Review: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Didn’t anyone tell Errol Flynn he was no match for the mercurial Bette Davis?

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Photo: Warner Bros.

Didn’t anyone tell Errol Flynn he was no match for the mercurial Bette Davis? As Queen Elizabeth I, Davis plays a character 35 years older than she is, with shaved eyebrows and a chalky white face mask. Her performance is driven with neurotic energy (her fingers twitch and her eyes brim with larger-than-life calculation) and she literally munches on any prop at her disposal (upstaging everyone by popping grapes into her mouth during a scene of court intrigue). No doubt she read the script, which is a longwinded mishmash of royal-power-versus-earthy passions. As she recites the puerile dialogue about her role as queen, or buries her love for the Earl of Essex (Flynn) under haughty threats, Davis seizes every possible opportunity to make herself into a mad spectacle. Whenever Davis isn’t on-screen, and even when her performance frequently dips into embarrassing camp, Elizabeth and Essex is a paralyzing bore. Silly fops in costumes (including young Vincent Price) skulk around the hallways muttering reams of hoary dialogue and Olivia de Havilland vainly struggles to make an impression in a thin supporting role as punishment from Jack Warner for playing in Gone with the Wind. Studio director Michael Curtiz attempts his usual bold visual flourishes, but there’s only so much he can do with material that gives him nowhere to go but into intense close-ups of—who else?—Bette Davis! Flynn was no less a movie star, but nowhere near as vibrant an actor as his grand dame co-star. Up against her, he can’t rely on his usual boyishness. This completely unmoors him, reducing him to a pretty-boy stick figure that Davis toys with. (She gets more fun out of a more challenging opponent like Claude Rains in Now, Voyager and Deception.) The dreary plot follows Flynn’s Essex, whose military victories make him a hero to the people. His ambition rises, and he threatens to seize the throne from the “virgin” queen he secretly adores. But Davis writes him off as a threat. Indeed, she seems more concerned with the mirrors lining her boudoir, frightened by how old age is catching up with her. She promptly smashes the mirrors, and by the time Elizabeth and Essex reaches its final act, we have no doubt she’ll do the same to Flynn. He keeps his chin up as she promptly sends him to hell.

 Cast: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson  Director: Michael Curtiz  Screenwriter: Norman Reilly Raine, Aeneas MacKenzie  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 106 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1939  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Jeremiah Kipp

Jeremiah Kipp is a New York City based writer, producer and director with over ten years experience creating narrative and commercial films.

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