Egos inflamed, pride broken, and the throne of 1596 England at personal stake, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn hack up the drama in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”. With her as Queen Elizabeth I in heavy makeup and him as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, they share the kind of love story that could only be had by two people who actually can stand loving and hating each other at the same time. It’s a war of minds and wills, but where it stands is at a point where Michael Curtiz still could direct ably, but the material wouldn’t give way toward something better.
Elizabeth has a reputation to uphold and it’s one that threatens to fade under the weight and power of Essex’s name as it flies through all England on good cheer and honor. She is not pleased with this, as the Queen should be the one looked up to by all people simply because if one does not, then what is the power of a Queen? She berates Essex for his failure at the battle of Cadiz in Spain, where countless ducats that could have filled the English treasury were lost underwater. This, after she had presented him with 50,000 pounds for this hopeful conquest, in which she was forced to tax her already overburdened people to supply him with that money. Yet she loves him. She may be older and he younger, but in him, she sees herself as youthful, a way to remove herself from the foibles of the crown that prevent her from being a woman. He adores her too, supposedly, while Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia DeHavilland) loves him secretly in the wings and Elizabeth catches on, but it doesn’t make much difference what with DeHavilland relegated to a small part. In fact, that is one of the advantages of “Elizabeth and Essex” in that the overwrought drama that could be had by different characters is not. For example, Nanette Fabray (Fabares in the end credits) plays Mistress Margaret Radcliffe, whom is so exuberantly in love with Sir Peter Finchley, off fighting a nasty fight in Ireland. Margaret describes her love for Finchley so doe-eyed that Elizabeth not only promises her the swift return of Finchley, but it also motivates her to seek out Essex again, even after she has brought a few men to new ranks over Essex, which has also angered him in the only way Flynn could be angered. A slight sneer, a tart few words is the way he goes about it.
As it turns out, Finchley has been killed in Ireland and Elizabeth is forced to dispense the news to Radcliffe, but since this is the Davis and Flynn show, we’re not subjected to what could have very well been some minutes of overdone emotion.
Speaking of emotion, Davis marches bravely on with a makeup job that reduces those Bette Davis Eyes into that of Elizabeth. She is a powerful, powerful woman, even with some treachery afoot in her own hallowed halls. Jewels bedeck her frilly neckline, and the palace built for her is enormous. Director Michael Curtiz is happy within his shadow motif, where candles loom larger on a far-off wall and the shadow of Elizabeth seats herself within a prestigious painting, though oddly enough, the candle lighting from where it sits doesn’t seem like it could give off that much light. And towards the end, Essex’ shadow overpowers Elizabeth, though she realizes what she must do to keep England at her knee, and not with Essex.
The banter between Davis and Flynn is entirely bland. The dialogue between them becomes nothing more than heightened recitation and is a product of their dislike for each other on the set of the film (as explained later on the DVD), which causes the major dramatic problems that even Curtiz could not fix, but only try to edit later on. The other roles, including a brief turn by Vincent Price and Alan Hale, show actors in uncomfortable times. This isn’t so much as a prestige picture as it is almost insufferable to sit through. There’s no fire between these actors, nothing that makes their scenes come alive. Whitehall Castle is nice to look at, but the drama isn’t suitable within its walls.
The DVD provides many pleasureable moments, with Warner Night at the Movies, introduced by Leonard Maltin who is excellent at explaining various aspects of film history. This package provides a trailer for “Dark Victory”, one of Bette Davis’ four 1939 releases that puts her in a much better role. There’s a reason she had those eyes. A newsreel shows that World War II is well on the march, while fashion statements and fishing news rounds this out. “The Royal Rodeo” is a short film that sees the young king of the fictional country Avania wanting to see the cowboys that have arrived in his country to put on a show. After one of them rescues him, he convinces them to have the show at his palace. Meanwhile, the standard devious doings are in progress as an older advisor plots to take over the royal crown and rule the country. The short itself is reminiscent of Hitler in a way if you take it like this: Hitler preyed on a great number of countries in his dark campaign for domination that would bring his Nazis to higher power. Therefore, consider the older advisor to be him. The Americans come in and save the day. Is it a desire that we be the ones to save the world or merely a way to wave patriotism high? Most likely the latter, though circa 1939, the former seemed possible too. A Chuck Jones cartoon, “Old Glory” features Porky Pig wondering why he has to learn the Pledge of Allegiance. Falling asleep, he is led by Uncle Sam in learning what made this country possible. Rotoscoping was done in this one, with actors being drawn over with animation. With Chuck Jones’ name attached to any of these cartoons, you paid attention and he’s still worth the attention today.
Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale goes through some juicy motions about what was involved in making this movie. Errol Flynn wasn’t happy about working on this movie and Bette Davis detested him. Beforehand, Davis wanted her idol, Laurence Olivier, to take the role of Essex. And the hard beats go on, though some of it is very pleasant such as Nanette Fabray’s awed recollection of working with Davis, and even an outtake from the film. No comments are made by any of the historians on Davis’ makeup, a major disappointment, but it’s yet another informative piece. There’s also the requisite trailer for the movie which strangely enough is in black-and-white.
“The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex” isn’t entirely a low point in the respective careers of Flynn and Davis, but it doesn’t do much for them either. It’s only too fortunate that there were more films before and after this one that made them great.