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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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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), 1 more credit »
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Title: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) on IMDb 7.3/10

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Nominated for 5 Oscars. See more awards »



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Complete credited cast:
Earl of Tyrone
Henry Stephenson ...
James Stephenson ...
Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (as Nanette Fabares)
Ralph Forbes ...
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

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


To give the illusion of baldness, Bette Davis shaved her head two inches in front to show a high forehead under Elizabeth's red wigs. See more »


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


Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: And now, may I go? This dying sticks in my mind and makes me poor company.
See more »


Edited into Adventures of Don Juan (1948) See more »


Love's Answer
Lyrics written by Walter Raleigh
Sung by Olivia de Havilland (dubbed by Faith Kruger)
Lute playing dubbed by an anonymous lutist
See more »

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User Reviews

Davis and Flynn, Mismatched Lovers in Anderson Play...
7 October 2003 | by (Las Vegas, Nevada) – See all my reviews

Until her death, at 81, in 1989, screen legend Bette Davis would express a combination of bitterness and disappointment over the Maxwell Anderson play that came to the screen as THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. She had lobbied hard for the WB to buy the rights, certain that, at age 31, it would be her greatest acting triumph to date (quite a prediction from an someone who'd already won two 'Best Actress' Oscars). ELIZABETH THE QUEEN was a Broadway sensation, but the studio was reluctant to gamble on it; the few Hollywood attempts to do royal epics had failed (MARY OF Scotland, with Katharine Hepburn in the lead, and John Ford directing, had been a major flop, and helped the actress gain the title 'Box Office Poison'), and it appeared that only the British could make this kind of film work.

Nevertheless, when your biggest (and most headstrong) female star wants something, you GET it for her, so the rights were purchased, and ELIZABETH THE QUEEN was announced as 'prestige' production to be filmed with Davis as the lead. Then the problems began...

For the pivotal role of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the ambitious lover who nearly costs Elizabeth her crown, Davis wanted Laurence Olivier, who, at 32, had already established himself as one of the finest actors on two continents. Darkly handsome, and renowned for his interpretations of Shakespeare, the future British lord had created quite a stir in Hollywood, aided by the fact that his lover was Vivien Leigh, who'd won the coveted role of 'Scarlet O'Hara' in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Unfortunately, Olivier was committed to play Heathcliff in the Goldwyn production of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The search for a British actor of equal stature proved fruitless; Robert Donat was filming GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (for which he'd win an Oscar), Leslie Howard was finishing GONE WITH THE WIND and in preproduction for INTERMEZZO, Ronald Colman was involved in THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, even Cary Grant was busy, shooting GUNGA DIN... ...But Errol Flynn, Warner's biggest male star, WAS available...

Davis had worked with Flynn a year earlier, in THE SISTERS, and it had NOT been a pleasant experience. Prone to taking things as easy as possible, and playing practical jokes on his co-stars, he took advantage of his classic good looks and natural charm to 'get away' with not knowing his lines and frequent tardiness (he was a world-class carouser and womanizer, away from the camera). Davis, who was always punctual, knew everybody's dialog, and could be quite temperamental, considered him unprofessional, and crude.

But Flynn had become a major star, and the WB, trying to insure ELIZABETH would be a success, overrode Davis' objections, and cast him as Essex...and Flynn immediately demanded a title change. He felt he was as big a star as Davis, and that the film title should reflect his status; so ELIZABETH THE QUEEN first became THE KNIGHT AND THE LADY, which Davis vehemently refused to accept, then THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, which she disliked, as well, but had to accept.

The filming was an unhappy affair. Both Flynn and Davis had difficulties with director Michael Curtiz, resulting in Davis' performance being 'over-the-top', and Flynn's so underplayed that he failed to grasp Essex's character, often appearing shallow. In one scene, Davis was supposed to slap Flynn; rather than do a 'staged' one, which would barely touch him, she hit him full force, wearing a heavy ring, which brought tears to his eyes, and broke, momentarily, his composure (the moment is in the completed film; watch, quickly, and you can see Flynn 'lose his cool'!) Flynn responded by a series of escalating practical jokes, with Davis threatening to kill him. Even co-star Olivia De Havilland was unhappy, having just completed GONE WITH THE WIND, and back at Warners in a decidedly secondary role. That the film 'worked' at all was a testament to Davis' perseverance, the glorious Technicolor-filmed sets, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's spectacular musical score.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX garnered mixed reviews for Davis (although she would be praised for how convincingly she portrayed the much older woman), and terrible ones, for Flynn (which would be used against him, in future, whenever he asked for more substantial roles).

Davis would again play Elizabeth, 16 years later, in the British production, THE VIRGIN QUEEN, but she never lost her resentment over the failure of the earlier film.

In a year of 'classics', THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX would be an exception!

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