Thursday 4 January 2024

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Norman Reilly Raine and ├ćneas MacKenzie, based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson
Stars: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price and Henry Stephenson

Index: The First Thirty.

After starting out as a leading man in Service de Luxe, Vincent Price settled for a prominent supporting slot in this second picture for him, playing British war hero Walter Raleigh. It’s a much bigger film though, a movie full of stars that cost a million bucks to make back in 1939. I don’t know what Service de Luxe cost but not remotely that much.

Unfortunately, the role wasn’t as prominent as it could have been, because Raleigh doesn’t get a lot to do in this story, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson that had opened in 1930. It was called Elizabeth the Queen and this version would have followed suit but Errol Flynn felt that it marginalised his role. Warner Brothers met that need by retitling it to The Knight and the Lady, but Bette Davis correctly suggested it could be seen as his film rather than hers, and so they tapped into a British format used on historical dramas like The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Private Life of Don Juan.

It’s an appropriate title because it really is about both Elizabeth I, Queen of England, and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Davis was only a year older than Flynn but Elizabeth was thirty-two years Essex’s senior, so Davis wears a great deal of aging make-up. That’s the first and last nod to historical accuracy, because it plays fast and loose with history otherwise.

We’re in London in 1596 and Devereux has defeated the Spanish forces at Cadiz so is now on his way to see his Queen. There’s pageantry and extras galore and it’s all aching for some sort of widescreen presentation, which it does not get.

Everything’s about him. The public see him as a hero. Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray thinks he’s rather cute. Henry Daniell as Sir Robert Cecil thinks he’s getting too big for his britches so wants something that will lose him favour. Elizabeth loves him, but refuses to let her personal feelings get in the way of her duties as a queen. So she chastises him for not bringing back the Spanish treasure to refill the coffers of England and promotes some others over him.

One of those is Raleigh, who walks in with Essex, thus giving Price some early scenes but little to do in them. That trend continues. The vast majority of his screen time involves him being overshadowed by Errol Flynn and that’s mostly not a good thing. The exception is one scene where Essex one-ups Raleigh’s infamous silver armour, where Flynn nails it and Price is stuck with no viable response.

Mostly, Flynn underplays Essex, but Davis vibrates with energy as Elizabeth. She’s superb and consistently the best thing about the film because she’s volatile and unpredictable. She’s giving an award-worthy acting performance, while Flynn is giving a star turn. There’s a big difference between those two approaches and, while Flynn’s approach was popular with the public, Davis’s stands up to posterity. Had she got her way and had Laurence Olivier get the role of Essex, then an unknown actor poorly handled in an initial attempt to break America in 1931 and 1932, she might not have been so dominant. He made Wuthering Heights in 1939 instead and the rest is history. Ha.

Of course, Elizabeth’s approach doesn’t pay off. She pisses off Essex, so he pisses her off in return and so we have a movie. As he’s quickly described, he’s “a man not easily governed”.

Initially, Davis’s stunning performance does the job and we wallow in it as well as the sets and the other stars backing her up in court. If Olivia de Havilland is her closest confidante, as Lady Penelope is one of her ladies in waiting, even playing a game of chess with her that’s as blatantly a metaphor as I’ve seen, Donald Crisp is her official equivalent, as Sir Francis Bacon is a capable go between who knows everyone and every manoeuvre. Also in court are Henry Stephenson and even Leo G. Carroll.

However, as the film runs on, it ceases to be enough, eventually weighed down by painful Hollywood romantic melodrama. Davis keeps on dominating every scene with Flynn almost breezing through the film without a care, even though he’s constantly shifting in and out of favour with a woman who loves him but could easily have him executed. Which, if you know your history, eventually happens. C’mon, it’s been well over four hundred years; it can’t be seen as a spoiler!

While Davis was always going to be the best thing about the film and probably the next ten or twelve, there’s plenty of bad to counter her. The mangling of history is one, but that’s par for the course for Hollywood. It’s no worse as a guide to real events than any other Hollywood historical drama and, as bad as it gets, it’s still more accurate than Braveheart.

Another is how little Price gets to do as Sir Walter Raleigh, a big figure in British history. While he’s given silent moments in a few early scenes, he doesn’t get a line until thirty-five minutes in and that’s Flynn’s best scene of the movie, his grand up-staging of a colleague and rival. None of it is Price’s fault; he does a good deal with what he’s given. It merely isn’t his film and being billed sixth is very misleading. Henry Daniell gets far more to do two credits down from him.

The battle scenes in Ireland, when Essex is manipulated into volunteering to go there to crush the Earl of Tyrone, look poor to me too. Sure, Alan Hale has a lot of fun as Tyrone and delivers one of the better accents in the film, but they’re stagebound and awkward scenes, with an array of costumes that feel left over from The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, even if they weren’t.

Worst of all, there’s that melodrama, which gets progressively worse as the film runs on. It culminates in the final scenes, in which Essex, the biggest egotist in the movie, actually hints that they should abolish the monarchy so he could be elected to power in a democracy. My eyes rolled so hard at that, I had to reset them.

To be fair, there are some wonderful visuals at this point. There’s a shot of a large room in the Tower of London, with Elizabeth seated in the distance and Essex walking away from her towards us, down through stone steps in the floor, which fold over to hide him. It’s the best shot in the movie and it’s right at the end. Unfortunately everything around it is wildest, sappiest, romantic nonsense. Sigh.

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