Friday, December 5, 2014

ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS: Blu-ray (Universal Pictures 1969) Feel Films

The Tudor drama, with all its political/palace intrigues, was to experience something of a minor cultural renaissance on film in the 1960’s. It’s interesting to note that the decade generally known for big, often bloated, all-star screen spectacles, tricked out in the vast expanses of 70mm Super-Panavision, were also brought to heel under the wordy perplexities of literate adaptations of some highly celebrated stagecraft; 1966’s multi-Oscar-winning, A Man for All Seasons and 1968’s The Lion in Winter among such offerings. Pennsylvanian dramatist, Maxwell Anderson had long been a favorite of Hollywood. Famous for his intricate construction and blistering dialogue (also, for calling Ingrid Bergman a ‘big dumb goddamn Swede’ after she and director, Victor Fleming changed much of his carefully written prose for the film version of Joan of Arc, 1948…and, a colossal failure). Anderson’s plays are more frequently – and comfortably – situated in the courts of England’s past kings and queens; a delicious potpourri for the crass and the sycophantic, unapologetically hiding in plain sight beneath their Elizabethan collars and cuffs.
Anne of the Thousand Days had, in fact, been written by Anderson more than a decade earlier; a miraculous hit in 1948, considering the climate on Broadway then was more attuned to the socially conscious musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein than wordy costume dramas. Alas, success went to ‘Anne’s head’ (pun intended) – or rather, to it being repeatedly delayed as a movie, despite several major studios vying for the rights to produce. Eventually, independent producer, Hal B. Wallis (known for his illustrious and staggeringly prolific hit-making tenure at Warner Bros. and later, Paramount) courted the honor to transform Anderson’s caustic and confrontational battle royale into a costly costume epic. Anderson’s best stagecraft is usually characterized by its willful female protagonists, espousing historical platitudes laced with a highly developed and wickedly keen sense of sexual double entendre. The dialogue featured in a Maxwell Anderson play goes well beyond expected eloquence; part Shakespearean and partly an acidic/astute observation on the hypocrisies of contemporary social mores.
Depending on one’s critical predilections, Anderson’s perceptions of life at court may either be construed as devilishly handsome odes to these bygone eras or mere bastardizations made under the rubric of ‘artistic license’.  In point of fact, director Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Day (1969) is a little of both. There are many discrepancies between the historical record and the conspiracies played out for dramatic effect on the stage and later, in this movie. For starters, Anne Boleyn’s actual age may have been closer to thirty than eighteen when she began her affair with Henry VIII. Also, there is virtually no documented evidence to suggest the real Henry VIII deliberately dissolved the romance between Anne and Henry Percy to pursue her for his own. Finally, the bittersweet parting between the condemned Anne and Henry likely never happened. The King was many things – but compassion was decidedly not one of his more finely honed attributes!
Yet, setting aside these and several other minor quibbles about accuracy and Anne of the Thousand Days is a richly textured drama, enveloping and engrossing in its courtly maneuvers regarding royal succession. Hal Wallis’ unrivaled abilities as producer assume a mantle of quality herein.  Georges Delerue’s gorgeous underscore is a melodic compliment, as are Maurice Carter’s production design, Lionel Couch’s art direction and Margaret Furse’s exquisite costuming; all of it lensed to perfection by cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur Ibbetson. And then, of course, there is the cast to consider: French-Canadian actress, Geneviève Bujold, uncommonly commanding and forceful in this, her Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated debut in an English-speaking role as the enterprising heroine of the title – much too smart for her own good; Richard Burton, appropriately sullen, steely-eyed and authoritatively mad in the part of England’s most notoriously lascivious liege; taking over the part from Broadway’s formidable, Rex Harrison (Burton then considered something of Harrison’s successor anyway); Irene Papas, poignantly subdued as the tragically lovelorn, Queen Katherine; Anthony Quayle (an intriguingly complicit orchestrator of the mayhem as Cardinal Wolsey); John Colicos (effectively plotting as the usurper, Cromwell), and  Michael Hordern (a cruelly uncompassionate patriarch, Thomas Boleyn).
