The film opens with a title card describing Catherine of Aragon as being an honorable woman whose life was of no particular interest. It thus omits Catherine entirely, and picks up the life of Henry VIII (Laughton) on the day his second wife, Anne Boleyn, is being executed. While Boleyn is going to the block, everyone is having a good time at court, preparing for the marriage of the king and Jane Seymour, who replaced Anne in his affections. After Jane dies in childbirth, Henry somewhat reluctantly agrees to marry German princess Anne of Cleves, but takes an instant dislike to her when she comes to England, and swiftly gets a divorce. Meanwhile, scheming social climber Katherine Howard finagles her way into the king's bed and becomes his fifth wife—with tragic consequences for her and her lover Thomas Culpeper.
The Private Life of Henry VIII was a milestone in the history of British film. It was the first British film to do well overseas (it made a mint in America) and was the first film produced outside of the United States to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It made stars of Laughton, Oberon (Anne Boleyn), and Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper). It is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, ignoring the Protestant Reformation and the political turmoil of Henry's reign and focusing solely on his love life. The tone is satirical bedroom farce. The portrait of Henry as a fat, gross libertine with disgusting table manners was tremendously influential with regards to modern public perception of what Henry was like.
Tropes in The Private Life of Henry VIII include:
- Adipose Rex: Although really, Laughton as Henry isn't that fat. Henry in his later years got so fat that he had to use a lift to get to the second floor of his castle.
- Art Imitates Art:
- Artistic License History: Among other things, there's the Dawson Casting of Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard, and the fact that Jane Seymour is depicted as dying the night that Prince Edward is born when in fact she died 12 days later.
- As You Know: Henry makes sure to call Thomas Culpeper "Thomas Culpeper" so the audience will know who he is.
- Beauty Inversion: Done deliberately in-universe by Anne of Cleves, who has no desire whatsoever to be Henry's Queen. So she makes herself up to be as homely as possible, makes weird bug-eyed faces, and generally acts obnoxious. It works, as Henry, who himself was lukewarm about the marriage, recoils, and offers her a divorce immediately.
- Boisterous Bruiser: King Henry VIII, who likes eating, drinking, and wenching.
- Blatant Lies: After a comic sequence in which Henry tries to sneak into Katherine's room, only for guard after guard after guard to shout, "The king passes!", he finally gets there and says, "No one saw me, Katherine, I swear!"
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The film ends with Henry married to Katherine Parr, who, as in real life, is more a nurse than a wife. In the last scene she nags him about overeating before covering him with a blanket and telling him to take a nap. After she leaves, Henry gets up and gets a chicken leg from the table. As he's digging in, he looks straight at the camera and says, "Six wives, and the best of them's the worst!"
- Contrast Montage: The opening sequence cuts back and forth between the grim scene of Anne Boleyn's execution and the happy, flirtatious fun of life at court as Henry's getting ready to marry Jane. It even has Anne say, "What a beautiful day," as she stands on the block, only for Jane to say the exact same thing much more cheerfully back at court.
- Death by Childbirth: Jane Seymour dies after giving birth to Henry's son.
- Face Death with Dignity: Anne Boleyn before her execution, calmly going to the block, as history records she did in Real Life.
- Forgotten Fallen Friend: Henry spends literally about five seconds mourning Jane Seymour, then he is cheerful again.Henry: Oh, my poor dear Jane. God rest her soul. [beat] Now, where is the Prince?
- Funny Background Event: When Henry makes his inaccurate observation that "Elizabeth will never learn to rule so much as a kitchen," the guard behind him quickly but clearly rolls his eyes.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: It's the English court in the 16th century, fancy period dress is required.
- Gossipy Hens: The ladies-in-waiting at the court, who are basically Henry's pool of mistresses, and gossip endlessly about his sex life.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Katherine Howard here portrayed as a schemer who uses her sexuality to seduce Henry and get herself made queen, while in real life she was The Ditz who got in over her head and was a teenager half the age of actress Binnie Barnes.
- Hypocritical Humor:
- As Henry makes a pig of himself at dinner (see Jabba Table Manners below), to everyone's disgust, he says, "There's no delicacy nowadays. No consideration for others. Refinement's a thing of the past! Manners are dead!"
- As demonstrated by the anonymous woman who turns out for the execution of Anne Boleyn.Poor Anne Boleyn, I feel so sorry for her. Excuse me, madam, do you mind taking off your hat? We can't see the block.
- It Will Never Catch On: Henry utterly fails at evaluating his daughters.
- Jabba Table Manners: One of the highlights of the movie is the banquet scene in which Henry chugs wine by the flagon, while also attacking a chicken, tearing it apart, flinging the bones and the innards all over the room, splattering everyone unfortunate enough to be sitting near him.
- Large Ham: Laughton really goes to town in this movie. Practically every line is bellowed. Naturally, this won him the Oscar for Best Actor.
- Right Behind Me: Henry makes his first entrance in the film just as one of the ladies-in-waiting (Katherine Howard, as it happens) is making some very critical comments about him throwing Anne Boleyn over for Jane Seymour. Henry is amused.
- Running Gag: Changing the letters that go next to Henry's "H" on the pillows of the royal bed.
- Yes-Man: The whole court, as seen when Henry makes an unfunny joke at table and everyone in the room howls with laughter.