History of the World According to the Movies: Part 62 – 1930s Great Britain

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Tom Hooper’s 2010 Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech is perhaps the most famous movie about Great Britain in the 1930s apart from all the murder mysteries. Here Colin Firth stars as the stammering Bertie (King George VI) and his private struggle with public life as a member of the royal family and later as a constitutional monarch. His supportive wife Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) is played by Helena Bonham Carter. Is it 100% accurate? No, since you have Winston Churchill supporting Edward VIII’s abdication when he actually opposed it in reality but no one wants to see that. Still, this is a very good film about what it’s like to be a monarch in the modern world.

Great Britain is particularly memorable in the 1930s mainly due to the fact that many an Agatha Christie murder mystery tends to be set at this time. Even if the work isn’t set in the 1930s originally, it somehow becomes the default template. Still, in movies, 1930s Great Britain is one of the more ideal times for having a good murder mystery at someone’s country estate. But 1930s Great Britain isn’t just a period filled with murder and mayhem since it’s also the the time when you have Fascist leader Oswald Moseley who was the inspiration for Roderick Spode in P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series.There were also plenty of rich Brits who also had some sympathy for the totalitarian type like Miss Jean Brodie, most of the Mitford family, and others. Yet, there are two great events in the 1930s that are particularly memorable to Britain in this decade. First, there’s the abdication of Edward VIII who is said to give up the throne for a twice divorced American which leads to the ascension of his stammering younger brother. Second, there’s World War II. Nevertheless, movies don’t tend to get all the facts right and I shall list the inaccuracies for you.

Winston Churchill:

Winston Churchill dined with Josef Stalin in 1939. (No, he didn’t until 1942 when Great Britain and the USSR were allies in World War II.)

Winston Churchill supported George VI’s ascent to the throne. (He actually one of Edward VIII’s fiercest supporters during the abdication crisis and advised him: “Retire to Windsor Castle! Summon the Beefeaters! Raise the drawbridge! Close the gates! And dare Baldwin to drag you out!” He even rewrote some of Edward VIII’s abdication speech. George VI wasn’t exactly fond of Winston Churchill being appointed prime minister during World War II. However, they weren’t friends until they had to confide in each other on the war and the governance of Britain. Still, you have to have Churchill supporting Bertie in The King’s Speech because Edward VIII was a Nazi supporting dickhead. I mean Churchill might’ve thought appeasement was a bad idea but he wasn’t endowed with 20/20 hindsight to see that George VI would’ve made a better king than his older brother, especially in what was to come. Nevertheless, Churchill’s mistake over Edward VIII’s abdication was one of the reasons Britain ignored his warnings about appeasement in the first place.)

Winston Churchill was fat at this time. (He wouldn’t be overweight until later in his life yet, he’s seen as chunky in most portrayals of him during the 1930s and WWII.)

King George V:

King George V preferred his son Bertie (George VI) on the throne over his brother David (Edward VIII). (Actually by the time he died he not only preferred Bertie but also his 9 year old daughter Elizabeth over Edward on the throne. He most famously said, “I pray to God that my eldest son [Edward] will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”)

Queen Mary of Teck:

Queen Mary of Teck had a guttural German accent. (Recordings reveal she didn’t. Also, she was born and raised in Britain, which is why Queen Victoria thought she’d make a suitable bride for her grandson. Yet, this grandson was actually George V’s brother Albert Victor who died so George married her instead.)

Queen Mary of Teck was a cold and heartless mother. (Actually she wasn’t but she did keep a stiff upper lip. Also, she was a kleptomaniac and fanatic jewelry collector.)

King Edward VIII:

Edward VIII was pressured to give up the throne for love. (Actually, he abdicated because of his Nazi sympathies. Wallis Simpson was just an excuse.)

Edward VIII’s trip on a Mediterranean cruise with Wallis Simpson was exposed to the British press as a “Royal Scandal!” (Actually the British papers famously covered it up thanks to the king’s friend Lord Beaverbrook who convinced all his fellow newspapermen to agree to complete discretion. All that was printed out on that paparazzi moment from Britain was a passenger list with Wallis’ name on it. British censors even snipped out even more lurid reports out of foreign newspapers at customs.  Most people in Great Britain didn’t have any idea about Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson until December of 1936.)