The strengths of the production are, arguably, also its weakness; Maxwell Anderson’s articulate exchanges infrequently teetering on the brink of longwinded byplay but, mercifully, never going over this precipice into stultifying melodrama. Anne of the Thousand Days is an engrossing achievement on so many levels it continues to stir the pot of history with little jabs of pleasure scattered along the way. Anderson’s reflections, made in the play and movie, are, of course, predicated on the momentous assessments made about Henry’s reign, long since analyzed by scholars to the point of absurdity. But Anderson’s impressions are fortified by the solidity of the performances within, particularly Bujold’s. When, at the end of our fateful story, not long before Anne loses her head, she bitterly declares to Henry, “Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can - and hope that he will live. But Elizabeth shall reign after you - child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher… and remember this, Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes – ‘my’ Elizabeth shall be queen and my blood will have been well spent!’ we are privy to all the historical hindsight interjected since 1536, the bulk of which could not have been known at the time our story is taking place.
Indeed, the film’s greatness rests on the slender, though ever-capable, shoulders of Geneviève Bujold who delivers a towering performance as the impenitent, enterprising, but ultimately forthright Boleyn sister, who would be neither bought nor had for the price of a crown. Anderson affords Bujold an unprecedented scale of cheek in her frequent verbal sparring with the King. When Henry asks for her impressions on a ballad he has composed expressly to impress her, she coolly replies “I would ask him first how his wife liked it, Your Grace”.  Shortly thereafter, Anne further goads Henry by haughtily informing him that his lyrics are sour to her ear. She projects that he “makes love” as he eats …with a great deal of noise and no subtlety!” These are bitter barbs to be sure. But Bujold delivers them with the glacial serenity of a well-orchestrated ice princess. Arguably, she is already a queen, long before the crown has been affixed to her temples.    
Richard Burton’s performance is as impressive, though arguably, not nearly as durable; a stately scuffling between love-struck sovereign, plying Anne with naughty hints of his libidinous intensions, and, direct in his commanding rage when she refuses to be impressed by his more courtly polish and sly innuendo. Understated, and underrated honors must also go to Irene Papas, typecast as the olive-skinned, childless Mediterranean; alas, incapable of satisfying Henry’s obsession for a male heir to the future throne of England. Papas is undeniably a very fine actress and usually a domineering presence in the movies. Herein, she subverts our expectations for another strong-willed female; impresses with the subtleties in her panged, delusional love, shattered by Burton’s rich villainy; a man who quite obviously does not – and, arguably never has – desired her. “England married Spain,” Henry tells Anne, while wasting no opportunity to remind Katherine of what a colossal disappointment she has remained for him these many years. “Our marriage is a curse in heaven and hell, madam!”     
Anne of the Thousand Days begins in the twilight of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Originally an affair of state, (the marriage thrust upon an eighteen year old Henry by his late father to secure an alliance between England and Spain) the King, now a man in his late thirties, is beside himself with sexual frustration. Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn, newly returned from her tutelage in France. But his dalliances with her older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon) have toughened this young girl’s resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for this man who has impregnated her sister in trade for the family’s present appointments in wealth and property, Anne is much in love with Henry Percy (Terrence Wilton), son of the Earl of Northumberland. The couple has received both sets of parents’ permission to marry. Alas, Henry will not permit it, sending Cardinal Wolsey as his mouthpiece to intervene on his behalf. Percy is sent away. Anne bitterly resents the King’s manipulation; in tandem, brashly defying and even challenging him to make good on his threats to reduce her family’s fortunes to bedrock if her behavior so displeases him.  With clever barbs, Anne continues to test the resolve of the King’s lust and patience until Henry can endure no more. Not long thereafter, Anne receives word Percy has married another.
Anne now invests all of her venom to refuse the King. At one point, Henry strikes Anne full on the cheek, sending her tumbling to the floor. But he is almost immediately remorseful and she begins to realize the gravity of importance she truly wields upon his heart. When Henry professes his genuine affection, Anne seizes the opportunity to make her own edicts known. She will bed Henry for his pleasure, but only when he secures a papal annulment of his first marriage to Katherine. She will bear him a child, but one legitimately entitled to the throne of England. Determined to prove his loyalty to her, Henry attempts to move heaven and earth to receive an annulment. He is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts; first by Wolsey’s stalling, but also by Cromwell’s plotting.
