Bette Davis was well compensated for losing out on the most coveted role in screen history – Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939) – with Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); a lavishly appointed, masterfully executed faux epic of palace intrigues, based on Maxwell Anderson’s wordy, though never tedious, stagecraft – Elizabeth, the Queen. Only a year before, when asked by Davis why the part of Scarlett could not be hers, Selznick had rather condescendingly informed the actress, “…because I can’t imagine any man suffering for twenty-five years and winding up with you!” But many in 1939 could have at least fathomed the possibility. Davis had risen like cream to the top of her profession, starring in no less than four classic films in 1939 alone. Indeed, Davis was not the suffering type – although she had done enough of it at Warner Bros., mostly under the duress of a male-dominated studio system and studio mogul, Jack Warner who sought to remake her as something of a sassy platinum dolly en par with MGM’s Jean Harlow. But only after Davis stood her ground, walking out on her ironclad contract and becoming embroiled in a lawsuit, did her star ascend with the greatest of speed and accuracy.
Following their brief stalemate, Warner and Davis buried the hatchet, perhaps in each other’s backs; the caustic diva frequently charging into the front offices with a list of demands that were met rather than debated. It is rumored Jack Warner would dart into his private men’s room whenever he heard her coming down the hall, simply to avoid a conflict. Around the studio, Davis acquired something of ‘a reputation’; begrudgingly afforded the label ‘the fifth Warner brother’ while steadily improving her prospects and advancing her career. By 1939, it was clear to all, even if she had lost the court battle to wrangle herself free from this indentured servitude, she had most decidedly won the war.
1939 was a banner year – and not just for Davis, who starred in four major productions: Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; the latter marked by a distinguished Broadway pedigree and sumptuous production values for which Warner Bros. was not readily known. Anderson’s play, Elizabeth, the Queen had been a showcase for Lynn Fontanne. But the film’s appeal was divided between Davis’ formidable ‘king in petticoats’ and the expanded role of Sir Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (played by Errol Flynn). Jack Warner’s decision to cast Flynn instantly soured Davis on the project. She had, in fact, heavily campaigned for Laurence Olivier as her costar, citing Olivier’s obvious charismatic appeal in 1937’s Fire Over England. But Olivier was not under contract to Warner, and Flynn had proven himself one of the studio’s handsomest leading men and a good actor besides; looking every bit the paragon of masculinity whether sheathed in modern garb, vintage American west riding chaps or period leggings and a codpiece.
Davis thought Flynn a notorious pretty boy at best, his work ethic substandard to her own. Her venom festered as shooting began and was frequently exerted, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the scene where Davis, as Elizabeth, confronts her returning conqueror – and lover – Sir Robert (Flynn) with an admonishment of his decision to sacrifice a mission against the Spanish at England’s considerable expense. Evidently, Sir Robert does not see the situation in quite the same broad-brushed terms. He tells the Queen as much and flippantly so, before turning to exit the reception room. “You dare turn your back on Elizabeth? You dare?” The Queen then strikes Sir Robert full in the face with all her might and a jewel-encrusted ring that left a considerable welt on Flynn’s cheek. The moment remains in the film, and Flynn’s immediate surprise, disgust and seething rage are readily apparent as Sir Robert declares, “I would not have taken that from your father – the king. Nor will I take it from a king in petticoats!” Between takes, Flynn and Davis parted like a pair of prize fighters, each returning to their corner and completely ignoring the other. Flynn had, in fact, costarred with Davis in The Sisters. Yet, the working relationship then had been fairly amicable. Alas, on the set of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex they barely tolerated one another.
