Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon - The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

“In 1939, I secured my career and my stardom forever. I made five pictures in twelve months and every one of them was successful.” Bette Davis was referring to the string of movies she made in rapid succession, beginning with The Sisters in 1938 and followed by four more the next year – Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. If 1939 was a watershed year for Hollywood, it was, too, for the actress who was about to begin her reign as America’s top film actress.

Of Human Bondage (1934)
Bette Davis spent most of the first half of the 1930s making her way through a series of mostly dreary film assignments, first for Universal and then for Warner Bros. Her startling performance in RKO's Of Human Bondage (1934) changed the course of her career. She won her first Best Actress Oscar for a downbeat role in Dangerous (1935), and her second for her turn as a headstrong Southern belle in Jezebel (1938).

Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth, the Queen, a historical drama written in blank verse a la Shakespeare, opened on Broadway in 1930. It starred Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt and ran for 147 performances. The production and Fontanne’s portrayal of Elizabeth I were legendary. Eight years after the play closed, an adaptation would make its way to the screen.

Based on events of Elizabeth’s late years, the story follows her relationship with the much younger Earl of Essex. After a victory against Spain at Cadiz, Essex returns to England a hero. Ambitious and overconfident, he is a favorite of the queen. However, the two are often at odds; she favors measured statesmanship and he is for bold action; both have a taste for power. Not surprisingly, the Earl is unpopular with the queen’s advisors who maneuver him into leading an ill-fated intervention in Ireland. Essex fails and returns to England in disgrace. Unable to bear ignominy, he attempts to raise a rebellion against the queen. This ends badly for Essex. 

Elizabeth I by Hans Holbein
When Bette Davis learned that producer Hal Wallis bought Anderson’s play for her, she was elated. “Elizabeth was my tankard of tea,” she later recalled. Familiar with the Broadway production and Fontanne’s performance, she saw in the part an exciting opportunity as well as a real challenge. Davis was only 31 at the time and she would be portraying Elizabeth in her 60s. Additionally, the script primarily consisted of complex blank verse dialogue. As was typical of her, Davis threw herself into the project completely. She began extensive research on the Elizabethan period and monarchy, and she was happily surprised when she saw in Holbein's portraits of Elizabeth a resemblance between herself and the queen.

Davis campaigned for Laurence Olivier to be cast in the role of Essex. “He was perfect for the part…he was arrogant, beautiful, virile and talented,” she remembered years afterward. Olivier was in between Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940) at the time, but Jack Warner wasn’t enthusiastic. Olivier was not yet a star in the U.S. (though he was on the very brink) and Warner felt the film required a box office powerhouse equal to Davis. The adaptation of Anderson’s play was a big picture for Warners in 1939 and Jack Warner wanted Errol Flynn, the studio’s hottest leading man, for Essex. Flynn had completed The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dawn Patrol and Dodge City all within the past year and was at the height of his popularity. Davis was not convinced. She did not think Flynn had the experience to cope with blank verse or the professionalism to work at it. But Warner prevailed; Flynn it would be. Davis was deeply disappointed. Perhaps the fact that Flynn was being paid twice as much as she amplified her disappointment…

Bette Davis and Michael Curtiz on the set
Warner Bros. veteran Michael Curtiz was tapped to direct. Though Curtiz and Flynn collaborated on several popular films, the dynamic between them was not ideal. Curtiz viewed  Flynn as little more than a blank slate, referring to the actor as “my beautiful puppet.” On the other hand, Davis put up with nothing from Curtiz on this set, she would not  forgive or forget his dismissive treatment of her before she was a star.

The supporting cast was steeped in solid character actors: Donald Crisp, Henry Daniell, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Leo G. Carroll, Alan Hale and James Stephenson. Olivia de Havilland appeared intermittently and young Nanette Fabray (Fabares) made an affecting screen debut as ladies in waiting.

Though Davis anticipated the film and her role as “a dream come true,” the production did not go smoothly.

It might seem logical that in making a film of a famed stage drama, the name of the play would remain intact. But Flynn did not like it that his character was not mentioned in the title and insisted on a change. The Knight and the Lady was proposed. For Davis, whose character was the centerpiece of the drama, that was unacceptable. The Lady and the Knight was offered as an option. No one liked this, including Davis. The success of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an Oscar-winner for Charles Laughton, inspired the film’s eventual title.