Anne is vengeful – ultimately, to her own detriment. But for a time, her slyness supersedes even Wolsey, whom she repeatedly undermines in Henry’s presence. When she reminds Wolsey of the fact he holds more titles in England than the King, the embarrassment of this discovery causes Wolsey to piously recant all rights to his possessions and property. Wolsey, who once thought of Anne as merely another passing fancy for the King, now begins to suspect she may lead to his own undoing if he is not careful.  In the meantime, Henry appeals to Katherine to publicly declare she has been unfaithful to him, thereby granting the legal grounds for the annulment. Alas, Katherine – knowing Henry has never loved her – is nevertheless compelled to admit she continues to bitterly adore him. As such, she refuses to submit to his lies.
Enraged, Henry endeavors to force Wolsey’s hand in getting the Pope to agree to a divorce.  Again, he is thwarted and again, Anne haughtily declares she will not be his mistress by default. Henry now petitions a separation of England’s reliance on the Catholic Church. He further dismisses Wolsey from his court and makes Anne a present of Wolsey’s magnificent palace in London. Ensconced there, Anne comes to a genuine affection for Henry of her own accord and, at last, permits him into her bed chamber. The couple consummates their relationship and is secretly married. Discovering she is with child, Anne is given a resplendent coronation to legitimize her presence at court. Alas, the people are not so easily fooled or nearly as accepting, jeering in abject disgust. Anne is “the king’s new whore.” Nevertheless, Henry and Anne await the royal birth with baited anticipation. Tragically, Henry’s joy turns to vinegar when the child is a girl Anne names the Princess Elizabeth. Although Henry is disillusioned, Anne manages to convince him of Sir Thomas More’s (William Squire) treason against the state, because of his opposition to their marriage. She further demands Henry must put More to death for treason against the state. Despite Henry’s initial misgivings, Anne gets him to see things her way and More is wrongfully accused and summarily executed.
Sometime later, Anne and Henry try for a son. Alas, like all of Henry’s male offspring conceived with Katherine, this new babe – also male – is stillborn. Already begun to believe his second marriage as cursed as his first, Henry now turns his attentions to Anne’s lady in waiting, Jane Seymour (Leslie Paterson). Cromwell, who once believed the best way to manipulate the throne was by ingratiating himself to Anne now, instead, turns on her with all his enterprising venom, forcing Henry to reconsider his loyalties and simultaneously turning the people against Anne and the King’s favor. Discovering Jane Seymour’s affair with Henry, Anne has her lady in waiting banished from court.
Henry appoints Cromwell his new minister, his first order of business to discover a way of excommunicating Anne from the court. Cromwell succeeds beyond Henry’s wildest dreams, torturing a loyal servant into confessing to an adulterous relationship with the Queen. Cromwell then has several other courtiers arrested on similar trumped up charges. Finally, he has Anne’s devoted brother, George (Michael Johnson) imprisoned in the Tower of London along with Anne; claiming brother and sister have shared in an incestuous relationship. Disbelieving the severity of these charges at first, Anne now breaks down, declaring Henry mad and herself doomed to suffer a horrible fate. Indeed, pressured by Cromwell’s manufactured evidence, the court finds Anne guilty of incest and treason. However, at trial, Anne manages to cross-examine Mark Smeaton (Harry Fiedler); the servant whom Cromwell had tortured into a confession. Unable to remain silent, Smeaton fervently declares his testimony given to be false and all of the allegations against Anne duly unfounded.
Pressed to reassess the case, Henry implores Anne to reconsider annulling their marriage. It would make Elizabeth illegitimate, but such a sacrifice would also spare Anne’s life. Anne refuses to entertain the notion and Henry is forced to affix his signature to the court’s legal decision to have her put to death. Awaiting her fate, Anne hypothesizes on the future of England; one in which Elizabeth shall rule as its first Queen. Anne is taken to the gallows and beheaded; Henry riding off to pursue and eventually marry Lady Jane Seymour. In the movie’s penultimate and prophetic moment, we witness the child, Elizabeth, obtusely at play in the palatial gardens – seemingly unaware of her mother’s fate and most assuredly unprepared for her own as England’s future Queen; Anne’s declaration of Elizabeth’s succession echoing in the breeze as the credits begin to roll.
