The King’s Speech—January 17, 2011—Prytania Theatre, New Orleans 70115


The personal tragedy of an individual of marginal importance in history can be quite moving.  King George VI was not one of the mover’s and shakers of the 20th century, although he sat on England’s throne during World War II and was the last to wear the Crown of Emperor of India created for his great-grandmother Victoria a bare 67 years before his reign.  This movie shows Prince Bertie/King George VI: in perhaps the truest light, not only was he not one of the century’s (or even two decades’) movers and shakers, he manifests himself most sympathetically as one who was profoundly moven and shaken by the events of his time, in spite of his high rank and title.

The Duke of York’s personal tragedy was a speech impediment which so moved the people of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and all the other English-speaking dominions that it is engraved on the minds of anyone who lived in that era (even Americans) if they were at all aware of England’s role in the world war.  Colin Firth captures the King’s stuttering as a result of childhood abuse and the film encapsulates it rather well for what it was really symbolic of—the hesitant stuttering of the British Empire as it muddled on through its last decade of existence.

Throughout my youth my conservative parents and grandparents (all Americans born in either Louisiana or Texas, but excessively enthusiastic Anglophiles) drilled into my head that Edward VIII had betrayed his heritage and his empire by marrying the heiress Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson from Baltimore.  That aspect of the tragedy is covered in this movie which also tacitly concerns how Princess Elizabeth became so popular, and ultimately queen.

For the first time made public (at least to my mind) is that Prince Bertie (George VI) spent years trying to overcome his speech impediment by and through the loyal services of a Harley Street (City of Westminster) Australian-born speech therapist (who actually lacked any formal medical credentials) named Lionel Logue who very sympathetically put up with the King’s (also to me heretofore unknown) arrogant bad temper.   Lionel Logue saw George VI as a friend, which (again reflecting the personal tragedy) apparently no one else did see.

It has been one of the most interesting points of hypothetical speculation about 20th century history to wonder what would have happened if King Edward VIII had aggressively “taken charge” in 1936 and insisted on marrying Wallis Warfield Simpson in the face of the Prime Minister’s opposition.  Would it perhaps have saved the British Empire if the monarch had been stronger and taken a bold modern step?  As one who watched the fairytale marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana blossom and then decay into a nasty modern divorce of simply sleazy series of episodes involving reference by HRH Charles of Wales to tampons and Diana ultimately dying in Paris in the company of the son of a slimy Arab purchaser of the quintessentially English Harrod’s Department store probably as a result of reckless driving by a drunken chauffeur—I think England could have benefitted from the much more minor scandal of Prince David (Edward VIII) insisting on marrying whomsoever he pleased, even if she were not royal, was a commoner in fact, from one of the (former) colonies, and twice divorced.  Such a revolt against religious strictures relating to marriage has at least as distinguished an English history as Henry VIII (It could have been said that “VIII is the number for royal marriage revolt—Henry VIII to Edward VIII”). (Or alternatively “VIII is the number for revolting royal marriages…”).

But the simple truth is that Edward VIII eschewed his education and birthright, became Duke of Windsor, flirted with Nazis and Naziism, and generally was an embarrassment to England and the Empire, living in self-imposed exile and (all but social) obscurity until his death in Paris in 1972.

The movie is wonderful “history lite” with one of the worst likenesses I’ve ever seen of Winston Churchill playing the Lord of the Admiralty and World War II PM.  All the characters are charming and unoffensive, even Wallis Warfield Simpson, and the sidebar references to Hitler and the War are as innocuous as those old newsreels of the Fuhrer speaking to the assembled hundreds of thousands in Nuremberg could possibly be.  There is even a cameo appearance of the actual 1937 Coronation itself embedded in the movie.  I think my grandmother and grandfather would have poked lots of holes in the historical fabric just because “they were there” and knew about so much of the historical context, and they would complain bitterly about the action of the movie ending on September 3, 1939, at the beginning of World War II rather than showing the harsher wartime reality of the stuttering King’s reign.

But it was good to be back at the old Prytania Theatre near Jefferson in Uptown New Orleans close to Audubon Park and Tulane, and to feel that history lives on in one form or another.  The really important point here is to preserve the memory of the last decade of the British Empire in all its stuttering, hesitating reality as embodied by its unwilling, stuttering, hesitating King, who loved his daughters and endearingly describes himself to the little princesses Margaret and Elizabeth as a Penguin who transforms into a gigantic Albatross (go figure?) early on in the movie.

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