Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees would probably give up a kingdom for Errol Flynn if given the opportunity.
Essex: Fiery wench, aren't you?
Even in 1939, Hollywood's year of wonders, there were some chunks of tin among the gold nuggets. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex set out to be an Important Film, with its lavish Technicolor production, its literary and historical pedigree, and two of the most popular stars at Warner Bros. Yet it can't stand up to many of its peers from that year—and even in comparison to less celebrated films by Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, it's a bit of a disappointment.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1596, and Elizabeth I, queen of England (Davis), has been reigning for almost forty years. Her country is troubled by conflict with Spain and uprisings in Ireland, but the queen also has a more intimate conflict to resolve: her embattled romance with hotheaded, handsome young Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Flynn). Essex's impulsiveness caused trouble in the recent military skirmish at Cadiz, where he also began a rivalry with Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price, Leave Her to Heaven). His blunder pleases calculating Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell, Camille), who is plotting to oust Essex from the queen's good graces before the lad gains too much political power. Cecil even engineers Essex's being sent to quell the rebellion in Ireland, and he and Raleigh embroil a jealous young lady-in-waiting (Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit) in their scheme to discredit Essex.
With Essex in Ireland and the queen in London, the plotters foment misunderstandings and miscommunication between them. Soon Essex and the queen each think the other is disloyal. Always impulsive, Essex finally gives rein to his ambition—and marches upon London to seize power. But he will find, as the older and wiser queen has found already, that love and politics are both dangerous games—and rarely mix.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was based on the stage play Elizabeth the Queen, but its title was changed to give male lead Flynn more stature. That was a telling start for this enterprise, which featured conflict between its costars both on and off screen. Davis had no respect for Flynn's acting talent, and and the fact that she is able to cloak her disdain onscreen is a sign not of her having been won over (as one sentimental commentator claims in the featurette) but of her being an expert at her craft. The story of the film, concerned as it is with the embattled romance between the queen and her ambitious young subject, is the kind of prickly battle-of-the-sexes romance that is such a favorite in Hollywood. Here, the usual brawling between chauvinistic man and feisty woman is heightened and further complicated by the gulf between their respective ranks. Personally, if I were queen and my sometime boyfriend ridiculed me as a "king in petticoats" in front of my entire court, as Essex does Elizabeth in their first scene together, I'd send him to the Tower right off the bat. But Elizabeth is smitten with this young rascal. The clash of personalities between two passionate, proud, and outspoken people, who resent each other and love each other in about equal portions, actually plays out well when the two stars finally get to spend some time in private. That's the irony of the title: Their private lives are played out almost entirely in public, and that's one of their major stumbling blocks to happiness. Moreover, all of their private actions have wide-ranging political consequences. Even though the film takes liberties with history, the situation is ripe with dramatic promise.
The context for this potentially zesty romance, however, is as stiff and stately as the brocade fabric of a Renaissance court costume. The film takes itself too seriously from start to last, and it's so weighted down with self-importance and lavish production values that most of the life has been squashed out of it. The acting on the part of most of the supporting cast follows suit, with the refreshing exceptions of Olivia de Havilland, as a pert lady-in-waiting with a crush on Essex, and Alan Hale (The Sea Hawk) in a tiny role as the Earl of Tyrone, leader of the Irish rebellion. Usually reliable actors like Henry Daniell, Donald Crisp, and even the young Vincent Price (wasted here in a role with few lines, many of which are delivered facing away from the camera) show as much animation as a suit of armor. Even Flynn takes a while to loosen up and show the verve that made him such a hit in The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before. The pomp and majesty of the court world means that the first forty minutes of the film feels like one long costume parade. (While we're on that subject, the costumes are very attractive, but subject to anachronisms like sweetheart necklines and 18th-century panniers instead of 16th-century farthingales.) There's eye candy here aplenty, and the presence of Flynn in tights is definitely a point in the film's visual appeal. But there's no life until the first tête-à-tête between the two characters of the title, when they let down their hair and yell at each other, laugh at a shared joke, smooch, yell some more, and finally come as close as they ever do to harmony. Each time they are separated, though, our interest flags.
The real strength of the film is Davis's Elizabeth. Davis went for authenticity over beauty, so her Elizabeth is a middle-aged balding woman with an awkward, frumpy physical bearing. Yet she retains the commanding manner and crackling energy that made her historical counterpart so magnetic. She makes us believe that even a savvy, politically brilliant ruler can be susceptible to a young scamp when he appeals to her vanity and her desire to be loved as a woman instead of obeyed as a queen. She's smarter and more experienced than Essex, which is part of the reason they fight so much, but it rings true with what we know of the historical Elizabeth's character. And this is why the scene near the end of the film in which she humbles herself to him is all the more outrageous. In a staggering role reversal, Essex becomes the wise, far-sighted one, and the queen devolves into the impulsive wooer who would fling away a country's happiness to satisfy her emotions. It enraged me to watch this strong, capable woman lower herself, all the more because it was completely out of character. The screen writers have some 'splaining to do regarding that scene, that's for sure.
Warner has done a good job overall with presentation of the film. The mono audio track is a bit murky, although free of hiss and aural debris; the audio for the film's trailer is actually brighter and clearer, which was rather a shock. The picture is clean and free from common age-related flaws like flicker and skips, but there is noticeable speckling. The image is usually acceptably sharp, although some areas seem slightly bleary. Unless one compares it to the films released with Warner's Ultra-Resolution process, though, it looks quite respectable for its age.
Goodies are where the brothers Warner usually shine, and they've given us another fun "Warner Night at the Movies" line-up, with an introduction by Leonard Maltin, a trailer for Bette Davis's Dark Victory, and a newsreel. The colorful musical fantasy The Royal Rodeo, in which John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) stars as a singing cowboy who comes to the aid of a boy king when court intriguers try to seize power, isn't really my cup of tea—but it is fun to see how the sets from The Adventures of Robin Hood are recycled. Perhaps of greater interest to general audiences will be the early Chuck Jones cartoon Old Glory, a nine-minute patriotic fantasy in which Uncle Sam teaches Porky Pig the significance of the Pledge of Allegiance. Audiovisual quality is quite bold for the cartoon.
Aside from this line-up, we also get two extras specific to the feature itself: the trailer, in black-and-white, and a new ten-minute featurette, "Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale." As the title suggests, it documents the tension between the two leads, and also discusses other cast members and the vigorous music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Nanette Fabray, who had a small but meaty role in the film as a lovelorn lady-in-waiting, takes the screen for a nice long segment in which she shares reminiscences about the making of the film. (I love the combination of awe and passion in her voice whenever she breathes the name "Errol Flynn.") Fabray is joined by a number of film scholars and authors, including ubiquitous Rudy Behlmer. For a brief featurette, it covers a respectable amount of ground, and it's gracious of Warner Bros. to give even this so-so film the featurette treatment.
This one is worth a rental for serious fans of the stars, but there are far better Davis and Flynn films out there on DVD, despite Warner's valiant efforts to gussy this one up with extras. Fans of Olivia de Havilland and Vincent Price will find their roles too small to be of much interest. It's a nice gesture of Warner Bros. to have released this movie, but couldn't we have gotten something a little less lofty and a little more fun instead?
Send him to the block! Er…on second thought, the court will exercise mercy. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1939
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