Anne of the Thousand Days is an intense and fairly captivating costume drama. Producer, Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable cinematic feast. Along with David O. Selznick, Wallis’ career ought to be a textbook example of the producer as guiding influence on movie art. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Christmas (1954); with such credits as these, Wallis could literally do it all. And further to the point, Wallis had already proven his mettle with costume period drama on another movie based on a Maxwell Anderson play, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
Interestingly, Richard Burton’s Henry VIII is the most sincerely flawed and human of all movie incarnations of the king.  Most films portray Henry as a one-dimensional gluttonous demigod. I confess, there are elements to this trademarked image represented herein. But Burton manages to make something more of the part; perhaps, as written by Anderson, he slowly evolves into a more complex and tragic figure. And Burton ought to have been the movie’s star, if not for the magnificent Geneviève Bujold who, almost through a miraculous will of grace manages to refocus the picture back onto the plight of her doomed heroine. Lost in the shuffle is Irene Papas’ empathetic and long-suffering Queen. Critics at the time were rather harsh on Papas, made up to embody stereotypical Spanish nobility, complete with cocoa-tan skin and widow’s peaked hair, tightly pulled beneath a restrictive bonnet. In fact, the real Katherine of Aragon was an Auburn-haired beauty of very fair complexion.  
Anne of the Thousand Days ought never be misconstrued as a literal history lesson. What it remains is a very finely acted, highly literate, and intimately compelling portrait of the human complexities and frailties surrounding these towering figures from history. Anderson’s prose breathe renewable life into the antiquity as few playwrights of his time or since have been able to manage. Anderson may fudge on the particulars, but he strikes like a firebrand into the overall framework and essence of the piece, the period and its human foibles, follies and societal conundrums. Personally, that works for me.  
I’ll simply go on record herein with what does not; namely having to search the foreign markets for catalog classic movies like Anne of the Thousand Days on Blu-ray, only to discover them made available abroad in substandard hi-def transfers that belie the formidable efforts put forth by everyone involved in their initial creation. So, where to begin? Well, in 2002, Universal Home Video released a 2-disc movie collection in the U.S. on DVD featuring Anne of the Thousand Days and another Hal B. Wallis production: 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots. The Universal transfer was severely flawed with copious edge enhancement that inexplicably crops up without rhyme or reason, but queerly, is more prominently featured in long shots. Nothing has changed for this Blu-ray release; culled from the same flawed elements. I am still trying to figure out the rights reverting to an, as yet unheard of, distribution label – ‘Feel Films’. Nowhere on the packaging of this disc is there a Universal Home Video logo, even though the digital elements used in this transfer are quite obviously derived from the aforementioned 2002 standard release.
The pluses are as follows: the brightly colored image razor-sharpening considerably, revealing exquisite amounts of fine detail in hair, skin and costuming. With only a few scattered age-related artifacts to momentarily detract; Anne of the Thousand Days is a movie tailor-made for Blu-ray; meant to show off its sumptuous production design. Tragically, with this crispness, the edge effects that were marginally distracting on the DVD are now glaringly obvious to the point where they become the focal point of any scene in which they appear. Yuck, and who needs it?!? Contrast is solid, and film grain seems – at least on the whole – naturally reproduced. But gate weave is another problematic issue; the image horizontally lunging back and forth. Honestly, what we have here is a very fine film given over to an utterly disastrous 1080p rendering in desperate need of restoration and remastering. Will it ever get its just desserts? Hmmmm. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one, given Universal didn’t even think enough of the movie to release it state’s side. At least, this Spanish imported disc, orderable on, is region free. It will play anywhere. The audio defaults to Castellano, but can easily be switched over to 2.0 DTS English with removable subtitles. There are no extras. Bottom line: I really wanted to recommend this, but have to say – pass - instead.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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