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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #16: Rembrandt, 1936

When your film needs a big personality, Charles Laughton is always top of the list.

Rembrandt, 1936

Director: Alexander Korda
Writer: Carl Zuckmayer and June Head
Cinematographer:  Georges Périnal
Produced by: Alexander Korda for London Film Productions
Starring: Charles Laughton, Gertrude Lawrence, Elsa Lanchester, Edward Chapman, Walter Hudd, Roger Livesey

Why I chose it
I narrowed my initial list down to this one, recommended by a film friend, and Romeo and Juliet, and really was inclined to watch both. Ultimately, Rembrandt won because of my curiosity to see what Charles Laughton would do with the role, but also because producer/director Alexander Korda is a giant in early British cinema. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Rembrandt struggles to keep his seventeenth-century Amsterdam household afloat when his wife dies unexpectedly. He manages to derail his career when he paints an extremely unflattering commissioned portrait of civic guards in his famous "The Night Watch", and begins to drink. He's not sure whom to trust when everyone from his housekeeper to his best friend seems to want something from him, but he finds true love again with Hendrickje, a young maid with a pure heart. Will his life get back on track? Will his talent be appreciated again in his lifetime?

Production Background 
Alexander Korda was a towering figure in British cinema in the 1930s - he founded London films and produced and directed a series of hits, including The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which solidified his relationship with actor Laughton. Nabbing Laughton again for Rembrandt was a natural move; for his part Laughton threw himself into research, spending time living in Amsterdam, and even taking painting lessons to seem more comfortable in the studio scenes. However, not all time on the set was easy. Apparently Gertrude Lawrence, a renowned stage actor, wasn't enjoying the filming process and was rather disruptive. The lavish set design was contributed by Vincent Korda, the brother of Alexander. Ultimately, the film was a commercial failure but a critical success. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Rembrandt was the first film to have a trailer projected on an airplane by television transmission. The projection took place on a fourteen-passenger flight bound for London. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1936*:

  • The Screen Directors Guild was organized by a number of Hollywood filmmakers, choosing director King Vidor as its first president (he served from 1936-1938). The Guild was renamed the Director's Guild of America (DGA) in 1960.
  • American film producer Irving Thalberg died at the age of 37 - he had been dubbed the "Boy Wonder" for his brilliant ability to selectively choose successful film projects. As MGM's head of production, he was responsible for many MGM classics, including the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet that starred his wife Norma Shearer.
  • After a short one-year contract with MGM expired, 14-year-old starlet-singer Deanna Durbin signed with Universal Studios and made her first feature film, the successful musical comedy Three Smart Girls , reportedly saving the studio from bankruptcy. 
  • The first screen adventure for Flash Gordon, the comic strip character created by Alex Raymond in 1934, was Universal Pictures' 13 episode serial Flash Gordon (1936), starring Buster Crabbe.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations

  • I expect that as a filmmaker focusing on the life of a great painter, you must be under pressure to produce as beautiful a film as possible, for obvious reasons. This film is stunning in its period imagery and costumes, and the cinematography of Georges Périnal ran the gamut from long shots to close-ups in glorious black and white (see Screenshots section below).
  • Charles Laughton's big personality works here. He's in almost every scene and the success of the film rides on his performance. I'm not sure whether writer Zuckmeyer or Korda insisted that this film feature more than one Laughton monologue because of his success reciting the entire Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap the year before, but be warned, there are at least two of them here. They stop the action, and while excellently delivered, I fidgeted just a bit.
  • I admit to knowing nothing about Rembrandt's life. If the filmmakers were setting out to emphasize the lows of his life, they succeeded. Perhaps not as tragic as Van Gogh's, it wasn't an easy one. Once again, if there was any doubt, we are reminded that revered painters did not always have it easy in their day.
  • Roger Livesey is a favorite of mine for the films he made with Powell and Pressburger in the 1940s. He spent his entire film and stage career in Britain, and it's always a delight when he pops up in these earlier movies. He is completely unrecognizable as "Beggar Saul", but his voice gave him away for me! As a bit of trivia, his two brothers AND his father had small parts in this film.
Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Even though Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's wife) was not Korda's first choice for Hendrickje, I thought she was perfect here - she radiated beauty in a way I've never seen, not to mention her kindness and steeliness.
Here's a Rembrandt self-portrait opening the 
film credits, perhaps urging us to appreciate
how closely Laughton will resemble him.
In his early years, Rembrandt loved to spend money on
jewels for his wife Saskia. His friend is a bit concerned.

Rembrandt and villagers in Old Amsterdam.

Rembrandt's brutally honest "The Night Watch" is unveiled,
and doesn't get the reaction that would ensure
him career success.

Newly cynical Rembrandt is a bit perturbed at the 
criticism of his recent work. 

Rembrandt family housekeeper Geertje Dirx (Gertrude
Lawrence) plots to move in after the untimely death of 
Rembrandt's wife Saskia.

Roger Livesey as the beggar who becomes
King Saul in a sitting in Rembrandt's studio.

As King Saul

Rembrandt returns briefly to his humble birth home and
 village and eats supper with the fam.

In Rembrandt's birthplace, the villagers make merry.

Elsa Lanchester as Rembrandt's common-law
wife Hendrickje. Here she's getting ready
to sit for her portrait, what else?

This time, Rembrandt is not deluding himself
about the grave condition of someone he loves.

I think Laughton studied Rembrandt's self
portraits to put on this face.

The aged painter enjoying the attentions of a merry
young group enthralled with his wit.

Where to Watch
Criterion released a quartet of Korda films focusing on major figures ("Private Lives"); this one is in that set. I saw the film on here.

Further Reading
As usual, TCM offers a nice essay about the film here. The AFI also has some interesting production tidbits, including from the recollections of Elsa Lanchester, here.


  1. I really enjoy Rembrandt's paintings, partly because I'm half Dutch myself. This sounds like a cool movie -- I bet my mom (who is all Dutch) would really dig it! Maybe I will be able to dig up a copy before she visits next.

    Also, I had no idea Elsa Lanchester was so pretty! I mostly know her from things like That Darn Cat! and think of her as a character actor.

    1. Oh wow - I think if you are half (or more) Dutch you would find this especially interesting. It has the right "feel" (not that I'm an authority!).

      Elsa Lanchester was as pretty as I've ever seen her. Just lovely. But yeah, she made a great career out of mostly character parts. She and Laughton were also great together twenty years later in Witness for the Prosecution.