Jack Warner had attempted to market Davis and Flynn as a package deal to Selznick for Gone With The Wind; his choices for Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler respectively. But Selznick, having gone his own way, had shamed the reputation of both his stars – at least, insofar as Warner was concerned, by groveling to L.B. Mayer for the loan out of Clark Gable instead, and siding with a virtual unknown – Vivien Leigh – for the most coveted role in all filmdom. And so Jack was determined to prove the marketing of Davis and Flynn as costars had merit. Warner also augmented Anderson’s play with an impeccable pedigree of character actors from his formidable stable. These included Donald Crisp (as Sir Francis Bacon), Olivia de Havilland (Lady Penelope Gray), Henry Daniell (Sir Robert Cecil), Henry Stephenson (Lord Burghley), Alan Hale (the Earl of Tyrone), Nannette Fabray (Mistress Margaret Radcliffe) and, borrowed from Fox, Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh). Of these stellar performers, Crisp would prove to have the most prolific movie career, appearing in more than 400 movies throughout his lengthy career and becoming one of the richest men in Hollywood – thanks, in part to some very shrewd investments and land deals.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex also features a devastatingly beautiful score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; its ambitious leitmotifs and bombastic main title sublime counterbalances to Sol Polito’s sumptuous Technicolor feast and Anton Grot’s gargantuan production design; part English Tudor/part Art Deco façade. But Elizabeth and Essex proved something of a battle royale both on screen and behind the scenes; the parallel love/hate relationship between Davis and Flynn perfectly translated as enterprising and spirited clashes between Davis’ towering embodiment of the Queen and Flynn’s ruthlessly romantic suitor/warrior, whose endeavor to conquer both the throne and this woman’s heart leads each aspiration into wanton ruin. To play Elizabeth, a role much older than the actress herself, Davis shaved her hairline and eyebrows and donned an unflattering red wig; her appearance quite uncanny. Davis was, in many ways, relentless in her emasculation of Flynn. Yet, this shredding of his machismo queerly translated into thrashing embers of desire on the screen. There is a genuine chemistry between Flynn and Davis; his absurdly tanned and exquisite ruggedness incongruously softening Davis’ death-white gargoyle’s visage.
The film is also notable for Olivia de Havilland’s appearance – not because the actress is prominently featured, but rather for her lack thereof; Jack Warner’s punishment for having been goaded by his wife to allow de Havilland to play the part of Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. Warner would have preferred she remain the romantic appendage to Flynn, and under his own thumb. But Melanie Hamilton unequivocally proved de Havilland a much finer actress than any of her frequent costarring roles opposite Flynn ever revealed. Under Jack Warner’s autocratic rule, De Havilland put in her time and why not? She was also in the midst of an impassioned love affair with Flynn; a storybook romance doomed to end badly when de Havilland asked Flynn what he most desired from life. His reply, ‘to be famous’ seemed very shallow by comparison to her own - ‘respect for a job well done’. When production wrapped, cast and crew moved on to do other things. And although Flynn and de Havilland would continue to costar, this too was the beginning of the end of their love match. Yet, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex had an interesting postscript.
Davis and de Havilland had not begun as friends on the Warner back lot, largely due to the fact Davis in her prime was virtually incapable of friendships with female costars who she readily – and rightly - regarded as her competition to be squashed before they could challenge and/or surpass her supremacy at the studio. However, as the years wore on, Davis came to admire de Havilland. The two actually became great friends, so much that when Joan Crawford bowed out of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) a mere two weeks into production, Davis suggested de Havilland as her replacement. In the mid-1960s, Davis and de Havilland were to have another ‘reunion’ of sorts when Davis asked de Havilland to join her for a private screening at Warner Bros. The film Davis selected was The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. According to de Havilland, Davis critically studied the screen virtually frame by frame. When the house lights came up at the end, Davis turned to de Havilland, saying about Flynn, “You know I was wrong about him. He is marvelous.” High praise, indeed, regrettably afforded posthumously to Flynn who had died in 1959.
In viewing The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex today, one can still readily admire it as a production of impeccable tastes and craftsmanship with grand sets, gorgeous costumes and powerful performances from both Davis and Flynn. These have withstood the test of time. The Norman Reilly Raine/Æneas MacKenzie screenplay has managed to ‘open up’ the cloistered melodrama of palace intrigues into a flowing and glossy spectacle, the pageantry never detracting from the literary quality of Maxwell Anderson’s prose. It is a talkative play and movie. But Anderson’s ability to write with an eloquence that never seems stultifying and Davis’ desire to breathe life into this rhapsodic dialogue and still make it appear as though it were mere conversation sprung from the top of her own head, translates the artifice into sublime melodrama. Flynn too matches Davis’ cultured dragon wit for wit, their magnificent sparing elevated into believable aberrations of love-strained animosity.
