Films about the monarchy have been a popular subject for filmmakers since the silent era. To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II (of England) and I (of Scotland’s) 60 years on the throne we here present six notable examples of the form from the biopic decade, the 1930s.
Rasputin the Mad Monk / Rasputin and the Empress
Richard Boleslawski | USA | 1932 | 121 minutes
This 1932 film about Imperial Russia was the only film to feature all three of the Barrymore siblings—John (as Prince Chegodieff), Ethel (as Czarina Alexandra), and Lionel Barrymore (as Grigori Rasputin) together. Its inaccurate portrayals caused a major lawsuit against MGM – including one of Rasputin’s murderers!
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Alexander Korda | UK | 1933 | 97 minutes
This movie tells the story of King Henry VIII and the last five of his six wives. Set almost entirely within the royal castle, it begins just before the death of his second wife (Anne Boleyn) and ends just after his sixth wedding (to Catherine or Katherine Parr).
Rouben Mamoulian | USA | 1933 | 99 minutes
One of silent cinema’s greatest pairings, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert starred together one last time in Queen Christina. Gilbert’s career was in tatters by 1933 after a string on failures, and Laurence Olivier had already bailed from the role, but Garbo insisted on Gilbert. And he is wonderful as the Spanish envoy. He looks great and gives a sly performance with plenty of wit. This is also one of Garbo’s best talkies. Together they light up the screen. This film also boasts some of the most gorgeous close ups of Garbo you’ve ever seen. Solid historical drama of Swedish queen who abdicates for love. Good supporting cast includes Lewis Stone, Reginald Owen, Akim Tamiroff, Ian Keith as the slimy Magnus, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Young, and David Torrence. Beautiful film with solid performances and, dare I say, very feminist in its view.
The Rise of Catherine the Great
Paul Czinner | UK | 1934 | 95 minutes
In 1745 a German princess, renamed Catherine, arrives to marry Grand Duke Peter of Russia, whom she initially likes. But his suspicious, unstable nature gradually estranges them, and Peter finds solace with pretty courtiers. Catherine invents her own (fictitious) lovers, temporarily improving matters. Alas, accession to the throne brings out the worst in Peter, and loyal Catherine is urged to assume power.
Mary of Scotland
John Ford | USA | 1936 | 123 minutes
Mary Stuart returns to Scotland to rule as queen, to the chagrin of Elizabeth I of England who finds her a dangerous rival. There is much ado over whom Mary shall marry; to her later regret, she picks effete Lord Darnley over the strong but unpopular Earl of Bothwell. A palace coup leads to civil war and house arrest for Mary; she escapes and flees to England, where a worse fate awaits her.
Fires over England
William K. Howard | UK | 1937 | 92 minutes
In 1588, relations between Spain and England are at the breaking point. British sea raiders regularly capture Spanish merchantmen bringing gold from the New World with the support of Queen Elizabeth I. After a plot to depose her is discovered, she enlists Michael Ingolby, whose father was killed by the Inquisition, to go undercover and infiltrate the court of Philip of Spain. Masquerading as one of the traitors, Ingolby finds the names of British subjects in Spanish pay. He identifies the would-be assassins and discovers their plans to send the Armada against England. His feats earn Ingolby the love of a Spanish noblewoman, an English courtesan, and Queen Elizabeth herself as he takes the British fleet into battle. At the climax he leads a night attack on the Armada ships massed off the coast of England.