Victoria the Great was made in 1937 and was based on Laurence Housman’s play Victoria Regina which had been highly successful on Broadway. Since it was unlawful for the royal family to be portrayed on stage at that time, Edward VIII commissioned producer Herbert Wilcox to turn it into a film instead to mark the centenary of Victoria’s reign. The film, primarily focused on Queen Victoria’s early reign, starred Anna Neagle as Victoria and Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert and was primarily shot in black and white with the Diamond Jubilee scene at the end in full technicolour. The success of the films brought Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox to the attention of Hollywood and they would go on to make a series of American films together, including Nurse Edith Cavell (1939). Neagle and Wilcox married in 1943 after returning to the UK, and they would continue to make successful films together.
Since the film had been commissioned by Edward VIII, the producers were given unprecedented access to royal buildings, such as Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, Osborne House and Buckingham Palace, and photographs were used to ensure the rooms were recreated as accurately as possible. While the film was being made, plans were underway for the coronation of George VI which likely boosted the appeal of the film.
Both actors were praised for their performances, particularly Anton Walbrook, who had been able to question Albert’s children who were still alive. The same level of detail was employed in the creation of the royal wardrobe which was painstakingly copied by Doris Zinkeisen, a Scottish stage designer, from paintings and photographs.
Victoria the Great premiered on 16 September 1937 at the Leicester Square Theatre in front of a celebrity audience and large crowds blocked the adjoining streets. Since the film was such a success, the cast were quickly reassembled for the sequel Sixty Glorious Years, however it wasn’t so much a sequel as a reworking of the same story in technicolour with a few different storylines added for good measure.
While the film looks sumptuous, there’s no denying the performances seem a little stiff to the modern eye and the two leads barely get away with playing the young Victoria and Albert. There are plenty of opportunities for Neagle to showcase her dancing skills throughout the film, however she looks like she is walking on tiptoes most of the time which makes her movement in the gowns seem rather odd.
The plot is mostly accurate, although it is padded with the odd embellishment which is presumably intended to educate an audience unfamiliar with Victoria and Albert’s background. There’s a lot of story to pack into 112 mins so there are times when it appears like a series of disjointed scenes strung together.