(director: Alexander Korda; screenwriters: story by Carl Zuckmayer/June Head/Lajos Biro; cinematographer: Georges Perinal; editor: Francis Lyon; music: Geoffrey Toye; cast: Charles Laughton (Rembrandt van Rijn), Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje Dirx), Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje Stoffels), Edward Chapman (Fabrizius), Walter Hudd (Banning Cocq), Roger Livesey (Beggar Saul), John Bryning (Titus van Rijn), Abraham Sofaer (Dr. Menasseh); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Korda; United Artists; 1936-UK)
“A marvelously spirited and subtle performance by Charles Laughton, as the great 17th-century Dutch painter.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Classy Brit filmmaker Alexander Korda (“The Private Life of of Don Juan”/”That Hamilton Woman”/”Marius”) surprisingly finds that this film didn’t meet with the same box office success as his previous biopic The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), but this is a superior film and Korda has nothing to be ashamed of in the way he filmed it without the usual Hollywood action scenes. It features a marvelously spirited and subtle performance by Charles Laughton, as the great 17th-century Dutch painter; Laughton left his three year stay in Hollywood to return to England and reunite with Korda (a fellow art collector) after Henry VIII to make this pic they cared so much for. In episodic fashion it covers the last 27 years of the master painter’s life, that includes his struggles with the Amsterdam burghers, the scandal over a painting of the Civic Guard that took away his patrons and reduced him to poverty, his painting of beggars and his troubling relationship with his bossy housekeeper, model and later on second wife Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence) and the warm-hearted maid Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife) who succeeds her. Though the film only has a slight plot and there’s not much dramatic tension, it has a grand visual style, great Vincent Korda sets (he’s the director’s brother) and, as previously mentioned, there’s Laughton’s captivating performance as an artist of unyielding integrity no matter the circumstances. It also doesn’t hurt that Laughton has an uncanny resemblance to Rembrandt.
In 1642, in Amsterdam, Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton), a painter and miller’s son from Leyden, grieves the death of his wealthy wife Saskia. Rembrandt left his peasant home and had great success in the big city as a painter, and for the last seven years has been happily married. At the funeral, he finishes the portrait of Saskia he started at home. To earn a quick paycheck, he also paints the bourgeois officers of the Civic Guard. But Captain Banning Cocq, who commissioned the painting, is not flattered by the unusual style of the drawing that disfigures the 16 gentlemen and is painted in shadows. The painting is considered scandalous and ruins the painter’s rep among his bourgeois patrons. After ten years of refusing to paint like others to please their clients, Rembrandt is facing bankruptcy and the loss of his home. Out of loneliness he also married the wrong woman, the cold-hearted harpy Geertje.
To get rejuvenated, Rembrandt treks unannounced to his father’s mill in Leyden and feels lively again after reading from the Bible at the family dinner and drinking and womanizing at a dance given by the locals. When he returns to Amsterdam after three days, he takes up with his new housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels, and paints her portrait. His attentions toward the kind maid greatly upset the always nagging and jealous Geertje. When Hendrickje becomes pregnant, Geertje charges her with “unchastity, concubinage and immoral conduct.” The poor maid is brought before a jury of Lutheran elders and is ex-communicated from the church. When the “court of bankruptcy” seizes all his possessions, Rembrandt retreats to the country with Hendrickje. They exist by selling his paintings through Hendrickje, so the court doesn’t seize them. When she gets severely sick from nursing their baby, Rembrandt decides to marry her and she becomes his common-law wife. She dies while posing for her hubby. Years later, in 1669, Rembrandt is seen as a beggar at a banquet for young artists, and leaves when recognized; later he begins a self-portrait, muttering the Biblical words of King Solomon, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as the film closes.
By the time the somber and heart-breaking film ends, it’s difficult to tell if Laughton is even more Rembrandt than is the artist himself. Korda resists showing the paintings, except for the infamous critically received “The Night Watch.” Roger Livesey has a memorable role as a beggar who poses for Rembrandt as King Saul. The screen is painted throughout in a vivid black and white, becoming like a canvas for Rembrandt, with cinematographer Georges Perinal establishing the trademark “Rembrandt lighting” effect in each scene.
REVIEWED ON 10/23/2007 GRADE: A-