History in the Movies: “The King’s Speech”

Critics and audiences have embraced “The King’s Speech,” which explores the unusual relationship between England’s King George VI (father of the current monarch, Elizabeth II) and his speech therapist. The movie seems primed for Oscar glory. The acting is superb, particularly Colin Firth as the shy, stammering king, and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his quirky Australian therapist. And the story is both timely-what with Prince William’s recent engagement spurring public interest in all things Windsor-and inspiring. Who could have imagined that overcoming a stutter would make for such gripping drama?

But is the film good history? Here’s a guide to what it gets right, and what it misses.

Q. Did King George really stutter that badly?

A. The film shows Bertie (as he was known to family and friends) stammering constantly, in both formal and informal settings alike. He even stutters while telling a story to his young daughters. But that seems an exaggeration. His stammer apparently receded with family and friends. And even some of Bertie’s recorded speeches from the era show little evidence of it.

Yet, perhaps the film’s exaggeration points to a deeper truth. Although the stammer was not as chronic as shown, Bertie apparently lived in constant dread of its recurrence. As a royal, he had frequent public speaking duties, which were a life-long ordeal. His wife Elizabeth (later to be the Queen Mother) was affected as well. A contemporary observer from the 1920s describes a dinner where the future King George rose to speak, and his anxious young wife gripped the table so hard her knuckles grew white. Even years later the recollection of those years pained her. According to The New York Times, when research on “The King’s Speech” first began in the 1980s, the Queen Mother’s approval was sought. “Please, not during my lifetime,” she said. “The memory of these events is still too painful.” The film was put off until after her death in 2002.

Q. The film shows a speech “expert” telling Bertie to smoke cigarettes, and to fill his mouth with marbles to cure his stammer. Was that kind of advice typical?

A. Bertie went to many speech therapists, to no avail, before meeting Logue, but it’s not clear whether he ever received that particular “treatment.” The marbles therapy originated with Demosthenes, and continued to be used into the 20th century. The idea was that marbles (or pebbles-Demosthenes’ original suggestion) stuffed into the mouth caused stutterers to speak slowly and carefully, in order to avoid swallowing the marbles. Clearly, lawsuits were not an issue in Demosthenes’ day.

As for the smoking, Bertie probably needed little encouragement there. He smoked heavily his whole life, and the habit led eventually to lung cancer, contributing to his early death (he was just 56) in 1952.

Q. Was Lionel Logue really so casual with the future King George?

A. Yes and no. Logue did insist that the Duke of York (Bertie’s title at the time) come to Logue’s office for therapy, which was a breach of protocol. Typically, people waited upon the royals, not vice versa. But he probably didn’t go so far as to call him “Bertie.” Letters between the two suggest a more formal relationship than the film shows, with Logue typically addressing the duke (later king) as “Your Royal Highness.”

Yet, journalist Peter Conradi, co-author of the book, “The King’s Speech,” argues persuasively that the film is right to emphasize the friendship between the two men. After King George’s death, the Queen Mother wrote to Logue, acknowledging their close relationship. “I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the king,” she wrote, “not only with his speech, but through … his whole life and outlook on life.”

Q. How long did Logue treat the future king?

A. For dramatic tension, the filmmakers tightened the real-life chronology. The film appears to take place during just a few years, culminating in the king’s speech in September 1939, at the outbreak of World War II. But Logue actually began treating the Duke of York in 1926. Bertie was a model pupil, and practiced Logue’s prescribed vocalization exercises so diligently that, within a few years, his confidence and speech delivery improved dramatically, and he effectively ended his sessions with Logue. By the early 1930s, in fact, the duke was visiting Logue’s office only rarely, and the two kept in infrequent contact through letters.

But when Bertie unexpectedly ascended to the throne (after his elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American), he once again sought Logue’s help. So the film is correct in showing Logue working closely with King George through his coronation speech, as well as assisting him in many of the significant speeches that followed. The two stayed close until the king’s death in 1952.

Q. Did Logue keep his wife unaware of his famous patient?

A. It makes for a funny scene, but it’s not true. In fact, Logue’s wife Myrtle was invited to be presented at court to King George V and Queen Mary (Bertie’s parents) just a year or so after Logue began treating Bertie, as a gesture of appreciation toward the Logue family. Myrtle wrote an enthusiastic account of the experience for an Australian newspaper, describing the feathers, pearls and train that adorned her court dress.

Q. Wallis Simpson, the love interest (and later wife) of Bertie’s older brother David, comes off as quite the shrew. Is that accurate?

A. Shrewishness is in the eye of the beholder. Americans then and now tended to see Prince David (a.k.a. King Edward VIII) and Wallis Simpson as a romantic hero and heroine, and have sighed dreamily over his decision to give up the throne for the woman he loved.

The English, however, were shocked and appalled. They saw King Edward’s decision to abdicate as deeply dishonorable, and Simpson as scheming and selfish. Suffice it to say that the English interpretation holds sway in this film.

Q. What’s a good source for more information?

A. Journalist Peter Conradi teamed with Mark Logue (Lionel’s grandson) to write “The King’s Speech,” which adds context and nuance to the film’s story. It’s well worth a read.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies

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