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Reviews

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Michael Curtiz

USA, 1939

Credits

Review by Matt Bailey

Posted on 27 April 2005

Source Warner Bros. DVD

Bette Davis did not want Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex to her Queen Elizabeth, but she was overruled by Jack Warner. Davis wanted Laurence Olivier, who the studio felt was not enough of a box-office draw. The same year, of course, Olivier would star in Wuthering Heights, earning the first of many Academy Award nominations for his work. Oops. Well, Flynn was definitely no Olivier, but he acquitted himself well in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, even if Davis’ visible resentment of his presence in the film is partly what motivated him to do good work.

Why this film is included in Warner Brothers’ Errol Flynn Signature Collection, a DVD boxed set devoted to Flynn’s work for the studio, is something of a mystery. Surely it belongs (and would be more at home) in a collection of Bette Davis films. After all, this is one of her most notable performances (even if she does play Good Queen Bess as if she is deep in the throes of a neurological disorder), and is, by contrast, not one of Flynn’s most notable. Why this film and not The Dawn Patrol or Gentleman Jim? I suspect the reasons have something to do with the dark, arcane arts of marketing.

Regardless, this strange film—a romantic fable, wholly fictitious yet rooted in historically accurate minutiae—is a pleasure. Bette Davis, a formidable performer in any film, unleashes her fearsome talent, her tight corsets and heavy skirts barely containing her volatility. Flynn, for the most part, stands by and looks noble, occasionally slapping Davis on the ass or being exasperatingly handsome. Those expecting him to swash buckles or buckle swashes will be disappointed—this is a historical drama of the sniffiest kind, another reason for it not to have been included among Flynn’s other high-flying films—but his Essex is in the same mold, at least, as his other dashing heroes including Dr. Peter Blood and Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe.

I’ve always had a certain amount of affection for this film, even if it feels like studio prestige product (Technicolor, based on a play, topline stars) on which nevertheless many corners were cut (soundstage exteriors, trompe-l’oeil interiors). This is perhaps because of Davis’ performance as a woman more than twice her age. She was so committed to the role that she shaved back her hairline and plucked out her eyebrows (claiming they never grew back in). She studied the period and strived for a credible accent. Her makeup artist thinned her lips and drew heavy bags under her eyes. The irony of this is that she was nominated for an Academy Award not for this film, but for Dark Victory, a solid, but run-of-the-mill melodrama from the same year. It was just as well, anyway. She had no chance against a relative newcomer named Vivien Leigh in another little historical drama called Gone With the Wind.

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