A classy (but under-90-minute) bio-pic, which gratefully provides a smiling Charles Laughton plenty of time for speechifying. The story goes that Rembrandt started painting a commissioned portrait of some rich officers, but the painting turned dark after his wife Saskia died of illness, hence “The Night Watch.” Much criticism follows, Rem falls in with housekeeper Geertje and goes through dark times, loses all his possessions, then ten years later dumps her for newer, younger housekeeper Hendrickje. Together they creatively avoid Rem’s debts by saying he has no personal wealth and works for a dealership run by Hendrickje and Rem’s son Titus, thus all paintings belong to the dealer and can be sold. Hen eventually dies just like Rem’s first wife, and Rem lives out his days in poverty, begging on the street for money to buy paints but, being Charles Laughton, still looks awfully pleased with himself.
Roger Livesey, recognizable by his distinctive voice, gets a prime role as a beggar whom Rem wants to paint as a faded old king. Laughton, the year after Ruggles of Red Gap, and three after winning the oscar for Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII plays opposite stage actress Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje) and Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje), who was the Bride of Frankenstein just the previous year.
Wikipedia, the source of all truths, says Night Watch was never criticized, that Rembrandt was paid in full and the subjects were pleased, but confirms the story of the art dealership owned by Rembrandt’s son and girlfriend.
It’s a mid-career work by Korda, who was turning to production over direction – this was one of the last he’d direct himself – with help from writer Carl Zuckmayer (The Blue Angel), cinematographer Georges Périnal (some René Clair films, Blood of a Poet, Colonel Blimp) and art director Vincent Korda (who’d work with Ernst Lubitsch, Carol Reed and David Lean).