The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) - BluRay Review

I could be young with you, but now I am old. I know how it will be without you. The sun will be empty and circle around an empty earth – and I will be Queen of emptiness and death – Why could you not have loved me enough to give me your love and let me keep as I was? Elizabeth I to Lord Essex

1939 was Hollywood’s Golden Year. It is a very deep well of films to mine for unadulterated pleasures. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is one film with many pleasures for me. The 2021 Warner Archive release is absolutely stunning. A film that is RICH with texture, color, shadows and light and this new BluRay shows off every scintillating flicker.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex does not seem to have a great reputation among film fans today; certainly nothing like the reputation of The Adventures of Robin Hood which preceded it. This film may lack some of the dash and swash of The Adventures of Robin Hood , nevertheless I count it as one of my favorites from this golden year.


The Garden of Allah (1936)

Whereas each of the major studios dabbled in the expensive process of Three-Strip Technicolor (process 4) in short films and as a special for the last reel in the early 1903s; RKO famously took the plunge with a full color feature starring Miriam Hopkins in 1935 Becky Sharp. 1936 had more Technicolor feature films from The Garden of Allah (Selznick), Ramona (20th Century Fox), and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Walter Wanger/Paramount). By the late 1930s Warner Bros. had invested in more features in 1938-1939 with The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gold is Where You Find It, Valley of the Giants (a film I would love to see on DVD/Blu), and Dodge City among their most colorful productions. 

Technicolor was not cheap and it was also limited in the equipment available. Each studio had to arrange to rent the limited number of Technicolor cameras, technicians and employ one of Technicolor’s consultants, Natalie Kalmus (though the work was mostly carried out by Henry Jaffa). This is to say, a color consultant to ensure the color looked great in the final film. Even with a color consultant, each studio had their own unique spin on the Technicolor color wheel. M-G-M used primary colors and early on you notice things like the amount of rouge used on stars like Jeanette MacDonald in Sweethearts (1938) and Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), both similar to the rouged cheeks of Snow White in Disney’s 1938 Technicolor animated feature. 20th Century Fox films often exploded in a riot of color, brash purples, pinks, deep blues and greens and bold yellows that were fairly shocking in combination for their big budget musicals. Warner Bros. also used a riot of color, but, their color films were not limited to the studio soundstage. Films like Captains of the Clouds (1942), Valley of the Giants (1938), Dodge City (1939) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) had extensive sequences shot outdoors. This lent some naturalistic, albeit, very saturated color scenes. This expensive process lent itself to the lavish costume film beautifully.

Notice the huge banks of lights needed to light the set
for the Technicolor cameras The Adventures of Robin Hood


Producer Hal Wallis purchased the rights to the 1930 Maxwell Anderson play for $30,000. Before filming even began the picture was fraught with disagreements, firstly about the title. Flynn objected to Elizabeth the Queen, Jack Warner suggested The Knight and the Lady. Bette Davis objected to this title, rightly so. Warner suggested reverse billing The Lady and the Knight, which did nothing to mollify either star. Later settling on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex which sounds more like a film by Alexander Korda than the brothers Warner.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was a tough production, starting with legendary Michael Curtiz directing the picture and Bette Davis, the Queen of the Burbank lot as Elizabeth who was not happy with the casting of Errol Flynn as Lord Essex. She repeated in later years how she longed for Laurence Olivier to be cast as Essex and in losing the battle she later said she imagined in her scenes with Flynn he was, instead, Olivier. 

