Program Notes: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The year 1939 was a very good one for actress Bette Davis.

She had four films released in that 12-month period, all of them now regarded as classics. She was the high-society deb dying of a brain tumor in Dark Victory, the wife of a Mexican statesman in Juarez, a spinster who allows her illegitimate daughter to be raised by her cousin in The Old Maid.

Davis was nominated for a best actress Oscar for Dark Victory, but in my humble opinion she should have received that honor for her work that year as England’s "virgin queen" in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

For here is Bette Davis at her most magnificent, playing a monarch torn between the hubris of ruling a nation and her almost girlish infatuation with a handsome man several years her junior. It’s a monumental, horrifying, and very human performance.

Film Screening:
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Saturday, May 31 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Whether this is an accurate depiction is beside the point. As history The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex leaves much to be desired. As a gaudy slice of colorful melodrama, it’s pretty great.

In particular, the film does a terrific job of re-creating the relationship between Elizabeth I (Davis) and Robert, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn). Whether factual or not, the on-screen psychology of these two achieves a subtlety and sophistication that is quite remarkable.

Of course we expect that sort of creativity from Davis, one of the great actresses of her generation.

Flynn, on the other hand, was not what you’d call a "thinking" actor, being more accustomed to flourishing a saber and swinging from ropes than mining the finer points of human motivation.

That these two wildly dissimilar performers somehow come together effortlessly as a queen and her courtier is really quite unexpected.

Certainly Davis didn’t expect it. She had already made one film with Flynn – 1938’s The Sisters, a small-town melodrama – and found the Tasmanian action star to be insufferably shallow. She lobbied Warner Bros. head Jack Warner to have newcomer Laurence Olivier play Essex.

When she didn’t get her way she made a point of giving the easygoing Flynn the cold shoulder. After their scenes together she would wheel away without a word.

Critics in 1939 felt that Davis ran away with the movie. "Bette Davis' Elizabeth is a strong, resolute, glamour-skimping characterization against which Mr. Flynn's Essex has about as much chance as a beanshooter against a tank," opined The New York Times.

But I must disagree. I believe the playboy-ish Flynn was exactly the right man to portray the Earl of Essex, a naïve pretty boy so sure of his male charms and military superiority that he waves off the Machiavellian intrigues of Elizabeth’s court as so much background static. This was a role Flynn had played in a dozen movies, not to mention in his real life.

In fact, many years later, Davis and Olivia de Havilland rewatched the movie. When it was over, Davis turned to de Havilland and admitted: "I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Flynn was brilliant!"

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who would guide Flynn through a long list of hit films), Elizabeth and Essex has a full house of great character actors.

Flynn’s usual onscreen paramour, de Havilland, here plays a lady-in-waiting with a crush on Essex. Newcomer Nanette Fabray is also attending on Her Majesty.

Then there are the gentlemen of the court, familiar faces like Donald Crisp, Vincent Price, and Leo G. Carroll.

As was often the case with early Technicolor pictures, there’s a tendency to flood the sets with light, leaving little possibility for nourish effects. But at least those colorful costumes really pop.

As I noted earlier, I believe Davis should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her performance here. But that decision was up to her bosses at Warner Bros., who thought she had a better chance for her work in the "women’s picture," Dark Victory.

As it turned out, nobody was going to stop the juggernaut that was Vivien Leigh and Gone With the Wind.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: True Lives”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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