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn
When Olivia de Havilland arrived to begin work, she was still doing retakes for Gone With the Wind. She claimed that she wasn’t ready to start, she couldn’t play two characters at the same time. Jack Warner convinced her, at least to some extent, that she could.

Davis insisted on authentic costume design, but Curtiz thought that authentic costumes would be “too much for the camera” and wanted them scaled down. According to Davis, designer Orry-Kelly made two complete sets of Elizabeth’s costumes – the first conforming to Curtiz’s edict, the second historically accurate. Davis tested in the first set and played her role in the second. “Tricky is the determined female,” she later mused.

Makeup artist Perc Westmore worked closely with Bette Davis to achieve Elizabeth’s age and appearance. He remarked on her dedication to the part but said that he had to walk a fine line to create what Davis wanted while not exceeding what Jack Warner would tolerate.

As it turned out, Davis’s concerns about Errol Flynn were well-founded. Notes in the film’s production reports mention the actor’s difficulty with the dialogue. Flynn apparently protested, “I can’t remember lines like that,” and screenwriters Aeneas MacKenzie and Norman Reilly Raine simplified his lines by rewriting them out of verse.

In one famous scene (and infamous incident), Davis gave Flynn a hearty slap across the face with her heavily jeweled hand. Flynn called it a “right hook” and reportedly never forgave her for it. Davis did not seem to think she’d done anything out of character…

Orry-Kelly, Perc Westmore, art director Anton Grot and cinematographer/d.p. Sol Polito, all masters of their respective cinematic arts, worked inspired magic. Polito was especially valuable on the production for his wizardry with Technicolor.

Anton Grot’s lavish sets are an eyeful. At times Elizabeth seems to exist as if within an enormous chest of jewels, so surrounded is she by plush shades of amethyst, turquoise, ruby, emerald and gold. And Grot creates an evocative mood...in vaulted candle-lit chambers, a massive fireplace blazes and flickering shadows leap across dim walls.

Art Director Anton Grot
Anton Grot dominated art direction at Warner Bros. from the late '20s through the 1940s and is often credited for the realism of "the Warner Bros. look" of the 1930s. He was known for his interest in the expressive qualities of light on film, and his work was influenced by European modernism. Nominated for five competitive Oscars, Grot was given a special technical achievement award in 1940 for his design of a "water ripple and wave illusion machine." His films include Little Caesar, Anthony Adverse, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Captain Blood, and Mildred Pierce. The UCLA Library houses a collection of Grot's original sketches (see below and click here to see more).
Anton Grot's sketch of the court of Elizabeth I

Bette Davis in an intriguing performance is the finest of the film's fine qualities. In his Great Stars monograph on the actress, David Thomson wrote of Davis that she "often moves like a beast fearful of being leashed." As Elizabeth, her erratic gestures and movements, her voice and her eyes are alive with frustration and exasperation, insecurity and rage. At times she seems to prowl the queen's quarters like a caged cat. Davis captures the spirit of a weary but wily and indomitable monarch, a woman trapped in the power she has fought hard to hold.

While I don't think Flynn was up to this script, it isn't hard to imagine an aging queen (or any woman) falling victim to his many obvious charms. It's true that Olivier's brooding charisma along with his mastery of Shakespeare might've made for a compelling Essex - and I'm very sure he would have held his own with Bette Davis. But many among the film's cast and technical crew were veterans of Curtiz/Flynn action adventures and that may have something to do with why, overall, Elizabeth and Essex plays as a slightly off-balance marriage between historical drama and swashbuckling epic.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was a moneymaker for Warner Bros. Variety reported, “Bette Davis dominates the production at every turn…” and pointed out it was the first picture to be released using fast new Technicolor methods. The picture's "slow spots" were discounted as minor shortcomings.

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn
Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times, voicing a complaint common among critics that Flynn was a weak Essex, observed that Davis delivered “a strong, resolute, glamour-skimping characterization against which Mr. Flynn’s Essex has about as much chance as a beanshooter against a tank.”

Bette Davis needed a rest at this point. “I weighed 80 pounds when I discarded Bess’s ruff and hoop for the last time. I was really exhausted. I knew I must take a holiday and recharge the battery…”

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex received five Academy Award nominations - for art direction, color cinematography, special effects, music score and sound recording. Davis was nominated for Dark Victory instead.

