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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives

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The joy of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series is in its presentation of hard-to-locate quality films at level-headed prices. There are 16 sets in the Eclipse Series thus far, with movies from Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu among those featured. The latest presentation from Criterion’s Eclipse Series features films from producer/director/writer Alexander Korda.

Korda made a name for himself through his production company, London Films, and infused the 1930s with a sense of satire and lush narration. His main focus was on history, with a magnificent taste for grand historical drama and mythical subjects.

Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives takes a look behind-the-scenes (and sometimes into the bedrooms) of some of history’s most important, mesmerizing people. Korda’s usual satirical license is well intact, too, so these films present a view of history you are not likely to find anywhere else. His examination of history is less about factual presentation and more about telling a vibrant, grand story.

Korda, born in Hungary, rose through the ranks to become one of British cinema’s most popular filmmakers. In 1942, he was the first film director to ever be knighted. Korda had tremendous success as a producer, too, rolling out such films as 1939’s The Four Feathers and 1949’s Carol Reed-directed picture The Third Man.

The Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives set features four films: The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Rise of Catherine the Great, The Private Life of Don Juan, and Rembrandt. As with other box sets in the Eclipse Series, there are no special features and the movies are not remastered. This is to help keep things affordable while still exposing audiences to some lesser-known works.

Of course, Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII is probably fairly familiar. This motion picture, the first British film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, stars Charles Laughton in the iconic role. Laughton won an Oscar for his performance and really does the king proud in a larger-than-life production that often borders on the outrageous.

The Rise of Catherine the Great stars Elizabeth Bergner as the future empress of Russia and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as her husband. Playing fast and loose with history, of course, this picture features direction by Hungarian director Paul Czinner. Korda produces this screwball look behind the scenes at the Saint Petersburg royal court and Catherine’s troubled marriage to Peter III, who in reality was quite a bit more insane than portrayed here. Still, it’s all in good fun and Czinner’s piece is engaging.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. lights up the screen with his last film role in The Private Life of Don Juan. Directed by Korda, this rare Fairbanks Sr. talkie roars with wonderful satire and serves as a gripping myth-buster in its own right as it adds a tint of uncertainty and vulnerability to popular conceptions of Don Juan. The gorgeous Merle Oberon also stars.

Finishing up the set is Korda’s 1936 film Rembrandt. Starring Charles Laughton as the Dutch painter, this biopic features dazzling cinematography from Georges Périnal and another solid Laughton performance. Gertrude Lawrence also stars as Rembrandt’s model and lover Geertje Dircx.

The Eclipse Series 16: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives set is a marvellous way to get in touch with some lesser-known films. Korda’s charming humorous take on many of history’s greatest figures is entertaining and there are some truly great performances here. It is a barebones collection, to be sure, but the reasonable price makes it worth it in the end.

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