THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX added its star-power and historical name-dropping to 1939s legendary roll call, giving Bette Davis and Errol Flynn prime material to combust, lighting sparks on-screen as regal lovers from the late 1500s and fighting ego fires backstage as Hollywood royalty of their own Golden Age. With Olivia de Havilland, and Technicolor, directed by Michael Curtiz.
Queen Elizabeth I (Davis) has plenty to contend with—the Spanish, the Irish, scheming underlings, fickle subjects, but nothing taxes her so much as her deep and mixed feelings for the impetuous Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Flynn). Age difference between the two matters not to the younger Essex, but his love for the older and lonely monarch is complicated by his thirst for power. Someone’s head is in jeopardy.
“In The Year of Our Lord 1939” hard-driving Bette Davis was the imperious Queen of the Warner’s lot, hard-living Errol Flynn its King (and Court Jester), Olivia de Havilland the proverbial Lady-in-waiting. What’s a Kingdom without bitter rivalry? All of them had their squabbles with the spells & curses from chief wizard Jack L. Warner. Davis detested what she regarded as Flynn’s casual work ethic; he couldn’t abide her hauteur. After back & forth sparring over the title, and Warner’s rejection of recent arrival Laurence Olivier in favor of the popular Flynn, the original material—Maxwell Anderson’s 1930 play Elizabeth The Queen— was scripted by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie.
Critics applauded Davis, were lukewarm on Flynn, but they’ve mostly come around to acknowledge that he did a stand-up job against one of the most formidable acting talents of the day. Though their working relationship was ice-cold, later in life, after watching the picture again with de Havilland, she pronounced “”I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Flynn was brilliant!” He is very good, and she’s huge fun, playing it Bette-big as the Queen. A rigorous makeup job from Perc Westmore transformed her 31 years unto Elizabeth’s 63. She’d rework the part 16 years later for 1955’s The Virgin Queen, which focused on her relationship with Sir Walter Releigh. Played in that later film by Richard Todd, in the ’39 opus he’s done by 27-year-old newcomer Vincent Price, in his third film. Other pros backing the bickering include Donald Crisp, Alan Hale and Henry Daniell.
Beautifully photographed by W. Howard Greene and Sol Polito, with a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that lays on the flourishes. The script makes hay with accuracy, which is no surprise (these particular royals were never lovers, for one), but that’s no big deal, as it’s generally quite tasty in the assorted exchanges.
The $1,073,000 expended on the production was cleared by grossing $3,800,000 in the domestic market, 30th place for the year, with at least another $658,000 registering abroad. Oscar nominations came due for Cinematography, Music Score, Art Direction, Sound and Special Effects. Odds were on Davis to be up for her Queen, but she was instead nominated for another emotion-de-force, Dark Victory.
With Nanette Fabray (debut), Henry Stephenson and Leo G. Carroll. Costumes by Orry-Kelly. The superb art direction, doing much to mood-highlight the dramatics, was the work of Anton Grot. 106 minutes.
* The first take of the scene where Elizabeth slaps Essex, from “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”, Flynn’s autobio: “My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets and shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn’t knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf.” His revenge came when he placed his hand where Bette would bang into it: “It went sailing right through her Elizabethan dresses, slappo, smack on her Academy Award behind. She went about two feet off the ground.”
In the real-life travails of 420 years back, Elizabeth and Essex were not physically involved, but her throne-ish rage at his attempted coup d’état was such that she ordered a dull axe be used to behead him with. Carried out on Feb.25, 1601, it took three attempts.