The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

*. The title was the result of a clash of egos between two of Warner Bros. biggest stars. The source play by Maxwell Anderson was Elizabeth the Queen. Errol Flynn, however, demanded that his character be acknowledged. Bette Davis then objected to the studio’s compromise, The Knight and the Lady, because it gave Flynn precedence in what she felt, correctly, was “a woman’s story.”
*. All of this is juicy stuff for film historians or anyone interested in tales of old Hollywood. What I found puzzling, given Flynn’s objections, is why he even wanted to be in this picture, playing this character. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was a fool and his life ended in a bathetic attempt at a coup. On top of that, the romance here was a decidedly odd sort, as Essex was a pretty toy-boy and Elizabeth a toothless horror held together by corsets and face paint. In real life Flynn and Davis were nearly the same age, but the historical Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than Essex. They were never lovers. The “romance,” in other words, was just another chapter in the Tudor myth.
*. Well, the movies have always loved the Tudor myth. Given a choice between filming the fact or the legend, they’ll go with the legend. Hence The Private Life of Henry VIII and, closer to our own time, Shekhar Kapur’s double-barreled Elizabeth biopics (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age). But the thing is, in this case wouldn’t the actual historical story have been more interesting? Maybe not in 1939, but today? I think it would. I mean, even Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) was more historical than this, at least in some ways.
*. One has to wince at the palpable dishonesty in the romantic coupling. Davis and Flynn disliked one another pretty intensely, with bad blood spilling over from The Sisters, a movie they had played together in a couple of years earlier. Davis had wanted Olivier to play Essex but the studio wanted a bigger name.
*. To say that the two have no chemistry would be an understatement. Flynn in particular seems to almost recoil within their passionate embraces. Even their acting styles are awkwardly juxtaposed, with Davis creating an affected Elizabeth all tremulous voice and fidgety hands, with a nodding head suggesting senility. Thrown in a scalp shaved back two inches off her forehead and eyebrows plucked and you’re not far from the grotesqueness of her turn in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

*. Flynn, playing opposite, looks as though he isn’t even trying. Which in itself might have been interesting, as Davis is seen doing all the work while he just has to strut about in tights looking good. This, in turn, would have fit with a more realistic interpretation of the historical events being dramatized, with the foolish Essex trying to play the queen and ending up getting burned. But as it is I think we’re meant to take seriously the idea that the two are in love, with poor Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) left to pine in the wings (actually, Lady Penelope Gray was Essex’s sister).
*. So instead of really digging into this weird anti-romance we’re stuck with “a woman’s story,” full of clenches and protestations of love that can never be consummated. The dialogue is hard to take, at least at this distance. Saith the earl: “If things had been different, you simply a woman, not a queen, and I a man, with no crown between us, we could have searched heaven and earth for two perfect lovers and ended the search with ourselves.” A warning: It’s all like that.
*. Directed without much imagination by Michael Curtiz. Shot in Technicolor with lots of cardboard sets and heavy costumes (literally heavy; apparently some of Davis’s dresses weighed 60 pounds). Plenty of veteran hands in the background: Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon, Alan Hale, Sr. (the Skipper’s dad) as the Earl of Tyrone, Henry Daniell as Sir Rober Cecil (the snake who would survive), and Vincent Price just introducing himself as Raleigh in pink tights. I doubt Clive Owen was taking notes. A great score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
*. I’m not sure what people thought of Davis’s performance at the time. Today it’s too much, especially piled on top of such a melodramatic script, which even gives her a mirror-smashing scene to go full diva in. I’d call it camp, but when you set it alongside something like Elizabeth: The Golden Age it doesn’t seem that out of place, making me think that maybe camp was somehow of the essence of the Tudor myth. And further wonder why the silliest parts of that myth have been so long lived. I understand the perennial appeal of the Tudors, but the way we see them really should have evolved more than it has.

30 thoughts on “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        No smoke without fire. I suspect everyone, and yet I suspect no-one. But noted that you seem to be reveling in video footage of prominent Scots being decapidated, just sayin’.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I see my work here will never be done. Good thing the comments are turned off on this strange guy’s YouTube video I’m watching.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Well, can’t say I took many notes. Thought there was going to be something about Daniel Craig and Jennifer Lawrence but I guess that was all clickbait.

      4. tensecondsfromnow

        Once you’ve forked out for four years of education, I’ll be happy to share stories of my showbiz mates. But for now, I can see the windows steaming up as you press your hot little forehead against the glass, hoping for a glimpse of the glitterati like myself….

  1. fragglerocking

    Errol Flyn should have stuck to being Robin Hood. I know B.Davis is one of the hollywood ‘greats’ but I never was keen on her in anything I saw, though I was pretty young when this type of movie was on TV.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      The casting is weird. They didn’t like each other. Davis doesn’t feel right for the part. Flynn didn’t want to be here. The romance angle is uncomfortably creepy. The whole thing is off.

      Reply

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