Sunday 25 October 2009

Young Bess (1953)

Director: George Sidney
Stars: Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Charles Laughton
A couple of decades before They Only Kill Their Masters, MGM were the biggest studio in the world, famous for their lavish costume dramas. By 1953 costume dramas were on the wane but this would seem to have been the perfect film for the year, given that it's about the life of Elizabeth I before reaching the throne of England, made in the year that her namesake Elizabeth II was crowned. They had some time to make the film, given that the current queen acceded to the throne on the death of her father on 6th February 1952 but wasn't crowned until 2nd June 1953, three days after the release of this film. Like that was remotely coincidental...

We begin in 1558 at Hatfield House where the 25 year old Elizabeth's servants are celebrating the news that her half sister Bloody Mary is dying and isn't expected to last the night. That means that the era of Mary I is over and the era of Elizabeth I is about to begin. Young Bess is about to become the Queen of all England. We flashback to her in the cradle, only to be effectively exiled to Hatfield House as an illegitimate child after her mother's beheading. We then quickly progress through the years as she's trotted back out to London to meet each of her successive stepmothers, eventually becoming legitimate again and moved back to court during the era of the last of them, Catherine Parr.

The cast is impeccable, led by Charles Laughton as the king, returning to a role that he had made his own two full decades earlier in The Private Life of Henry VIII. He doesn't get that much of a part though, given that he soon gives way to his heir and successor, his son Edward VI. He gets a good death scene, at least, struggling against the one force of nature greater than himself and praising the stubbornness of his daughter. He sees in her not only her mother, Anne Boleyn, but plenty of himself too. Given the fact that she was his true successor in spirit, even though three monarchs (including Lady Jane Grey who only reigned for nine days) separated them on the throne, this is highly appropriate however the history actually played out. There's no 'Monks! Monks! Monks!' outburst here to hasten his death.

That daughter is played by Jean Simmons, already a star after her work in Guys and Dolls and already married to her co-star Stewart Granger, who plays Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to the king's third wife and husband to his sixth, the one he left a widow. It seems strange to watch an actress fall in love with her husband on screen, only for him to love and marry someone else, but then that comes with the territory. It's happened before and it'll happen again. The connections don't end there though. Apparently Granger proposed to Simmons after seeing her in Black Narcissus, a Deborah Kerr film, and apparently also had an extramarital affair with her. Needless to say, Kerr plays his wife in this film. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
Simmons is an apt choice for the part, which in this story is a headstrong, stubborn and clever woman who managed to influence some of the decisions of her brother. She's very believable in portraying the young Elizabeth growing from a girl to a woman in only a few years, with all the difference in poise, judgement and temper that the transition suggests. Granger is decent but I couldn't help seeing Bruce Campbell in the part from the first time Seymour appears on screen. Seymour here is something of a pulp hero, dashing and romantic, but also a very able admiral who wins battles for the crown on the high seas. While this is certainly an A list picture, Seymour is a B list character and Campbell would have brought it even more to life on those grounds than Granger can, even though Granger had been typecast in such heroic roles for years.

Deborah Kerr is the fourth name at the top of the credits, and she's a decent Catherine Parr, but hers is not an extroverted part and so she's easily outshone by both Simmons and Granger, though not through any fault of her own. There are a couple of points where she gets more of a chance in the spotlight and she makes the most of it but the part simply doesn't warrant much more. In fact, Rex Thompson gets far more opportunity than she does, as the young Edward VI, who died at the tender age of fifteen in 1553. At least he had the chance to give his name to the school I attended before moving north: King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. Its motto, 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might' is something I try to live by and it fits how Elizabeth I lived too, very well indeed. Thompson plays a suitably sassy child king, and just as King Edward died at fifteen, so did Thompson leave the screen at fifteen. There are connections here too: while he only made five films, the other one I've seen saw him play Deborah Kerr's son in The King and I.

And of course I tried not to talk about history here, because this is Hollywood. Surprisingly though there's at least some adherence to reality. Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne at the age of 25, just as is suggested here, and Jean Simmons was a pretty close 24. Thomas Seymour did marry Catherine Parr, and Granger is the right age to play him, but the romantic connection between him and Elizabeth is utterly backward. In real life it was he who pursued her, rather than the other way around, beginning when she was 14. The history books suggest that her lifelong avoidance of marriage might have more to do with being traumatised by Seymour than holding him above all others in her heart.

The ending of the film is a departure from history too, as we're set up to believe that Elizabeth, about to be pronounced Queen of England, would immediately take her revenge on Edward Seymour, who as Lord Protector over King Edward VI had caused his brothers execution. In reality he was executed before Edward died. Hollywood never did stick too much to history, but I was surprised to see some accuracies here. Hollywood was interested in spectacle, and there's much of that to enjoy in this film. It's worth the two hours just to see Laughton and Simmons bicker.

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