We begin with the gallant return of Sir Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) to Elizabeth I’s (Bette Davis) court at Whitehall. The people are with Essex in heart and spirit, particularly Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) whose own desires are to possess this earthly man rather than the god-like champion. But Essex’s blood is poisoned with a genuine thirst for his Queen. The romance that cannot be is further impeded by palace intrigues. Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) would sooner see Essex ‘tarnished’ than ascending to the throne – an aspiration that will be Essex’s own undoing. Lord Burghley (Henry Stephenson) encourages prudence and patience. But Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) shares Cecil’s desire to usurp Essex's popularity with the masses while calling into question his loyalties to the crown.
In the meantime, Sir Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) pleads with Elizabeth. She has already decided Essex’s return cannot be met with a flourish of praise or even genuine affection. In fact, he must be brought to heel at her command. Her reputation must supersede any private emotions. Besides Robert has lavishly spent tax monies afforded him by the crown for his campaign in Spain without yielding the anticipated tribute. His tactics must be brought into question since, despite the obviousness of his own triumph against Spain’s formidable armada, the purpose of his exploits was nevertheless to defeat the Spaniards and secure a bounty for England’s depleted treasury. Only half of this discharged duty has been fulfilled; the riches sunk by the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cadiz and therefore lost to both sides. Essex enters Elizabeth’s throne room with absolute confidence. But the mood quickly sours as the Queen makes a mockery of his valor and demands an explanation for his ‘failed campaign’. In fact, she rewards all of Essex’s commanders without even a note of praise for him, something Essex’s ego will not tolerate.
Retreating in anger and shame to his family home, Essex is attended to by Sir Francis who forewarns that his desire to possess the Queen and jointly rule will destroy him. For there are other usurpers about the palace who would sooner see both Sir Robert and the Queen toppled than live happily ever after. In the meantime, Lady Penelope and Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (Nannette Fabray) attend the Queen. She is beside herself after Cecil has read a letter addressed to the court and presumably written in Essex’s hand, admonishing the crown. Lady Penelope adds fuel to these already brewing flames when she suggests a tournament of song as amusement for Elizabeth. Alas, this moment is transformed into a lyrical chastisement of the Queen’s affections for Essex; its May/December quality poked fun at until Elizabeth can stand no more. Smashing every mirror in the room, Elizabeth orders her entourage away. The ladies retreat; all except for Mistress Margaret who weeps and then confesses her love for a handsome young solider currently fighting in Ireland. Recognizing the genuineness of Margaret’s loyalty, Elizabeth promises her his safe return – a guarantee doomed to remain unfulfilled when news reaches the kingdom Margaret’s lover has fallen in battle, hence, foreshadowing the outcome of our story.
For Hugh O’Neill, the 2nd Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) has declared war on Elizabeth’s forces in Ireland. All is not lost, however. In fact, Tyrone’s pronouncement affords Elizabeth a legitimate reason to recall Essex to her court where she intends to make him Master of the Ordinance. Instead, Cecil and Raleigh conspire to goad Essex into taking command of the army once more, this time sent to Ireland to quash the rebellion. In pursuit of Tyrone’s forces, Essex’s reserves are depleted. He writes the Queen both words of love, but also dispatches for badly needed reserves and supplies. These requests, however, go unanswered, intercepted by Lady Penelope at the behest of Cecil and Raleigh. Penelope is unaware she is being used and believes she is advancing her own cause by interceding in Essex’s romantic overtures. By the time she has discovered the true purpose of these correspondences it is too late. Essex forces have fallen to Tyrone and the Queen has grown bitter and reclusive, believing Essex has forsaken their love out of bitter spite and enterprising jealousy.
