Monday, November 5, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939)

Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) offers as much Technicolor pomp and spectacle as one could hope for in a lavish Warner Brothers costume drama, as well as the stars to match. Bette Davis rules the screen as Elizabeth I, but her court boasts luminaries as diverse as Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, and Nanette Fabray. The story plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and reveals a very irksome sense of sexual politics, but Elizabeth and Essex offers viewers a terrific cast and particularly fascinating performance from an almost unrecognizable Davis, here transforming herself into a mythic monarch twice her actual age.

As the aging queen, Davis presides over a royal court that bristles with rival factions, sycophants, and spies. Despite her passionate love for the much younger Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn), Elizabeth distrusts his ambition and his ulterior motives, while his enemies do everything in their power to discredit him. One of Elizabeth's attendants, Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland), would steal the Earl's affection for herself if she could, while Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) hopes to supplant Essex as the queen's new favorite. Even Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp), supposedly a friend to both Essex and the queen, looks to his own interests first. When the manipulative courtiers arrange for Essex to lead a losing war against the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) in Ireland, their subsequent treachery brings the lovers to a tragic confrontation.

The movie, adapted from the play by Maxwell Anderson, concerns itself much more with romance than history, although Elizabeth's real relationship with Essex certainly inspires some raised eyebrows. The events that unfold in the film do, at least, offer a sense of the dangerous nature of Elizabethan court life, and Essex really did suffer the fate shown in the conclusion, as would his rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, some years later. Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than Essex, which we see in Davis' remarkable appearance, but Essex also had a wife and several children, and they are conveniently absent here.

The romantic angle depends upon a certain reading of Elizabeth's nature that one might uncharitably describe as that of a love-starved cougar. Davis excelled at playing difficult women who yearn for unconditional love, making this a perfect role for her, but it does a disservice to the historical queen's abilities as a ruler. Davis' version seems overburdened by the weight of the crown on her poor female head and wishes to be only a woman instead, while Flynn's sexist Essex would be perfectly happy to grant that wish provided that his masculine ego is gratified by his own ascension to the throne. Played merely as fictional romance, the set-up is dated though not particularly surprising, but as historical biography it's a suspicious undermining of the reputation of one of the greatest female leaders in the course of Western history.

Despite these issues, which might well trouble a feminist scholar a lot more than they will bother the average viewer, the movie has plenty of unqualified delights, from Davis' incredible physical appearance to the gorgeous costumes and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's terrific score. The sight of Vincent Price in tights, preening as the ambitious and devious Raleigh, is by itself enough to make the whole picture worth watching. Errol Flynn and Donald Crisp both offer memorable performances, and Alan Hale has a small but important role that puts him on the opposite side of the battle from his Robin Hood costar. It would be nice for Olivia de Havilland to have more to do as Lady Penelope, especially in the wake of her Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind performances, but Nanette Fabray has some very good scenes as the young Mistress Margaret, whose romantic problems inspire pity and sympathy in Elizabeth.

Nominated for five Oscars, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex suffered from the plethora of masterpieces made in 1939 and the competing performances of its own stars. Like Davis' other 1939 film, Dark Victory, Elizabeth and Essex went home empty-handed. Davis, interestingly enough, played Elizabeth again in 1955 in The Virgin Queen. For more big budget costume dramas, try The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Three Musketeers (1948), and Ivanhoe (1952). For more of Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland, see Captain Blood (1935), Dodge City (1939), and Santa Fe Trail (1940).