The Kings of 1937
The King’s Speech is the true story of the struggle of Albert, the Duke of York, to overcome his stuttering. Stuttering, often a problem for males, is connected to the boy’s conflict with his father, a literalized expression of the oppression of an abusive parent. The parent in question was George V, King of England, who eerily resembled his cousin, Nicholas, Czar of Russia. For all his faults, Nicholas appears to have been a devoted parent, but George did something quite dreadful to his sons, David and Albert. His dark and difficult presence lurks around the edges of The King’s Speech. The King, played by Michael Gambon, ruined the one son who would briefly become the King and nearly destroyed the younger one, who, in his turn, would also become the sovereign who won the love of the British public. Colin Firth, who will always be “Mr. Darcy,” won an Academy Award for his performance, revealing how a tormented Duke rose above his handicap and grew into his role as King. The metamorphosis of a man who dared not speak into the leader of a nation at war became a fulfilling film, well written and well acted by the pros, Helen Boham Carter, and the remarkable Geoffrey Rush.
Although The King’s Speech is generally uplifting and inspiring, winning Best Picture and Best Director, it suggests that there is still another movie to be made, much darker but more intriguing, about the uneasy characters seen only around the edges, David Windsor, played by Guy Pearce, and his paramour, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). To a certain extent, this corrupt couple acted as a foil to Albert and Elizabeth’s wholesomeness, their determined ordinariness and their good hearts. While Albert works with his speech coach, Lionel Lougue, played by Geoffrey Rush, and give himself permission to simply speak and overcome his internalized feelings of shame and inadequacy, his playboy brother cavorted with nefarious characters and carried on a serious flirtation with the fascists in England and Germany.
Although the timing was bad and the ruler of Germany was a monster, the loyalty of the Prince of Wales toward Germany was a perfectly natural one. One tends to forget that the British Royal Family has not had English or Scottish roots since George I from Hanover was offered the throne in 1714. Although George spent most of his time in Germany, spoke German and was surrounded by German advisors, he had the saving grace of being a Protestant. After “Bloody Mary,” no one in England wanted a Catholic on the throne. Anyone else would do. Not until George III, who gets rather bad press in America, did these German kings become British. It is this King, mad for part of his life, who began the British Empire, ironically by losing the American colonies, turning the attention of the imperialists elsewhere. Queen Victoria, the last of the Hanoverians, married another German, Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.
The family remained thoroughly German, through Edward VII and his son, the future King of England, Albert. Albert was ready to marry a German princess, Mary of Teck, when he died of pneumonia. But Mary, considered a valuable alliance, was passed on to the younger son, George, who became King George V. With a German mother, both sons, David and Albert, grew up speaking German. However, during the Great War, King George V changed the family name from “Saxe-Coburg Gotha” to “Windsor.” Although the film mentions that young Albert, the future George VI, was forced to use his right hand (Prince William is allowed to be left handed) and had to wear painful braces to correct his walk, it is unclear who was in charge of the children. Given their duties as King and Queen, it is likely that his parents merely neglected their sons, particularly the younger one, and abandoned him to severe minders and nannies. For whatever reasons, both David and Albert, both reacted strongly to their childhood and to their parents.
Often a young boy, in rebelling against his father, will develop an attachment to his mother that manifests itself in interesting ways. Young David grew up to be a playboy, rejecting a serious role as the future ruler and developing a penchant for older married women as his lovers. The fact that he was conflicted about sex is borne out by the many tales of his complicated relationship with Wallis Simpson. This twice-married woman from Baltimore with a drawling southern accent seemed to understand that abused people identify with an abuser and that this co-dependent relationship, unhealthy as it is, is also very powerful. Apparently, she was a dominatrix and satisfied the otherwise impotent Prince through humiliation. Her reputation was so bad that the government kept Mrs. Simpson a secret from the British public, which docilely endured censorship and even put up with bits and pieces sissored out of foreign media entering the country. The British government knew exactly who she was: a woman who collected men and had connections to Nazis in Germany.