Flynn remembered in his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, that "Bette was a dynamic creature, the great big star of the lot, but not physically my type; dominating everybody around, and especially me, or trying to. This drove me off. The normal reticence I feel with leading ladies (!!) was even exaggerated in this situation." Flynn describes, at length, the agony of their animosity in the rehearsals for the return of Essex to London and Court from the sabotaged Irish campaign in which Elizabeth strikes Essex, her delicate hand and wrist armed with heavy jewelry. He claimed the blow in rehearsal was so severe he felt like he lost hearing and also went off stage to vomit he felt so sick from the blow. Flynn describes visiting Davis in her dressing room/trailer to see if she would use a stage blow, i.e., one in which she seems to hit him, but misses. An optical illusion with help from the camera. Davis refused according to Flynn. When the scene came to shot for the camera, Davis did exactly as Flynn had suggested and her hand whizzed past his face by millimeters. Flynn said he got even with Davis later by smacking her so hard on the posterior that she went sailing. Flynn gives little in his autobiography to the making of this film beyond this, only finishing that "it wasn't a very pleasant picture to make, for me, that is." Davis and Flynn got along a little better making The Sisters (1938).

Alan K. Rode in his excellent biography of Michael Curtiz describes what a difficult shoot it was concerning Curtiz and Flynn. Flynn was often late to the set and did not know his lines. Internal memoranda state that often it took 20 takes to get a scene with Flynn. "It seems as though Mr. Curtiz can make fast time until he gets with Errol Flynn and then we slow down to a walk."  As Flynn said, it was not a happy shoot.

Another not happy camper was Olivia de Havilland, then still filming Melanie in Gone With the Wind for Selznick. She was here in a supporting role, little screen time and, it would seem, this was a slap at her for all the machinations she employed to get a loan out to Selznick (famously aided by Ann Warner). Uncharacteristically, de Havilland had a blowup late in the day shooting her scene with Nanette Fabares (in her film debut). Shooting ended that day and de Havilland later penned a note of apology to Jack Warner for her lack of professionalism. 

Davis in The Lonely Life, and in her running commentary throughout Whitney Stine's Mother Goddam, gives little in her memories of the production. Davis and Orry-Kelly circumvented director Michael Curtiz who wanted smaller sized period gowns for Davis. Hal Wallis, after Curtiz' complaints, allowed for a second set of costumes made (that must have added to the budget quite a bit). Davis ignored the new costumes and wore the original gowns anyway. Whether or not Curtiz noticed is anyone's guess. 

This is not to say there were not light moments during production. Charles Laughton who famously played Henry the VIII and won an Academy Award in the process paid a visit to the set. Davis chirped "Hello Daddy! I have a nerve playing Elizabeth at my age." Laughton replied, "Never stop trying to hang yourself Bette." The long shoot ended on July 6, no doubt to everyone's relief. With all the troubles with delays, costumes, sets and mini dramas from Flynn, Davis, de Havilland, and Curtiz, the film came in a day early and, surprisingly, under budget.

The Film/BluRay 

Upon release in late 1939, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was not the unqualified success Warner Bros. had hoped for. That said, the budget was $1,073,000 and earned back a respectable $1,613,000 ($530,000 profit). Compared to the other Flynn Technicolor feature of 1939, the western Dodge City, with a budget of $1,061,00 and the gross was $2,532,000 (clearing a whopping $1,471,000), to the bottom line it was disappointing. The 1938 feature The Adventures of Robin Hood which was budgeted just over 2 million dollars, earned back just under 2 million.

In a review for Redbook, critic Douglas Churchill described Davis' appearance thusly:

"Startling is the effect then, when the lens finally rests of her bejeweled slippers, and slowly and deliberately rises across her regal robes until it comes to rest on her aged face, white as alabaster with thin, crimson lips, the high forehead crowned with a flaming red wig. Yet within a few feet (of film) she becomes genuine, her vitality leaps from the screen, her romance with Essex reveals a passion not at all incongruous. So vivid is her personality, that though she bears no beauty, true glamor envelopes her, and Essex's love at once becomes understandable." [emphasis added]

As mentioned above, the film did not make much money, in telegrams before production on the film started, Jack Warner complained that using Technicolor for The Knight and the Lady might well end up like the earlier features which did not earn back their costs (Valley of the Giants and Gold is Where You Find It). Regardless, Technicolor was greenlit and Warner's stipulation that the sets constructed as such to be used for the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk to ease the financial outlay. As it stands, sets from Robin Hood as the streets of London and within the gates of the palace can easily be identified.