Nominated for art direction, cinematography, effects, score and sound
Forty years after the film’s release, the actress told a biographer, “I have very mixed emotions when I see it.” She questioned whether she had, young as she was at the time, enough life experience to draw upon for the role. And she admitted that she had “secretly” been a bit unsure about playing Elizabeth.

In her 1962 autobiography, A Lonely Life, Bette Davis recalled a moment that stood out in her memory of the production. One day Charles Laughton visited the set. It was her first meeting with an actor she admired very much.

“Hi, Pop,” she greeted him, playfully referring to his role as Henry VIII.
“Ah, it’s my favorite daughter,” he replied.

As they talked, Bette mentioned that perhaps she had a lot of nerve to be trying to play Elizabeth. Laughton’s response was something she never forgot.

“Never stop daring to hang yourself, Bette,” he told her.


Click here for a full list of links to blogs participating in CMBA's "Classic Movies of 1939" blogathon.

The Classic Movie Blog Association honored this post with the 2011 CiMBA award for Best Film Review (Drama)

The Lonely Life (1962) by Bette Davis, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography (2006) by Charlotte Chandler, Dark Victory : The Life of Bette Davis (2007) by Ed Sikov, Bette Davis (2009) by David Thomson (Great Stars series)


  1. Wonderful back story and review... to one of my favorite Bette Davis films, I thought this film was one of her most heartwrenching performances. I also loved the banter between the queen and the earl. Errol Flynn, never looked more handsome.

  2. Eve, you nailed that one! Quite a post, filled with interesting tidbits. I loved the Charles Laughton memory at the end. Thanks for filling me with even more info about Bette Davis, one of the very best.

  3. Eve, this is an excellent review of PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, full of fascinating background details. Personally, I think Flynn held his own and gave one of his best performances. But--truth in lending here--I am a Flynn fan and believe he was often underrated as an actor. Interestingly, Bette also played Elizabeth in 1955's THE VIRGIN QUEEN (with Richard Todd as Raleigh). Meanwhile, Errol interacted with Queen Elizabeth again in THE SEA HAWK, played this time by Flora Robson. Ms. Robson played Elizabeth earlier in FIRE OVER ENGLAND. So your marvelous review has movie connections galore!

  4. I sure did enjoy this post. The movie does get better each time I see it, and I think its pretty underrated among Flynn fans, though not so among Davis fans.

    She did change her mind about Flynn though as she got older. Watching him she did say, "He was really good, wasn't he?"

    I wonder if there were fireworks on the set of their previous movie, "The Sisters?" That's a terrific movie marred by an unfortunately contrived happy ending.

  5. I love this bit: "to Davis, designer Orry-Kelly made two complete sets of Elizabeth’s costumes – the first according to Curtiz’s edict, the second historically accurate. Davis tested in the first set and played her role in the second. 'Tricky is the determined female,' she later mused." Great post.

  6. I love your post The Lady Eve! I really liked this movie when I saw it, and I didn't know it was made in 1939! I didn't know that Davis-Laughton meeting, thanks for including it :) And, wow, Perc Westmore had a lot of work that year, he also worked in the movie I reviewed, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" :) Oh, and Errol wrote like 5 pages about the slap incident in his autobio, he surely was pissed off!
    I can't wait for the Olivia de Havilland's autobio to come out, maybe she wrote something about this incident :P

  7. This was a wonderful post. I've yet to see this one and now I'm thinking I should put it at the top of the list. Whether or not you like Davis, you have to admire her sheer courage as an actress. The anecdote about her and Laughton at the end was touching.

  8. Wonderful post, Eve. I always liked this film, even before I knew what was happening off-camera. Bette and Errol made a good combination, and she was clearly up to the challenge of playing Elizabeth. I prefer this to her later "Virgin Queen." And, that tidbit at the end about Laughton is dynamite. Don't all the great ones follow that advice?

  9. good film...great post...certainly better than HENRY VII...good shout out to ANTON GROT & SOL POLITO, the "little people" who make the difference!!

  10. A wonderful post and review of Elizabeth and Essex. You've provided evrything we would want to know about this film and its production. It remains a classic and a model to study of how the studio system worked. The design aspects are especially interesting to me and I love the anecdote you added about Orry-Kelly's costumes. Thank you.

  11. Eve - You have done the Queen proud with your usual fascinating backstory. 1939 was certainly a great year for Davis, but for me Errol Flynn is just not in the same league with the lady and it shows. It would have been a different film with Mr. Olivier in the role.

