The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Approved  |   |  Biography, Drama, History  |  11 November 1939 (USA)
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A depiction of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.



(screen play), (screen play) (as Aeneas MacKenzie) , 1 more credit »
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Nominated for 5 Oscars. See more awards »



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Complete credited cast:
Henry Stephenson ...
Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (as Nanette Fabares)
Robert Warwick ...
Sir Edward Coke


This period drama frames the tumultuous affair between Queen Elizabeth I and the man who would be King of England, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Ever the victor on the battlefield, Devereux returns to London after defeating Spanish forces at Cadiz. Middle-aged Elizabeth, so attracted to the younger Devereux but fearful of his influence and popularity, sends him on a new mission: a doomed campaign to Ireland. When he and his troops return in defeat, Devereux demands to share the throne with the heir-less queen, and Elizabeth, at first, intends to marry. Ultimately sensing the marriage would prove disastrous for England, Elizabeth sets in motion a merciless plan to protect her people and preserve her throne. Written by IMDb Editors

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Elizabeth I's love for the Earl of Essex threatens to destroy her kingdom.


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Release Date:

11 November 1939 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Elizabeth and Essex  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


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Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Nanette Fabray's first film. See more »


Elizabeth completely smashes a mirror but in next shot a large shard of it still remains in the frame. See more »


Queen Elizabeth I: And when he takes you in his arms again, thank heaven you are not a queen.
Mistress Margaret Radcliffe: But I thought to be a queen...
Queen Elizabeth I: To be a Queen is to be less than human, to put pride before desire, to search Men's hearts for tenderness, and find only ambition. To cry out in the dark for one unselfish voice, to hear only the dry rustle of papers of state. To turn to one's beloved with stars for eyes and have him see behind me only the shadow of the executioner's block. A queen has no hour for love, time presses, and ...
See more »


Spoofed in Malibu Beach Party (1940) See more »


The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Come Live With Me and Be My Love)
(posthumous 1599) (uncredited)
Written by Christopher Marlowe
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Played on piano by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and sung by Nanette Fabray
See more »

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User Reviews

Not the dream team of the cinema
13 February 2006 | by (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was a personal triumph for Bette Davis in her portrayal of Elizabeth I of England. Davis was 31 when she played the Virgin Queen at the tail end of her regime, Elizabeth herself was 65 in 1601 when the action of this story takes place. It concerns her involvement with Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, a last foolish gesture on the part of a great monarch.

Davis hated working with Errol Flynn since doing The Sisters with him a year earlier. She was quoted as saying that when she had to kiss him she'd close her eyes and pretend it was Laurence Olivier. But I think Olivier might have had trouble making Essex a hero.

In point of fact he wasn't any kind of a hero. He was a vainglorious, conceited, egotistical cad of a human being who apparently only had talent in the bedroom. Now the bedroom part would have fit Flynn perfectly. But he became a military commander and leader and he bungled every job he was given.

The real Essex was played like a piccolo by the other members and rivals of the Elizabethan court. His main rival in the film is Robert Cecil played by Henry Daniell. In the film he is incorrectly identified as Lord Burghley's(Henry Stephenson's)son when in fact he was a nephew. Because it's Henry Daniell and he's a clever schemer he has to be the villain. In point of fact Cecil was a patriot in the best tradition. He was very concerned in fact about Essex's military ventures that they were nothing but missions of glory. Cecil's greatest contribution to English history was to come two years later when Elizabeth died, it's due to him that there was an orderly transition from the House of Tudor to the House of Stuart.

My favorite performance in this film is that of Alan Hale as Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone who led the Irish rebellion against the English at that time. What happens in court to Essex with his rivals there is nothing compared to the way O'Neill plays him. He leads him deeper into the Irish interior, using hit and run tactics and then cuts him off from his supply base. And then in surrendering O'Neill very cleverly sows the seed of more dissension by telling him what a great leader he was and the Irish could never have beaten him if he'd been backed up better from home. And Essex the rube falls for it.

Another good performance is Donald Crisp as Sir Francis Bacon. He's a wily old fox used to court politics Elizabethan style. Bacon tries to give Essex some good advice none of which Essex accepts. In the end Bacon gives up on Essex and just switches sides, lest he be brought down with him.

So what we have here is Bette Davis giving a great performance with a leading man she detested and Flynn trying desperately to breathe life and heroism into a character who wasn't terribly heroic. It would have defeated a better actor than Errol Flynn.

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