Essex returns to Whitehall beleaguered and angry. However, the people are with him and Elizabeth realizes Essex is in an enviable position to topple her throne. Still, she denies Cecil’s nervous pleas to fortify the palace with soldiers. Instead, Elizabeth allows Essex to storm the throne room with his men; the two quickly learning of another treason afoot which has kept their mutual letters a secret from one another. Elizabeth orders her court cleared of everyone except Essex, whom she confides in she loves more deeply than ever. However, when she asks of his intentions toward her, Elizabeth quickly discovers Essex’s heart and loyalties remain divided. Although he undeniably worships her, Essex will not give up his desire to rule England jointly. As Essex is now in a position to fulfill this dream with or without Elizabeth’s complicity she pretends to agree to his ultimatum if he will call off his reserves. Believing he has won both her heart and a place at her side, Essex orders his troops to stand down. Almost immediately, Elizabeth recalls her own royal guard, placing Essex under arrest.
Exiled to the Tower and condemned to death, Essex’s life is pleaded for by Lady Penelope who confesses to Elizabeth her inadvertent complicity in Cecil and Raleigh’s conspiracy to keep them apart. Penelope begs for mercy. Elizabeth prays Essex will return the ring she gave him, in effect forsaking his thirst for power in exchanged for a renewal of their love. This, however, he stubbornly refuses to do. On the day of execution, Elizabeth frantically summons Essex to her private chamber, hoping against hope he will sacrifice his own ambitions to spare his own life. Instead, Essex reasserts he cannot cleanse his desire to simultaneously possess both the woman and the throne. As such - alive he will always remain a danger to her. Although she screams after him a complete surrender of her powers as monarch to spare his life, Essex nobly marches to the executioner’s block where he is beheaded as Elizabeth remains desolate and tormented in all her regal isolation.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is a sumptuous entertainment. No expense has been spared on the elephantine production. Photographed in the lushness of 3-strip Technicolor, Orry-Kelly’s eye-popping Elizabethan costumes offer a spellbinding array of period recreations. Jack Warner had faith in Errol Flynn even if his costar had none; faith well-placed indeed. For in viewing the movie today one is acutely aware that although it is so clearly a vehicle for Bette Davis, Errol Flynn manages the minor coup of remaining a steadfast and integral part of our story – his understated Robert Devereux as purposeful and profound as Davis’ histrionic and queenly mannerisms. To accommodate Flynn’s ever-rising stature as the studio’s numero uno he-man, Jack Warner briefly toyed with changing the title to ‘The Knight and the Lady’. Davis’ authority quashed this compromise, although she eventually acquiesced to the revamped title: 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' barely able to fit on most movie marquees. When the film had its premiere it was successful, but not overwhelmingly so. In fact, Dark Victory made on a much smaller budget easily out-grossed The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. As such, Jack Warner would take only one more gamble on a lavishly appointed entertainment starring Davis, 1940’s All This And Heaven Too, before encouraging a roster of finely crafted, though undeniably modestly budgeted melodramas for his biggest female star to appear in. By mid-decade, Jack Warner was in search of ways to keep Davis in line; his penultimate solution, hiring Joan Crawford for 1945’s Mildred Pierce which Davis had initially turned down. It must have stuck in Davis’ craw when Crawford – whom she had always regarded with a modicum of contempt - won an Oscar for it too.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has received an abysmal transfer from Warner Home Video; one plagued by so much mis-registration of its original 3-strip Technicolor that at least half the movie is unwatchable; horribly marred by excessive shrinkage of its red record; the result, ringing halos around just about everything. At times the image is so blurry one cannot even make out faces. When the image snaps back into alignment we are treated to razor-sharpness that illustrates the obvious assets of the movie’s production design. Contrast is bang on, but age-related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally distract. It’s distressing to see such a fine film get such short shrift on home video. I love this movie, but even I had to muddle through this unrelentingly subpar home video presentation. There’s really no point releasing 3-strip Technicolor movies to DVD if such basic – but necessary – corrections are not to be made. The audio suffers too – Erich Korngold score rather strident in spots, particularly the main title. Warner has produced a junket on the making of the movie, including brief outtakes of sequences exhibiting far better refinement in color fidelity than anything seen in the actual movie – what a shame! We also get two vintage short subjects. I want to heavily petition the Warner Archive to get their mitts on this classy and classic melodrama. It deserves a hi-def digital restoration and Blu-ray release. Please, George Feltenstein…pretty please! Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)