  12. There’s a reason I didn’t include the often cited story that Bette Davis eventually changed her mind and decided that Errol Flynn had been a great (or “damn good” or “marvelous” or “brilliant”) Essex. It’s because she continued to grouse in her late years about how perfect Olivier would have been in the role - and she also continued to say that, although “beautiful,” Flynn was “no actor,” etc. I decided to just leave it alone.

    Thanks to all for your kind comments.

  13. Eve,
    I have to agree with others that this was an enjoyable film to watch and lets be honest here, the off camera drama added to it's appeal!

    Your post is beautifully done and it does do justice to a controversial but stellar piece of cinema.

  14. Umm Ummm Ummm - what a FANtastic review! Chock full of insights and tidbits - one of my favorites - just great!

  15. The photo of Bette as the queen at the beginning of your post took my breath away - she really is a portrait come to life. I always wonder why the dvd of this film is included in the Errol Flynn Collection and not the Bette Davis one - it's clearly her film. What a pity she and Laughton never made a film together - imagine those 2 powerhouses together onscreen! Thanks so much for your informative and excellent post, I really enjoyed learning about the movie's background and creative personnel.

  16. Eve, you would certainly know that I would read this article with great enthusiasm! Like Rick, I think Flynn was underrated. His beauty and charisma were so strong that I think his acting ability took second place when people watched his movies. I think in this movie, he was excellent in most ways, particularly with anger and ambition. But even I, (forgive me Errol) thought he did one scene pretty badly -- it is in the trailer you provided, where he says I love her, I hate her, I adore her. Not well delivered! But, I don't care! LOL! I think it's silly for Bette or others to say Olivier would have been "better". He was a classically trained actor, considered the best of his generation, so yeah, he would have been great. I don't think that takes away from Flynn's particular portrayal.

    Bette Davis -- to me the greatest of actresses. That woman could do anything. She WAS Elizabeth, and her deep dedication to the part shows in every frame of the film. Your background information is just fascinating, and your assessment of the movie thoughtful and insightful.

    Excellent as always, Eve. Important contribution to the blogathon. Many thanks!

  17. Eve, an admirably thorough post on a movie I find enjoyable if not exactly great. I especially liked your detailed consideration of the costumes, production design, and lovely color photography. These things are so impressive that for me they tend to overwhelm the dramatics. Davis is great, though. Her total commitment to this role is evident the whole way through. But she does seem to be working so hard that it isn't exactly a relaxed performance. Maybe that wasn't so bad, in that it added to the intensity of the character. Flynn had obvious limitations as an actor, but in a way he is quite convincing as a brash but rather vapid stud. One thing that disconcerted me, though, was the way Davis was continuously giving little palsied jerks of her head throughout the movie. Did anyone else notice this? At times, it was all I could focus on!

  18. Great review! I had no idea Bette Davis wanted Olivier for the part of Essex (although I have heard she had a rather large crush on him). I haven't seen this film, but now I think I just might add it to the lovefilm queue

  19. Although I enjoy historically based films; I haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching Bette Davis in this iconic role. I have seen Katharine Hepburn in Mary Queen Of Scots (1939), but I have no explanation for why I haven’t watched The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex, it is a bit mystifying in light of your fascinating look at the making of this film. My first observation is the extraordinary quality of the Technicolor in the photos you have included with your post, which match the beauty in the all too brief “slap scene.” Your description of Elizabeth’s world as “an enormous chest of jewels” seems to reflect both the historical accuracy and the lavish qualities of a Warner Bros. production. I believe Bette Davis had keen intuition in wanting Laurence Olivier in the role of Essex; he was both gorgeous and glorious in Fire Over England (1937) with Vivien Leigh. Perhaps, given the characters each was playing, the uneven match between Davis’s Elizabeth and Flynn’s Essex more accurately reflects the original dynamics between a sovereign and her subject. A nice moment between Bette and Charles; I especially like that he was willing to let her kid him regarding their “filial” relationship while giving her fatherly advice. Eve, as always your review is entertaining and informative; your research intrigues and your perspective shows me I need to add this to my list of films to watch.

  20. Normally I try to respond to every comment, but this blog posted on a weekday - and I'm a working lady with a long commute - plus, these comments came in so quickly that I was almost instantly way behind with no chance of catching up.

    I want to thank you all for taking the time to read about "Elizabeth & Essex" and comment on it.

