion of artistic struggle, shot with uncommon beauty by Georges Périnal, who emulated Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow.” An Internet reviewer named Clark Douglas has written, “It's a sad, surprisingly deep film that quietly drifts through the final 27 years of the artist's life with observant sadness.” Painters don’t always make the best subjects for biopics – for every performance like Ed Harris’s as Jackson Pollock or Colin Firth’s as Vermeer in The Girl with the Pearl Earring there is an over-the-top rendition like Kirk Douglas’s as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, or even better, Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy. Probably the nature of a painter’s activity is not especially cinematic. I think, however, you’ll like Laughton’s nuanced portrayal of Rembrandt, which embodies the sense of time passing and the sadness that such a sense gives you, as we watch it together tonight.