The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Bette Davis

Bette Davis

Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn made twelve films together. Mostly people tend to remember the rousing adventure tales like Robin Hood and Captain Blood, thrilling fantasies where Flynn played dashing, romantic heroes. But there’s another film they made together that stands outside the adventure cycle. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is radically different from the other lavish spectacles that Flynn appeared in during his heyday. In fact, we really shouldn’t look at it as a Flynn vehicle since it wasn’t conceived for him in the first place. The movie came about because Bette Davis had seen Maxwell Anderson’s play Elizabeth the Queen on Broadway. The actress was so taken with the play that she got Warners to buy the rights. It’s a sign of the clout she had at the time that the studio even considered the project. The film is nothing like your typical star vehicle, and in spite of Warners’ efforts to make it more conventional, it still stands out as an unusual film for its time. If it doesn’t work completely, it’s still compelling in many ways. Though the story and dialogue were substantially changed, it stays faithful to the brutal truths that are central to Anderson’s play.

It’s important to start by saying that Anderson’s version of events was not historically accurate, and that Warners’ took further liberties with the facts. What makes the play so compelling is the way the author digs into the two central characters, ripping away the layers of pride and pretense as Elizabeth and Essex battle for control of the relationship and control of England. The screenplay, by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, discards much of Anderson’s dialogue and completely alters the structure, but actually ends up being nearly as complex and involving as the original play. The film is surprisingly literate for Hollywood, and what’s even more surprising is that the screenwriters manage to create a historical love story that is lively and interesting.

The film goes far beyond the narrow emotional range of most Hollywood films, and Curtiz is up to the challenge. He understands the possibilities in the material and uses his considerable gifts as a filmmaker to dramatize the screenplay. While the background is brimming with pomp and pageantry, in the foreground we see two people who are intelligent and passionate, vain and insecure, struggling to come to terms with each other. Art director Anton Grot creates spaces both vast and intimate, using vibrant color to set the emotional tone for each scene. Cinematographer Sol Polito finishes the job beautifully with his fluent use of light and shadow.

The heart of the film is Davis’ performance, and she is amazing. She was clearly fascinated by Elizabeth, and her commitment to the part is obvious. Her performance has nothing to do with Hollywood’s standard notions of romance. Her Elizabeth is not attractive or seductive. She does not try to ingratiate herself to us in any way. Davis plays the queen as a brilliant and neurotic woman, desperately wanting to be loved and absolutely determined not to show it.

Flynn, on the other hand, plays Errol Flynn. It’s not that he’s bad, but his performance isn’t in the same league as his co-star’s. He brings the same level of commitment to this role as he did to Captain Blood or Robin Hood, but the script demands more. He handles the dialogue well enough, but his performance is all on the surface. It’s possible that at this point in his career Flynn couldn’t dig any deeper. But the rest of the cast is solid, and there are a few standouts. Apparently the experience of making the film was traumatic for Olivia de Havilland, but she is excellent as Penelope. The role gives her a chance to step away from the wholesome, good girl image that Warners had forced on her. And Donald Crisp plays Francis Bacon with impressive skill and subtlety.

The adventure films that Flynn and Curtiz made all have simple, clear stories that outline a basic struggle between good and evil. Though they’re ostensibly about heroism, for the most part they’re really about exploiting our childish desire for reassurance. The leadership at Warners made an effort to fit Elizabeth and Essex into that mold, but the basic premise of the film defied that kind of simplification. Though not historically accurate, it’s a real story about real people and real human failings. We are made to see that the brave and dashing Essex is a vain, impetuous egotist who understands little about the realities of running a country. And we can’t even fully sympathize with Elizabeth, who is a jealous, neurotic egotist willing to sacrifice the man she loves to retain her power. It’s the antithesis of the standard formula, because it shows how empires are really built. And there’s nothing reassuring in the outcome.

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I’ve been interested in art director Anton Grot’s work for a while. He worked on many films with Curtiz, and is credited on numerous other Warner features in the thirties and forties. It’s been really hard to find information on Grot, but I did come across a blog which features several of his drawings. As far as I can tell, most of them were done for Captain Blood, but it looks like at least one was for Mildred Pierce, and the last one is probably for Elizabeth and Essex or The Sea Hawk (the two films share a number of sets). If you’d like to check the drawings out, click here.

Posted on June 20, 2013, in Adaptation, Studio Era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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