Anna Neagle was one of Britain’s greatest and most popular film stars. She is best remembered today for her screen collaborations with her husband – the director and producer Herbert Wilcox – and for her portrayals of several historical figures including actress Nell Gwyn and pilot Amy Johnson.
In 1937 and 1938, Anna starred in two films in which she would take on what has become her most famous screen role. She played Queen Victoria. The first film was Victoria The Great(released in the UK on the 16th of September, 1937), and the second was Sixty Glorious Years(released in the UK on the 14th of October, 1938). Both films were directed by Anna’s future husband Herbert Wilcox.
Both films were written by Miles Malleson and Charles de Grandcourt, with the then Permanent Under-Secretary Of State For Foreign Affairs Robert Vansittart, contributing dialogue for the second film.
Victoria The Great wasn’t the first film about Queen Victoria which had been approved by the Crown – the first was the 1913 Silent film Sixty Years A Queen directed by Bert Haldane. However during the inter-war years screen depictions of this monarch were banned by her grandson King George V. In 1937(the 100th anniversary of Victoria’s ascension to the throne)that ban was overturned.
At the time of the first film going into production the British Monarchy was in crisis. In December 1936, King Edward VIII had chosen love over crown and duty, and had abdicated from the throne in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Victoria The Great can therefore be seen as a brilliant piece of PR to try and help secure the image of the British royal family as devoted individuals living only for their duties to the people and nation, as well as also celebrating the life of the then longest-reigning British Monarch.
Screenshots from Victoria The Great and Sixty Glorious Years by me.
When I first heard about these two films I assumed that the first would focus on Victoria’s childhood and the early years of her reign, while the second would focus on her marriage and the rest of her reign. What’s weird about these films is that that isn’t the case at all.
Victoria The Great follows the eighteen year old Victoria from the moment she is told she is now the new ruler of England. We see her coronation, her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert(wonderfully played by Anton Walbrook), and see many key events from her personal life and reign. The film is shot in black and white, but features a stunning Technicolor finale depicting the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Although both films do focus on Victoria’s royal duties and her public life, it’s fair to say that the main focus is on the relationship between Victoria and Prince Albert. The pair were deeply in love and Victoria was extremely dependent on her husband and always looked to him for advice. Albert in turn did what he could to ease his wife’s burdens and try and allow her to be a wife and mother as much as a Queen. Both Anna and Anton do a superb job of capturing the passion these two had for each other. Anna and Anton have real chemistry and are so tender with one another. There are some lovely moments between the two in this first film. I especially love the scene where they are both sitting under a tree on the palace grounds. I also love the scene where Albert comforts his wife following the assassination attempt on her life.
Sixty Glorious Years differs to the first film by being shot entirely in Technicolor and filmed on location at various royal palaces. The second film has an almost identical structure to the first. Sixty Glorious Years plays out to me like a collection of extended or deleted scenes from the first film. To make two films so similar to each other in the space of a year is a strange decision to say the least. I can’t understand why Herbert Wilcox didn’t just make one film of between say three and a half to four hours long which covered Victoria’s whole life and reign. He could have shot it all in Technicolor too in order to create a real spectacle for audiences.
I do like that there is more focus on Victoria and Albert’s relationship and their children in the second film than in the first though. It’s also nice to see so many scenes in the second being filmed in and around the real royal palaces and gardens. It’s also nice to be able to see all of Tom Heslewood and Doris Zinkeisen’s beautiful costumes in colour too.
While both films are very good and enjoyable, they each have too much of an episodic format for my taste. Instead of focusing deeply on Victoria’s life and reign we are presented instead with the highlights. The films also never really scratch the surface of Victoria to enable us to learn more about the real woman. Queen Victoria has always struck me as being extremely interesting from a psychological perspective. She had a deeply unhappy and restrictive childhood under the thumb of her mother and Sir John Conroy; then she had a few brief years where she and she alone held all the power in her life and she became a stronger and more confident woman for it; then she married and bore nine children, something which left her unable to be as independent as she had just started to become. When you read about her attitudes to her children, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that the Queen suffered from postnatal depression following her children’s births. Both films also only show us the briefest glimpse of how tempestuous Victoria and Albert’s relationship could be – they loved each other very much indeed but things were not always easy between them at all.
Anna shines in both films. She does a great job of portraying the strong-willed Queen from vivacious and beautiful young woman, to the more severe and grief stricken woman we all immediately think of her as being.
Anna dominates each scene she appears in and you can’t take your eyes off her.She is suitably regal and strong willed as the Queen, while also capturing her girlish innocence and her vulnerable side too.
Anton Walbrook is excellent as the loyal and hardworking Prince Albert. He makes Albert gentle, astute, tender and determined. Anton was always a subtle actor who could steal a scene with a mere look alone, and his talents for that are on full display here.
I also like how Anton managed to capture how weary and overworked Albert became in his role as Prince Consort. I also like how the films show his refusal to shut himself away and have no public life because so many at the time considered him to be nothing more than a foreigner interfering in the British government.
I highly recommend both films to fans of Anna Neagle and Anton Walbrook. If you’re after a deeper exploration of the life and reign of Victoria, then you best check out the many biographies out there about her.
This is my entry for my Anna Neagle Blogathon being held on the 1st and 2nd of January, 2020.