    I watched the film a few times as I worked on the blog. I'm not sure why I picked "Elizabeth & Essex," really, it may have been out of curiousity about a film that starred Bette with which I wasn't too familiar and about which I had mixed feelings. Not sure. But once I got into it I was swept away. I didn't come away from the process with an entirely new opinion of the film. I still think it is flawed - primarily because it seems to have a "split personality" (Curtiz/Flynn Tudor epic vs. Bette Davis historical drama). As R.D. observed, the technical fireworks can overwhelm the drama. But I do have a more positive view of it than I did going in. I don't think Essex was Errol Flynn's finest hour, but he has his moments (Gypsy made an incisive comment on the dynamics between Essex and Elizabeth as reflected in Flynn's situation, as an actor, with Davis). I have to say, though, that I would have been thrilled to see what Davis and Olivier might've been together. And Bette...she all but spontaneously combusts as Elizabeth - this has to be one of her most flamboyant performances. It may not be her best ("The Letter" is my personal favorite right now), but damn, Bette Davis is good and there's never been anyone like her...

  21. Astute, intelligent, and above all, wonderfully entertaining, this is one of the best critiques of a classic film I've come across in recent memory. Your passion is palpable and result is infectious-- THANK YOU for letting us be a part of it! (Oh yes: "Tricky is the determined female" is my new mantra!)

  22. Thank you, Kitty, for such kind words and high praise. You might be interested to know that (and I think Jacqueline will appreciate this, too) "Tricky is the determined female" nearly became the secondary title of this blog.

  23. Eve, I wanted to share some entirely unrelated trivia that you might find interesting. A local channel airs re-runs of the Perry Mason show, and last night's episode was titled, "The Constant Doyle" and starred Bette Davis. The episode was shot during a period in the series's run when Raymond Burr had been injured and called on friends to help fill the void during his absence. If you have a chance, try to record the show, you won't be disappointed.

  24. Gypsy - Fortunately for me, "Perry Mason" airs on a local San Francisco station every day at noon. I'm going to see if I can locate a detailed schedule. Would love to see Bette's episode - thanks!

  25. Actually Flynn was a pretty first-rate actor. He gave the best performance in the 1949 movie, "THAT FORSYTE WOMAN". I think he had a tendency to be a bit lazy on the set. Except for 1940's "THE SEA HAWK". He was on time and knew his lines, due to his admiration of co-star Flora Robson. Michael Curtiz was flabbergasted, because Flynn had never been this disciplined before.

  26. My own favorite of Errol Flynn’s performances is as Soames Forsyte in “That Forsyte Woman.”

    From what I’ve read about Flynn on movie sets, it sounds as though he was fairly undisciplined and irresponsible. Of course, many things may have contributed to that. For example, through the early part of his Hollywood career he worked often but contentiously with Michael Curtiz. In 1941 he began working often and much more contentedly with Raoul Walsh.

    Next weekend I’ll be giving away the TCM Spotlight/Warner Home Video boxed set “Errol Flynn Adventures.” Four Raoul Walsh films are featured - "Desperate Journey,” “Northern Pursuit,” “Uncertain Glory” and Objective Burma!” - plus “Edge of Darkness,” directed by Lewis Milestone. I’ll be posting giveaway details early next week along with more on the films included and the career of Errol Flynn.

  27. Hope you don't mind, Eve, but in visiting I saw
    Rushblog's comment and your response. I was interested (of course) and also thought Forsyte Woman was a good part for him because he almost disappeared as "Errol Flynn" in that sombre part, always a good sign that a good acting job is being done.

    I think my 2 favorites of his best acting, aside from his wonderful swashbuckler, were Uncertain Glory (which is in your set, Eve), and the supporting role in The Sun Also Rises. He was particularly good in that one. Just some thoughts.

  28. I love this movie so much! Marvelous performances all around, I always enjoy when Bette and Olivia, two of my favorite people, are together on the screen! You have a wonderful blog, and I really like how in-depth it is. My classic film blog is just getting off the ground, and I really want to make it like this. Thanks! -Lara (at Backlots)

  29. Hi Lara - good to hear from you and glad you stopped by. Was watching "In This Our Life" the other night - Bette and Olivia. Both excellent actresses and great Warner Bros. stars at the time. Interesting film, too. Thanks for your kind words about this blog - yours is coming along ver nicely. It's a lot of work, isn't it?

  30. Great review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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