Errol Flynn as Lord Essex & Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth
The Private Lives of
Elizabeth & Essex
With GONE WITH THE WIND in full swing, JL Warner decided to break out the heavy artillery in the form of his two biggest stars: Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. He had Maxwell Anderson play adapted for the screen, perhaps in an attempt to outclass Selznick's well-hyped historic project. The results were very colourful but less than spectacular, and the release of GWTW less than a month later went unscathed.
Bette Davis wanted Laurence Olivier to play the role of Essex, and balked at Warner's casting Errol Flynn. Flynn was none to happy about the assignment himself; Bette Davis was intimidating enough without her overt objection to his being cast in a role which she felt he was entirely incompetent for. And this time, HE would be co-star; the two had previously played together in THE SISTERS, a Bette Davis film for which Flynn had demanded and won first billing. Flynn then went ahead and tried to have the title changed from the original stage title ELIZABETH THE QUEEN to THE KNIGHT & THE LADY (see the corner shot on the Filmography page of this site). When Davis threatened to walk, the studio hastily came up with the final title. The UK prints retained the title ELIZABETH THE QUEEN; even recently, TV prints have billed the film as such.
The plot is simple enough: young Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, is in love with middle age Queen Elizabeth and vice versa. They have conflicting policies and are each dedicated to them. Essex isn't king and wants to be; he is further inspired by his growing favour in the public eye for his acts of gallantry. Courtesans use their political schemes to undo a relationship already strained by two stubborn egos (heyyy kinda sounds like the casting debacle covered earlier, doesn't it?). In the end, the Queen keeps her throne and the Lord loses his head.
Well, this IS a pretty film. And of all the films in which he appears, Errol Flynn was clearly cast into this one to be a part of the furniture, something pretty for Bette Davis to play against. I cannot imagine how even Olivier could have shone in such a limiting role (or would have wanted to). All the men are dressed prettily and look damn uncomfortable in them - except Flynn, who always manages to come off sufficiently regal in Elizabethan clothes. In PLOE&E. he looks uncomfortable having to say awkward lines which either a) only would have worked in a theatrical environment, or b) Warner writers put into the screenplay adaptation. Some things just don't work being delivered up close and personal; with talkies well past their growing pains, Warner Bros. should have known better.
Lady Penelope (Olivia De Havilland) wants Essex for herself.
Popular Flynn sidekick Alan Hale had the fleeting role of Earl of Tyrone. Flynn, de Havilland, and Hale had earlier that year appeared together in DODGE CITY in a winning formula established in ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Olivia de Havilland had just returned from the studio from her loanout to Selznick for the role of Melanie in GWTW. Her having been cast below the marquis (as Lady Penelope Gray) in PLOE&E, and NOT as Errol Flynn's primary romantic pursuit, were conditions less than satisfactory. Her disappointment was no doubt shared by their fans, as this film - with all its pomp and circumstance - did not fare all too well at the box office.
We like to heckle this film. Even though it has some sincere moments and a very sad ending - even though it seems as though Flynn IS actually trying to make the most of a bad arrangement (it was apparent in DAWN PATROL and THE SISTERS that he indeed had acting potential) - it's a very silly movie. Everyone looks uncomfortable, and the appearance of Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh makes me think about the Beatle's song I'M SO TIRED (sorry, can't be helped). Bette Davis - whom I never cared for anyway - is merely a cartoon caricature; Flora Robson was so much better as Queen Elizabeth in THE SEA HAWK.
This film was available on video during the 1980s as part of a Bette Davis collection and has not been released since.
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