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Your Royal Highness, I Assume
by Jon Schuller

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2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Great Britain. 115 years ago England celebrated the 60th year for Queen Victoria. We are still fascinated with the lives of kings and queens, real or imagined. Watching the recent celebrations on television you could almost close your eyes and picture yourself at earlier events 100, 200 or 300 years ago. Some differences being cars and clothing, of course. Early motion pictures, once they'd reached a certain technological level, were being used to film events such as coronations and royal parades in many different countries. Before the Russian Revolution, for example, we can see Czar Nicholas II with his family. The British royal family was captured on film in the early years of the 20th Century, not long before the outbreak of World War I. It wasn't long before the real royalty gave way to imagined royalty on screen.

One of the early pioneers of film making and distribution was a company called Mitchell & Kenyon in Blackburn, Lancashire, England in the early years of the 20th Century. They filmed everything they could, both real and fictionalized. Whenever you see early movies of workers streaming out of factory gates or parades of people and royalty chances are good they were shot by these two men. An interesting footnote: in 1994 hundreds of small Mitchell & Kenyon film spools were discovered and restored from a shop in Blackburn: an unbelievable look at life in England in the early 1900s. Movies became so popular, so fast, everywhere they were exhibited, that it didn't take too long before the movie makers and distributors created theatres to display their work and of course get paid. No one
minded paying the extraordinary price of 5 cents to sit, entranced, and watch the world go by for 15 minutes. The fairytale world of royalty was a fertile place for new ideas and future films to grow. It's such a large topic but I'll try to keep it to a manageable size.

Surprisingly, I couldn't find many films in the early silent era. There was a 1912 2-hour film documentary of the royal family coronation celebrations of George V in India With Our King and Queen Through India that survived. In 1923 we have the first version of Becket, based on the play by Alfred Tennyson about the disagreement between King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas A Becket. A romantic film, Nell Gwyn, first appears in 1926 tells the story of Charles II and his mistress. It was remade in a sound version in1934. By the time the "talkies" become popular we begin to see more romantic and dramatic films about royalty both real and fictionalized.

A little-known British 1930 film comedy, Lord Richard in the Pantry, shows the problems of a Lord who falls on hard times and must take work as a butler. A 1931 musical comedy again takes a comedic look at royalty in A Man of Mayfair. So we have some light-hearted fare in the early '30s which will eventually start to move into the serious dramatic realm. 1933 sees the premier of The Private Life of Henry VIII with the ever-talented Charles Laughton (who received an Oscar for it). An all-star cast directed by Alexander Korda brings to the screen the story of one of England's most famous and flamboyant kings. Unfortunately it was a romanticized look at the royal court. But it did begin a relationship between Korda and Laughton. The
Iron Duke (1934) stars George Arliss as Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo and host of Lords and Ladies of the court of Louis the XVIII. Interspersed with the historical and semi-historical there are several notable Shakespearean plays captured on film related to historical plots. There will probably be debates about how accurate the plays and movies from the plays actually were. It's no matter, really. Well-acted and well-directed it makes no difference.
*1948 Olivier's Hamlet
*1948 Orson Welles' King Lear
*1944 Olivier's Henry V
*1955 Olivier's Richard III

What I did discover as I researched this complex topic was that, aside from the British film industry, there weren't too many historical American films about royalty until the late 1930s. We have dozens upon dozens of comedies, dramas and musicals as the decade comes to a close with but a few exceptions. 1937 sees Fire Over England premier with Laurence Olivier caught up in the looming fight between England's Queen Elizabeth I and Spain's King Phillip II climaxed by the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The same year we see a film version of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper where a poor boy and Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, meet and switch places. Although 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn is fictional there is an appearance by Richard the Lion-Heart back from a Crusade. Flynn appears alongside Bette Davis in the 1939 classic The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, based on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Bette Davis, and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, played by Errol Flynn. This movie
also dramatizes the romance of the two set alongside the rivalries of England and Spain as they edge closer to war. A similar film, The Seahawk, is released in 1940 with Errol Flynn and Flora Robson as Elizabeth I. A real war, World War II, will curtail many of these historical dramas and replace them with light-hearted musical and comedy films, plus melodramas related to the war and its outcomes. Spies and spy-catchers are everywhere on screen with the bad guys always getting caught. Nowhere is a king or queen to be found.

In 1948 Orson Welles' Macbeth is released. As with so many of his productions Welles adds characters to increase interest and move the plot in different directions. Not critically acclaimed and released in a shortened version Welles' film was up against Olivier's Hamlet in the same year. We don't always see actual kings and queens but there are some "royals" as the 1950s begin. The Flame and The Arrow, is released in1950, a swashbuckler starring Burt Lancaster, at his acrobatic best, fighting the royal villains and getting the girl (Virginia Mayo) in the end. We also see a similar film, The Fortunes of Captain Blood with Louis Hayward, as he fights the minions of Charles II of Spain. It was remake of 1935's Captain Blood.

The 1950's saw a host of great films but not many relating to royalty and kings and queens. There has been a resurgence of this type of film over the past 20 years and we'll explore that phenomenon in later columns. We have seen many more fantasy and science fiction films (Star Wars) that feature their own versions of kings and queens, knights and ladies lately. This too will be featured as we delve into that genre in future columns.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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