Most of the allegations about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson having sympathies for the Nazis was just based on rumors. (Except that it’s not for there’s plenty of evidence. According the Guardian’s column on reel history has this snippet, “a 1933 report by the Austrian ambassador that Edward said to him: “I hope and believe we will never fight another war but if we do, we must be on the winning side and that will be Germany, not the French”. A public speech to the British Legion in 1935 in which he advised his audience to “stretch forth the hand of friendship to the Germans”. A 1936 letter from the German ambassador to Adolf Hitler saying “King Edward, quite generally, feels warm sympathy for Germany”. British Foreign Office papers suggesting that a Nazi plot to put Edward back on the throne when they invaded Britain was cooked up with Wallis’s involvement. Wallis’s notoriously dazzling smile on meeting Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1937. Edward’s frequent Nazi salutes during that trip, and cheerful fraternisation with the likes of Josef Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. Edward’s own admission in an article he wrote for the New York Daily News in 1966 that “along with too many other well-meaning people, I let my admiration for the good side of the German character dim what was being done to it by the bad”.” As his cousin Prince Ferdinand of Prussia said that Edward, “was quite pro-Hitler, said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or anything else, and added that the dictators were very popular these days and we might want one in England before long.” Let’s just say that having an affair with a twice divorced 40 year old American wasn’t the most scandalous thing about King Edward VIII despite it causing a constitutional crisis. It’s more likely he gave up the throne due to overwhelming evidence that he had vocal Nazi sympathies, which the Duke of Windsor {Edward VIII} would air in public until at least the 1960s. Still, even after his abdication, the British Government would send the former king to govern the Bahamas since his willingness to enter an alliance with Germany was seen as a threat.)

Edward VIII was called “Edward” by his family. (His family and friends called him, “David.”)

Edward VIII was a brooding hunk who gave up the throne because he couldn’t be the best king without the help and support of the woman he loved. (Edward VIII was pathologically hated by quite a number of people largely due to his being by all accounts, both selfish and an absolute jerk. Also, his abdication wasn’t a big sacrifice to him since he didn’t want to be king in the first place. After all, he didn’t want opening Parliament and christening ships get in the way of his jetting around the world to party and leave his stammering little brother do all the king stuff {which he dreaded and never got used to}. His relationship with Wallis was not what you’d call a great love story and more of what you’d see on a sleazy reality show on TLC. He’s said to be a whiny and needy husband while Wallis was kind of a nagging shrew though at best it would’ve been a relationship you’d call, shall we say dysfunctional. According to the Guardian: “One close friend, Mrs. Humphrey Butler, recalled a scene at a dinner party when the then Prince of Wales asked Wallis for a light. “Have you done your duty?” Wallis asked. “Little man gets on his haunches, puts up his hands and begs like a dog,” remembered Mrs. Butler. “She then lights his cigarette. Horrible to see.”” Not to mention, Wallis didn’t really want Edward to abdicate or marry him but she was sick of him by then. She may have given in if there was a crown involved, but she knew she was trapped by the time of Edward VIII’s abdication. They may have stayed together until Edward’s death but their married life consisted of the couple indulging in their hobbies of throwing house parties where they screamed at each other in front of guests, having affairs, and talking about how great Hitler even well into the 1960s. Seriously, Madonna, why make a movie about this romance which really wasn’t that great?)

Edward VIII wanted children. (If he wanted kids, he wouldn’t have married Wallis Simpson who was like 40 by their wedding. To suggest that he wanted to have children is untrue.)

Edward VIII was drunk during the abdication crisis. (He was actually sober throughout the whole ordeal for which his friend Stanley Baldwin gave him credit for. Still, abdicating the throne for his brother was probably the best thing he ever did and Britain was so much better off because of it.)

Edward VIII was the first British monarch to abdicate. (Richard II, Lady Jane Grey, and James II gave up the throne in their lifetimes, though they probably didn’t have much of a choice. Edward VIII was the first British monarch to do it without having someone trying to overthrow him.)

Edward VIII put Benzedrine into champagne at a cocktail party. (Actually his friend MP Chips Channon did this.)

