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One of my top 10 best movies of all time! This has to be Davis' best
dramatic performance ever - the voice, the mannerisms, the psychological
torment between Queen and woman. Never have I seen a character performance
like Davis' where she literally shakes with the emotion and tension she
feels! Even her eating habits are a source of fascination.
Flynn gives another dashing performance of an emotionally shallow, politically incorrect Essex - he never really quite understands just what he is dealing with until towards the very end. To Essex (and probably to Flynn too!) a woman is just a woman ready to acquiesce to her man at his whim and his detractors at court are simply disgruntled competitors for the affections of his woman. Honest and trustworthy, he has no time patience or comprehension of the treacheries of Raleigh and Cecil or the political considerations of Elizabeth.
Though the plot is quite straightforward it is the absorbing script that allows this actors' tour de force - this is one of the few movies ever where the lead characters are allowed to talk from their hearts. Davis portrays a bitingly intelligent woman in desperate need of one honest voice she can trust and depend upon in a sea of political plots and assorted self-interests. Her determination to rule her people wisely avoiding senseless wars is constantly assailed by her great doubts to continue to command respect and love of her people as she ages and must seek impartial counsel amongst a court of self-seeking, two-faced advisors. She walks the razor's edge of lonely command and tormented despair.
DeHavilland's Penelope is a pivotal character whose envy of the queen and discounting by Essex drives her to attempt to destroy their relationship but finally realises where her loyalties lie.
But the highlight of the film is the intimate exchanges between Essex and Elizabeth that bring out the very best and the very worst in each as they explore their true intentions and their boundaries. The quality of these exchanges are so good that they rival today's psychological thrillers as Elizabeth finally uncovers Essex's true ambitions. It makes you realise how few relationships today could withstand such sincere probing as to the real character of the couple. And the dramatic finale is truly heart-wrenching when Essex becomes the true unselfish hero Elizabeth has been seeking upon finally realising what he would do to England if he shared her throne and that even Elizabeth herself is prepared to sacrifice everything she holds most dear for the man she desperately loves.
They just don't write movies like this any more and it is an excellent example of a masterpiece that can never age.
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.
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!
This picture, based on Maxwell Anderson's play (written entirely in
blank verse!) portrays the Elizabeth of legend, not the historical
Elizabeth, in this case based on Lytton Strachey's book, "Elizabeth and
Essex". In other words, this is more a theatrical than a strictly
accurate presentation of the great queen and her times.
And what a presentation! Lynn Fontanne portrayed Elizabeth in the play's original Broadway run; Judith Anderson played her in the 1968 television presentation (opposite Charlton Heston!). Davis takes the part (re-written for the picture, discarding the blank verse) over the top. Her overactive, explosive performance might seem too much to some, but it definitely matches the style of the play itself, the sumptuous settings, gorgeously photographed, the historically accurate costuming, and Korngold's splashy, brilliant score, one of his best creations.
The supporting cast matches her at every turn. Even Flynn's performance, dismissed at the time as being lightweight, comes across as the ideal foil to the tempestuous, aging queen he's playing against.
Quite a treat, even after almost seventy years. Definitely of its time, but, understanding this, it can be thoroughly enjoyed.
This is a far cry from the sentimental ahistorical nonsense I was expecting. It is all about the machinations of power, the ruthlessness that a ruler must uphold so as not to endanger her kingdom, about the necessity to put oneself aside and think of the greater good. Michael Curtiz, with the inestimable help of Bette Davis in one of her most heartwrenching cinematic portrayals, gets all his sinister points across and does not flinch. Sure enough, the ending is more Hollywood, I believe, than London, more glamorous heroics than real-life sacrifice, but even so, it does not stick in your throat. I loved the amorous, innocent banter and bickering of the queen and the earl in their many intimate moments, and Errol Flynn never photographed better. Was there ever anyone in the annals of Hollywood more handsome? Olivia De Havilland tries on a slightly different role than the goody-goody, doe-eyed ones she usually had to make do with. Technicolor cinematography and lighting are both superb.
The main interest in this 1939 film is the great performance by Bette
Davis. It was a role she was born to play. Her input on the film makes
it work in unexpected ways. Under the direction of Michael Curtiz, the
stage play, by Maxwell Anderson, gets a great Technicolor production.
The adaptation by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas McKenzie, works well.
The main thing is not to look for real history in this movie. We are given a fictionalized account of what Mr. Anderson thought was drama, taking dramatic license along the way. With all that into account, the film rewards the viewers splendidly.
Errol Flynn was cast as Robert Devereux for his good looks, no doubt. He offers such a contrast against the aging Elizabeth, that one wonders what could have attracted these two souls into a love both felt for one another. Mr. Flynn is not as effective here as in some of his other vehicles, where he reigned supreme. In this movie, he is totally outfoxed by a cunning Bette Davis. Both stars brought their own chemistry to the roles and it's curious that after all the years since it was released, the film still fascinates.
Olivia de Havilland plays a minor role of Penelope. It's curious seeing her in some frames with Errol Flynn, her partner in many movies where they played lovers to better effect. The supporting cast is excellent. Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Nanette Fabray and Herny Daniell, among others, support the two stars well.
Ultimately this was one of the best films Bette Davis graced with her appearance. The film remains one of her signature creations. This Elizabeth offered her a role in which she could portray one of the strongest women in history. Ms. Davis outshines others whenever they are seen in scenes together.
Long live this queen! Long live Queen Bette!
