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From the Vaults: 'Anna Boleyn' (1920)

August 30, 2010 |  1:58 am

Annaleer There's not much reason to watch Ernst Lubitsch's silent historical epic "Anna Boleyn" (which Netflix informs me is also called "Deception"), unless you're, say, a movie blogger who has set herself the cussed task of watching only films from 1920, 1940, 1960 and 1980. Fortunately for you, I am just such a blogger, and so I have watched this film so that you do not have to!

It's not that it's bad by any means; for 1920, the sets and costumes are pretty impressive. Five minutes in, I was waving a pizza slice around and expostulating to the cats, "Look at that crowd shot! All these people in costume! This thing must have cost a fortune!" And the acting is often hammy but fun, and it fits the material. Also, a wench jumps out of a cake! It's just that the thing is so long. Run time is about two hours, but it feels longer.

Part of the problem is that you already know the story, although the tragedy's been hepped up until it feels like "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." Young Anna (German for "Anne," I guess) Boleyn arrives from France to stay with her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau), and be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. She's excited to meet the queen and also to be reunited with her boyfriend, megacutie Sir Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann).

Instead, she catches the roving eye of big gross King Henry VIII (Emil Jannings, clearly enjoying himself tremendously). He openly chases Anna around, devastating Catherine (the lusciously named Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) and shattering Anna's relationship with Sir Henry. Anna ends up married to the man she loathes, and we all know how that goes for her.

AnnacrownAs Anna, Henny Porten really works the tragedy angle. I loved watching her try to escape the clutches of King  Henry, who hangs on to her as relentlessly as Pepe Le Pew. Then she has to turn around and assume a supplicatory posture while Sir Henry acts all huffy and offended by her compromised virtue (this was the part that reminded me most of "Tess"). There's a wonderful moment at her coronation when the cheering crowd falls into a disapproving stillness at her appearance; King Henry glowers at them, soldiers brandish their weapons, and the crowd obediently starts rejoicing again. "See how they cheer for you?" the king says; Anna only nods sadly and looks down.

Anna's grief turns into rage after the birth of her daughter, when Henry takes up with Lady Jane Seymour (Aud Egede-Nissen). I loved the scene where Henry takes the squalling infant Elizabeth I and plonks her down prophetically on his own empty throne, before bundling Lady Jane off for some snogging. Anna comes flying after them in a Norma Desmond-level fury, braids swinging. It's pretty great.

AnnahugThere's also some court intrigue involving a well-meaning jester (Paul Biensfeldt), oily poet Mark Smeaton (Ferdinand von Alten) and Sir Henry, who's in a peculiar position as Anna's ex-boyfriend. As the web tightens inextricably around poor Anna, the jester tries to warn her and Sir Henry to be careful, but there's really nothing they can do. By the end it's clear that Anna's never been anything but a pawn, serving either the king's lustful ends or her uncle's colder, political ones.

But did I mention what a blast Emil Jannings is as Henry? He scoops up wenches, he throws beer in a pageboy's face and then laughs about it, he chases poor besieged Anna into a clump of tall grass and then pounces on her. When the pope declines his request for a divorce, he throws a tantrum. And I loved his first moment of spying Anna, who's literally nothing but a bit of skirt: she's trapped outside a door that she's accidentally closed on her own gown. Inside, Henry leers at the twitching triangle of fabric, then flings the door open like a kid opening a box of candy. It's great.

Still, this early work from Lubitsch -- when he was living and working in Berlin -- is not really something that the general modern viewer needs to run out and rent. Let's revisit the guy a couple decades later and see if his work's gotten more, ah, engaging, shall we?

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from top: Henry gets a rare smile out of Anna; her coronation; Lady Anna is interrupted with Sir Henry.