King George VI:

George VI started working with his speech therapist Lionel Logue a few years before the abdication crisis. (He had actually been working together before his daughters were born back in the 1926 and they both hit it off immediately. Still, George VI’s relationship with Logue in The King’s Speech was long considered vastly overstated though recently discovered letters from the future Queen Mother to Logue and Logue’s diaries tell a different story. Also, as early as 1927, he was seen as a decent orator thanks to Logue’s help that he managed to give a speech opening the Australian Parliament almost free from error. By 1934, he had rarely visited Logue since his speech had improved but he turned to his therapist again after his brother’s abdication.)

To help his stuttering, George VI used to have his mouth stuffed with marbles. (That’s straight out of My Fair Lady {but a rather common treatment since the time of Demosthenes} though Charles I used to correct his speech by stuffing his mouth full of pebbles and talking to himself. I guess neither did the trick saving his head. Also, George VI’s stammering manifested itself when he was 8 not 4 and it was relatively mild compared to what’s portrayed in The King’s Speech. Still, this doesn’t mean it was less of a problem to him because it certainly was.)

George VI was against Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. (It may be heavily implied in The King’s Speech but Bertie actually supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy and endorsed it by breaching protocol before the sitting of the House of Commons. Still, though it may not have been a good move, most people in Britain supported it at the time, which would make sense since the country was still recovering from the devastation of World War I. Edward VIII supported appeasement as well but for very different reasons.)

King George VI was crowned in Westminster Abbey during Lent. (Lent is usually around February to April depending on the year. George VI was crowned in May, which would mean that the Altar frontal at Westminster Abbey would’ve been white not purple as it is in The King’s Speech. Still, that coronation scene was probably filmed at the time and it’s not easy to change the vestments.)

King George VI retained a presence of dignity during his ascension to the throne. (He actually spent an hour sobbing in his mother’s presence because he really didn’t want to be king. Still, Bertie never got used to the gig.)

King George VI and Queen consort Elizabeth were greeted by the Roosevelts during their arrival at Hyde Park in June of 1939. (Actually the royal couple had accompanied FDR and Eleanor to Hyde Park several after days in Washington D. C. They arrived to the place with the Roosevelts.)

King George VI and his wife didn’t know how an elevator door worked. (Actually, Bertie served in the navy during World War I and had mastered far more complex machinery than an elevator door. Also, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon wasn’t born royal.)

Bertie chose his regal name George VI because his given name Albert seemed too German. (He actually chose George as his regal name out of respect for his father.)

Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (a. k. a. the future Queen Mother):

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon believed that Edward VIII was destined for greatness. (She actually believed the opposite based on what she was writing and saying at the time. Also, it was her popularity that won her husband’s favor to the throne.)

Queen consort Elizabeth wore her Balmoral hats in the 1930s. (She didn’t start wearing them until World War II.)

Lionel Logue:

Lionel Logue always referred George VI as “Bertie.” (Yes, they were friends but Logue never called George VI by his nickname or swore in his presence, as an exercise in proper decorum.)

Myrtle Logue had no idea that her husband was treating George VI until she saw Queen consort Elizabeth help herself some tea in her parlor. (She knew all about her husband’s most famous patient by George VI’s ascension. She and her husband were even presented at court to Bertie’s parents in a show of gratitude for Lionel’s work. Myrtle even wrote about the experience in an Australian newspaper. Still, you need a scene like that in The King’s Speech.)

Stanley Baldwin:

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin resigned over misjudging Hitler. (Actually this wasn’t the case. He resigned because he just wanted to retire after 15 years as Conservative Party leader. Also, in 1937, Hitler hadn’t even begun his invasion and treaty breaking yet.)

Stanley Baldwin invited Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson to a dinner party at his house before the abdication crisis. (Actually Baldwin only met Wallis Simpson once in May of 1936 at a dinner party hosted by Edward VIII but didn’t realize her significance until months afterward.)