Watching the newly restored DVD version of THE PRIVATE LIVES OF
ELIZABETH AND ESSEX gives this viewer a new appreciation of the lavish
attention to detail in sets, costumes--and even the performances
surrounding BETTE DAVIS in her showcase role as the Queen who is
unwilling to let the ambitious Earl of Essex share her throne. Flynn
fans won't be disappointed either. He's never looked handsomer as Lord
Davis seems unwilling to let anyone else steal the thunder from her fidgety display of histrionics. Costumed in the most brilliant array of historically correct costuming ever dreamed up by the Warner costume department, she gives a commanding display of histrionics that will fascinate even those who will undoubtedly accuse her of overacting or chewing the scenery on occasion.
And what scenery! Seldom has the lavishness of a Warner costume epic been captured by cinematographers as here. All of the courtroom scenes have the stately dignity and majesty of inspired paintings. And yet, despite all the rich atmosphere of court settings, the performances stand out as uniquely individual characterizations, thanks to Michael Curtiz's firm direction.
ERROL FLYNN, despite a few weaker scenes in the film's final moments, does a sterling job as Essex, matching Davis' fiery temperament with a strong display of courage, cunning and nobility as Essex.
OLIVIA de HAVILLAND, while demoted to a supporting role by Jack Warner (who never forgave her for outwitting him in her move to play a loan-out role as Melanie in GWTW), is breathtakingly gorgeous and shows that beneath that demure surface lurked an actress with sparks of her own to share with Davis.
The glittering supporting cast includes such stalwarts as Vincent Price (handsomely attired as Sir Walter Raleigh), Henry Stephenson, Donald Crisp--and in an uncredited role as a member of the Queen's guard, John Sutton. Notable in a small but effective scene is Nanette Fabray, at the very start of her career on screen.
Not historically accurate as far as Maxwell Anderson's legend goes (there was no romance between Elizabeth and Essex), but this is a fascinating version of his stage play, "Elizabeth the Queen".
Alan Hale does a superb job in a brief role as Tyrone (with Irish accent), cast as Errol's foe for a change. Watch the color cinematography in the marshes scene--subtle shades of pastel amid the fog shrouded swamps.
A magnificent, pulsating background score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold adds to the intrigue. The film itself is not entirely flawless--there are several scenes that move much too slowly. But all in all, it captures the court intrigue and sympathetically reveals the demands that a Queen must face when her throne is challenged by men just as ambitious (and ruthless) as she is to rule.
Director Michael Curtiz keeps things visually stirring throughout, as is his customary practice.
A final note: It cannot be emphasized enough that the new DVD version brings out all of the detailed splendor of sets, costumes and photography and makes it all the more compelling to watch. In fact, the whole viewing experience is quite different from the VHS version.
I saw this movie when I was a child in Mexican black and white TV. Now it has been released in DVD in Spain by Divisa(2005) It is clear that true history is absent in most of the historic events related to the story. Essex was actually married to Penelope Rich (and not Gray, as in the movie), which meant nothing to his relationship to the queen. The meeting with Ireland's clan chief Tyrone was thought alright as treason, but when Essex entered London no one rouse with him. He passed a lot of time in his house, far from London, before the Queen made any decision on his final destiny... also Briton's uniforms in Ireland look Spanish...etc. The strange thing is that the story itself, as told by Curtiz, functions well. Davies is great ( a little bit overacting, but, who cares?), as the uncommon woman Elizabeth must have been. She did'not want Flynn to play the part: she asked for Laurence Olivier, but I sincerely think Flynn gave the necessary gaiety and spirits Essex would have had in reality, and Olivier would have spoiled that by his well known acting excesses, playing dark and severe where there should be light and superficial. Both, Davies and Flynn, seem profoundly in love and hate. Constanty driving in and out from and to love and politics. I would'not say this is a great movie, but it's worth while seeing it! (Excuse my English, I write better in Spanish)
I think the last time I saw this movie was probably over thirty years ago on
the late-nite movie during Errol Flynn week. The local PBS station just
showed it tonight and I was very impressed. I hardly knew who Bette Davis
was back then, but now that I do know her, I was pleasantly surprised not to
see her in this movie. Her Elizabeth was so unlike what I've come to expect
from Davis that it was like seeing her for the first time.
Flynn, of course, is Flynn, and I refuse to say anything bad about a guy as handsome as him that wears thigh-high boots throughout the movie.
I thought the script was intelligent, the dialogue realistic, and the pacing pretty good. Yes, it flagged a couple of times, but never for more than a moment and the next scene picked it right up again. Except for de Haviland, the supporting cast doesn't have much to do and Vincent Price is more or less wasted. Those are minor quibbles, however, as overall the movie seems to have held up amazingly well.
I gave it a rating of 9 stars. It's not perfect, but it's very good, and Bette Davis is outstanding. And did I mention Flynn's boots?
The Private lives of Elizabeth and Essex has been one of my favorite films for some time and just goes to show that one should look at these old films rather than believe what the biographers and critics state without examination. I have read that Errol Flynn was poor in this film,but that is in serious error,IMO! He does an outstanding job in this role and his doomed romanticism MAKES the film what it is. There is no story if the audience does not believe in the love affair, and Flynn convinces in this category. He holds his own with Powerhouse Davis, and that is saying something(watch her chew up Henry Fonda in Jezebel for e.g.)! His naturalness and ease on screen are very appealing, and there is no one more handsome in such costumes. He seems very much the courtier and lover. Very underrated thespian-he is elite here in a difficult role. Bette's pyrotechnics are a marvelous counterpoint to Errol's subtle ways-she is the Greatest movie actress,period. And, they did have sexual chemistry in this film, despite personal antipathy. Great stuff!
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