The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)


  • directed by Michael Curtiz
  • starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell
  • A depiction of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

“The necessities of a queen must transcend those of a woman.”

Fascinated. I think that’s the word that best describes my state of being throughout the film. I was fascinated by the sheer ambition of the project. I was fascinated watching how the behind the scenes turmoil seasoned what ended up on screen. And I was fascinated by Bette Davis, who was gutsy enough to believe she could hit a grand slam as Elizabeth I, the powerful Queen somewhere around 30 years her senior.

First things first, I’ve so far seen Curtiz adapt to all manner of styles and here he was able to suppress many individual elements of chaos and somehow turn in a film that was cohesive, yet at the same time straddled a few genre borders. The film was an adaptation of the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson and its story boldly utilized romantic comedy-style plot devices to color the very serious and complex affair between Elizabeth and the Earl at a time when the country of England and the throne was rife with conflict. Why wasn’t the film called Elizabeth the Queen? Because Errol Flynn insisted on his character being present in the title. Why wasn’t it called Curtiz’s next choice, The Knight and the Lady? Because Bette Davis slapped that down. So Curtiz and producers targeted a compromise, something I’m sure they had to do countless times during production.

Davis and Flynn did not like each other, to say the least, and both thought the other had no place being in the film. A slap by her to him early on was said to have been the real, painful thing, and Flynn’s reaction did reveal a bit of authentic surprise and anger. This didn’t need to be a problem at all as half of their relationship is leveraging for power and filled with jealousy and rage. If they could just get through those softer moments when they are obsessed in love then no harm at all, but alas, the huge problem was the fact that this all led to a gaping black hole where the pair’s chemistry should have been. Individually they both showed up to do what they do, but together, I could see on their faces the desperate waiting for Curtiz to call “cut!” Speaking of the director, he typically didn’t care much for his actors’ feelings anyway, so that makes three moving parts, each holding in their head the true and correct way to do things.

Errol Flynn was absolutely the right person for the Earl. His battle scenes and the intricate finale would have felt completely different in another’s hands. He must have been utterly exasperated by his co-star and antagonistic director, yet he portrayed the character’s mix of macho ambition and tenderness with the brand of relaxedness that is trademark Flynn. Olivia de Havilland also fared very well although she was consistently swallowed by Davis’ antics and even the scenery itself. I, along with the script, needed much more de Havilland, and if only the Davis and Flynn show could have taken on another passenger, I think the film would have benefited greatly from having a much more pronounced third wheel.

With all that being said, I was completely fascinated by Davis’ performance and I have a lot of respect for her for taking such a huge chance. 1938 and 1939 were busy years for Bette and, aside from a few great performances, I’m left applauding most of all her wide-ranging choices and the serious work in which she invested herself. This was the biggest of them all and required that she shave her eyebrows and part of her head and act ruthless at times and pathetic at others. Really the best I can say about it was that it came across as extremely campy, not the reaction anybody involved wanted, but an OK compliment in my book. She didn’t have the command necessary to play an elder stateswoman lamenting the days of her youth while at the same time ordering executions and directing military assignments. She went for it 100 percent, and I loved her for it, but it came off as a lot more posturing than it did innate strength.

All of this led to what I saw as a very ambitious spectacle and something enjoyable maybe for the wrong reasons. The star of the film for me was the scoring, set design, and costumes, but the main thread, the incongruous union of Elizabeth and Essex, Davis and Flynn, was something I couldn’t help but gawk at rather than cherish. I never did buy it, but through their relationship on screen and the disparities in age, rank, and who had the upper hand at what time, did make for one hell of an interesting film.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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