Neville Chamberlain:

Neville Chamberlain was an idiot and a stupid coward for appeasing Hitler and hijacking his own country at the Munich Accord prior to World War II. (As much as movies would rip on Chamberlain for letting Hitler take Austria and Czechoslovakia, more recent historians have said that he knew full well what he was getting into before the negotiations took place. For one, he was already quietly preparing his nation for war so he didn’t expect the peace to hold but didn’t think his country was ready to take on Hitler yet. Many say that Chamberlain made peace with Hitler just to stall for time. He also promised to defend Poland’s independence if it were attacked, which made Britain one of the first nations to enter the war. Second, Britain lost about a million lives in the last war with Germany so any option short of war would have looked good if the alternative was going through that again. Third, there were many British conservatives who were at least passively pro-Nazi who at least viewed Hitler as preferable to the USSR if not outright admirable, even in Chamberlain’s own party and among the royal family like King Edward VIII. Not to mention, despite the later historical notoriety, Chamberlain’s actions were popular among the British at the time and somehow made better sense if you know the context since appeasement just seemed as the only politically acceptable option back in the 1930s. Fourth, Chamberlain knew that the British and the French wouldn’t support war if he had been seen to reject diplomacy. Chamberlain’s action may have looked like a stupid decision but he had thought the whole thing through.)

Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang:

Bishop Cosmo Lang breathlessly revealed to King George VI that Lionel Logue wasn’t a doctor. (Everyone already knew that by the time George VI became king. Also, Bertie always referred to his speech therapist either as “Logue” or “Mr. Logue.”)

Wallis Simpson:

Wallis Simpson’s second marriage was filled with domestic abuse. (Sorry, Madonna, but I could find no evidence that Wallis Simpson’s second marriage was an abusive relationship since they remained friends after they divorced. Still, Ernest Simpson did cheat on her childhood friend whom he later married.)

R. J. Mitchell:

R. J. Mitchell worked himself to death on the creation of the Spitfire. (He did work despite the pain of his illness tweaking and perfecting his design up until his death. However, designer Joseph Smith had already taken over the primary design work by the time of the first flight of the Spitfire prototype.)

R. J. Mitchell suffered from tuberculosis during the 1930s while working on the Spitfire. (It’s implied in his Leslie Howard portrayal in the 1942 First of the Few, but his real illness was rectal cancer. He had a colostomy in 1933.)

R. J. Mitchell’s meeting with Willy Messerschmitt during his visit in Germany during the late 1930s convinced him to design the Spitfire. (Mitchell had never visited Germany or met Willy Messerschmitt. Also, he had been already working on the Spitfire since 1931.)

R. J. Mitchell died as the first Spitfire prototype took to the skies. (He actually lived over 15 months after the first flight which was in 1936. Oh, and he actually saw his creation take to the skies. Mitchell would die in 1937.)

Douglas Bader:

In 1930, Douglas Bader attempted doing low-level aerobatics when he was goaded into a disparaging remark to do just that. (He actually attempted to do this on a dare. But like in Reach for the Sky, he ended up crashing which resulted in having both of his legs amputated.)

Miscellaneous:

People at rich estates were especially prone to getting murdered at social gatherings during this time. (A lot of murder mysteries tend to take place in 1930s Great Britain, don’t ask. Not to mention, 1930s Great Britain is a typical setting for most movies based on Agatha Christie novels.)

Dora Carrington successfully committed suicide shortly after Lytton Strachey died in 1932. (She did shoot herself but she did it 2 months after Strachey’s death. She died half a day later after being found by a gardener.)

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were always called by their respective names when they were home with their parents. (They were always called by “Lilibet” and “Margo” respectively when they were at home with their parents. Still, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were undeniably 13 and 9 respectively in 1939, they don’t seem to age a day over the course of The King’s Speech. Guess Hooper didn’t want to hire more child actresses in order to save money.)

Winston Churchill, Bishop Cosmo Lang, and Neville Chamberlain turned up to Buckingham Palace to witness King George VI’s war broadcast in September of 1939. (They had better things to do. Also, a large crowd didn’t gather outside Buckingham Palace that day to congratulate George VI on overcoming his stammer.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 62 – 1930s Great Britain

  1. I guess people are a bit hard on Neville Chamberlain. Hindsight is 20/20. It makes sense that he may have been trying to buy some time before getting into another war.
    The King’s Speech was such a good movie.

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