Nominated for five Academy Awards, Anton Grot for Art Direction, Sol Polito and W. Howard Greene for Color Cinematography, Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Music Score, Nathan Levinson for Sound Recording and Byron Haskin and Nathan Levinson for Special Effects. It won none. 

This BluRay from Warner Archive takes your breath away. The original negative was utilized and a 4K scan was done. It shows in every single frame. Let me state right now so I can get roasted, Sol Polito veteran cameraman was nominated for an Academy Award for this film. As much as I love Gone with the Wind and how beautifully photographed it is, in my heart I wish Polito (and W. Howard Greene) had won the big prize for color cinematography. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is eye-popping as only a Warner Bros. Technicolor film could be. You notice things, not merely the color of the costumes, the txture of the fabrics, the sparkle of the jewels, the sets, the wood, the stone, the props and stained glass windows, not a detail is missed. It's one of the most glorious films to look at, period. 

Who was it who said there are no small parts? Alas I do not remember. In this case, one of the memorable tiny details in this sweeping film is that of Mistress Margaret Radcliffe, in her film debut Nanette Fabares (Fabray). Sharing a scene with Bette Davis had to have been terrifying, but Davis gives over generously to the young Fabares who is all charm and youthful innocence speaking of her love for a young officer in service to the Queen. This scene also showed Elizabeth's human side to great effect. Warner Bros. did not pick up an option and offer a contract to Fabares, who went back to New York to study opera, later giving that up for musical theater. She triumphed on Broadway, in shows such as Bloomer GirlHigh Button Shoes, and winning a Tony Award for Love Life. Lured back to Hollywood, Fabray co-starred with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (my favorite MGM Freed Unit Musical). 

Vincent Price, Donald Crisp and Henry Daniell

The film is cast with luxury in all the smaller roles, Henry Daniell (Sir Robert Cecil), Donald Crisp (Francis Bacon), Alan Hale (Earl of Tyrone), Henry Stephenson (Lord Burleigh), James Stephenson (Sir Thomas Ederton), and Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh). Not a single small scene is lacking professionalism from the above and no matter how small the part, each are memorable.

Whatever drama occurred off screen and no matter how much work it took to get Errol Flynn to get his scenes, it was so worth it in the end. Both Davis and Flynn spark off one another and you can believe the romance of these star-crossed lovers is completely real. Flynn is great throughout, particularly in the final scene with Davis and as he climbing the stairs to meet his fate on the block. When it counted, he did not phone this in.

Orry-Kelly would likely have been nominated for an Academy Award for his costume designs for this film. Unfortunately, this category was not added to the awards until 1949. He and Adrian were robbed!

The score for the film is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and is a masterpiece, as all his scores are. Filled with epic sweep, tender themes and audible regret the score underlying the action supports the film completely. 

Curtiz (and Sol Polito) used many of Curtiz' trademarks of light and shadows in the film. In fact, Bette Davis is first seen as a shadow on the wall, how very Curtiz!

Elizabeth awaits the execution of Essex in the Tower

Rode describes in his Curtiz bio that according to Olivia de Havilland, Davis would later admit after viewing the film in the 1970s that Flynn was quite good and better than she remembered. "Damn, he's good. I was wrong about him all the time." It is a shame that Flynn was not alive to hear such praise, he would have surely appreciated it.

The BluRay is filled with the usual Warner Archive bevy of extras including a Warner Bros. cartoon Old Glory, a short, newsreel and boasting an intro by critic and historian Leonard Maltin. There is also a featurette Elizabeth & Essex Battle Royale.

********** stars all the way. Highly recommended!

References & Recommended Reading

The Lonely Life by Bette Davis

Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis by Whitney Stine

Michael Curtiz by Alan K. Rode

My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn

Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) by Rudy Behlmer


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