Saturday 18 August 2007

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Michael Curtiz

Talk about mixed feelings going in. This is a film from 1939, Hollywood's golden year in which no end of great films were edged entirely out of getting any Oscar nominations because of sheer competition, yet this one was nominated for five Oscars. Admittedly none were in the major categories but five nominations are five nominations. It's an early Technicolor film, visually lash, and it was made at the hands of one of the greatest directors of the era, Michael Curtiz. It also features names as massive as those of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in the leads, not to mention Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, Olivia de Havilland, Leo G Carroll, Henry Stephenson and some newcomer called Vincent Price.

However it's also a historical drama made in the golden age of Hollywood, which doesn't bode well for historic accuracy in the slightest and of course, as the title suggests, it's not likely to even remotely attempt it either, settling instead for gossip and melodrama. It's based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, who also wrote another play featuring Elizabeth I that was filmed as the often painful Mary of Scotland. That film made Elizabeth a villain and Mary a heroine, which doesn't bode well for this one.

We open in 1596 and the Earl of Essex marches to greet his queen, Queen Elizabeth I, after defeating the Spanish at Cadiz. He's popular with the masses but not with his queen who loves him but realises his danger and his ambition. Rather than shower him with praise, she castigates him for not returning with a promised treasure, which instead was sunk in Cadiz harbour by the Spanish, and sends him away, only to bring him back, keep him safe nearby, fail to keep him nearby, send him off to ruin in Ireland. Things don't go well for the lovers.

As expected, there's much good and much bad here and I'm surprised at some of it while not at most. Best of all is Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I, a role she reprised 16 years later in The Virgin Queen. She is blistering here, after seriously doing her homework. She's 31 but playing 66 and while 66 isn't believable in the slightest, she doesn't look particularly like herself under such pancake makeup. She is believable in her role beyond anyone else in the film and it's it's impossible not to watch her. I'm learning how powerful an actress she was, but it's patently obvious here that she's a couple of levels above everyone else in the film. She's blustery but simultaneously subtle, so that there's a huge amount of depth to her performance and every word she speaks is spoken exactly as it should have been. She was well and truly Oscar worthy here but she was nominated instead for Dark Victory.

Olivia de Havilland is fine playing against type as a petty and foolish lady in waiting who has a crush on Essex and who ends up causing no end of chaos for the title characters. Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson and Henry Daniell are all fine, but they're basically playing the characters they always play rather than playing Francis Bacon, Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil respectively. Alan Hale doesn't arrive until late in the film and he's particularly good as the Irish rebel Tyrone, but he doesn't get anywhere near the screen time he deserves.

Flynn is mostly terrible but he has does have a few powerful scenes, such as when insulting Vincent Price or laughing kindly at Olivia de Havilland. In other words he sucks at being serious but excels at being flippant, which really doesn't surprise much when you look at the roles he excelled in over the years. He was great as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, accent notwithstanding, but those parts were all about romantic swashing of buckles rather than serious history. The direction is fine and deeper than it would seem on first glance, with the exception of the battle scenes in Ireland which are nothing but embarrassing: Tyrone's men fight in what seem to be costumes left over from The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before.

Worst of all though is the story, which is horrendous. Reading up on Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson, I'm not yet convinced it was his fault as I've only seen the films made of his work rather than read the plays themselves, but it does appear that way at first glance. Mary of Scotland wasn't just bad because of Katharine Hepburn being about the worst possible choice for Mary, Queen of Scots, it was bad because it threw over history for unashamed melodrama that made Queen Elizabeth I the villain of the piece. Here she has a better role but it still isn't right and now Walter Raleigh of all people is the villain. Like Mary of Scotland, this goes far beyond the shameless massacre of historical fact. It doesn't bend truth for cinematic effect, it takes all the characters and incidents involved and shuffles them up like a game of cards, fabricating from the ether whatever doesn't seem to work.

I don't know if Maxwell Anderson was racist against the English or either ignorant or uncaring of historical fact. Then again, those screenplays he contributed to personally include some favourites of mine, such as Washington Merry-Go-Round, Death Takes a Holiday and All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe he wrote great and accurate plays that were just massacred in transition to the screen. Whatever, when history is portrayed as romantic melodrama and the writers can't even work out who the good guys and bad guys are, let alone those who are both, the story is always going to fail.

I found this very hard to rate, because of the diversity of quality. I ended up going OK on that being the general level of everything, but lowered it substantially for the story and raised it back up again for Bette Davis.

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