The King’s Speech doesn’t go into what the British government did and did not do about this unsavory situation between the future king and his unacceptable mistress, but the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (played by Anthony Andrews, looking old and awful), did not want this man to be King. Coincidentally or not, it is at the point that the romance has taken hold and looks permanent that Albert the shy Duke of York comes to Lionel Logue to learn how to talk. The film suggests that his wife, Elizabeth, urged him to seek help from the Australian but there is also no question that the eyes of the government were upon him as a far better candidate for King. When Albert’s father died, David was deeply involved with Mrs. Simpson who certainly had dreams of becoming Queen or gaining a position similar to Camilla’s today. The new King, now Edward VIII, also certainly assumed that some sort of arrangement for Mrs. Simpson could be made.
But the government was having none of it: Baldwin wanted both of these people gone; Roosevelt wanted both of these people gone. The King and his mistress were Nazi sympathizers but why? Despite the fact that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson, the British had gone to war with the Germans from 1914 to 1918 and, for two decades, had harbored deep suspicions about the intentions of the defeated nation. Edward VIII may have invented the Windsor Knot, now the standard tie for most men, but, in his heart, he was as German as his mother. It seems that what little judgment he had was overwhelmed by his need to be his own man and to defy his father, who had changed the family name. Unfortunately, in the thirties, having cultural German sympathies meant being connected to Hitler.
Based on recently revealed F.B. I. files, new evidence of American and British investigations of the Nazi sympathies of the couple were revealed two years ago on British television. The National Geographic Channel picked up the program. But what is not given is a historical context for their involvement. In the thirties, fascism was favored by many people, particularly those in the ruling classes who feared communism. Wallis was more typical of many people in Europe and America in the 1930s in a time when political extremes were torn between communism and fascism. After the Wall Street crash, capitalism seemed an unstable system and any other system was perhaps preferable. In America, Roosevelt made a conscious effort to save capitalism and, along with it, democracy. Hitler who was elected in the same year as Roosevelt made another choice—fascism, an extreme right wing style of nationalism allied with corporation powers.
Many people, if not outright fascists, had fascist-like sympathies. After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Wallis seems to have been as naïve as her consort about the Nazis and blind to the underlying philosophy of horror that would sweep Germany into a decade of darkness. But Hitler had apparently spotted the couple as easily manipulated. One remembers how deeply Hitler was convinced that Germany and England were natural allies and that he waited a long time before attacking the British Isles. One could ask if Hitler had been equally naïve, thinking that the former King had more power than he actually had.
Reading between the lines of the brief rule of Edward VIII, it appears that while Albert was taking speech lessons, Baldwin and the government were cornering the King. He was given a choice give up Mrs. Simpson or abdicate. To everyone’s relief, he abdicated in 1937 to “marry the woman I love.” How romantic. Albert became King George VI. David became the Duke of Windsor and married Wallis Simpson in France. The modest wedding was quite rightly boycotted by the Royal Family. The Duke alternately raged at his brother the King and at the new Queen, but, in reality, the new prime minister, Churchill, was now in charge of the difficult Duke. It is at this point that the film ends with Edward VIII making his abdication speech with perfect diction. In a moving counterpoint, King George VI makes the triumphal and climatic speech without stuttering, introducing himself to the English people as their new King.
For an American audience, The King’s Speech is a story of how one man overcame an impediment with the help of a gifted and inventive and insightful teacher. But to those who heard that historic speech, there must have been a great sense of relief. They were in good hands. Surely the public did not know, until much later, what a narrow escape they had from a King who indeed wanted to surrender England to Hitler. Instead, they got a good King and Queen and their lovely daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, all steadfast in their defiance of Germany. Rather than a King cavorting with Hitler, as David actually did when he became the Duke of Windsor, newspapers printed images of a truly English King in uniform walking the ruins of bombed out London. The public would not know, until much later, that the Duke had actually recommended that Hitler bomb England to bring the nation to its knees…so he could be restored to the throne.
The King’s Speech is correctly the story of Lionel Logue and Albert Windsor but it is interesting to think of the story that is played out in the background: the King that didn’t happen. Guy Pearce had a small role but the brief appearance of “David and Wallis” is a reminder that the real story of this insidious couple has yet to be made into a movie. The twin stories, of the Good Brother and the Bad Brother, is one of the rare instances in history when Good wins out and Bad is sent into a purgatory of wandering the world in a semi-pariah state.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: Adolph Hitler, Anthony Andrews, Colin Firth, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Geoffrey Rush, George I, George III, George V, George VI, Guy Pearce, Helen Bonham Carter, King George V, Lionel Lougue, Mary of Teck, Michael Gambon, Queen Elizabeth, The King's Speech, Wallis Simpson