With Bette Davis at the zenith of her career, Errol Flynn in solid form, and a wondrous collection of Hollywood character actors in support, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex emerges as one of the crown jewels of that magical moviemaking year: 1939.
The Production: 4/5
Maxwell Anderson’s verse drama Elizabeth the Queen came to bold and lusty Technicolored life in Michael Curtiz’s classic The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. With Bette Davis at the zenith of her career, Errol Flynn in solid form as her leading man, and a wondrous collection of Hollywood character actors in support, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex emerges as one of the crown jewels of that magical moviemaking year: 1939.
Returning to England after the sacking of Cadiz, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) expects a triumphant welcome from Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis), but he’s horrified to find that the queen is not in a welcoming mood since his burning of the Spanish fleet and leveling of the town has not resulted in the millions of Spanish ducats she had been promised if she financed his expedition. It’s but the first in a series of slights Essex endures as Elizabeth makes crafty maneuvers so that Essex’s fame and notoriety won’t eclipse her own devotion in the hearts of her subjects. Elizabeth’s court fears Essex’s growing power and bottomless ambition, and Master Secretary Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) and Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) maneuver him into pridefully accepting an impossible task: invading Ireland and subduing the uncontrollable leader, the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale). With some traitorous help from the jealous and vengeful Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland) who has always loved Essex in vain, they’re gambling that Essex will fall victim to Tyrone’s cunning maneuvers and either be killed there or have to return to England in disgrace.
Screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie have retained some but not all of the blank verse from Maxwell Anderson’s stage play, and many will likely find the film overly talky without benefit of many scenes shot outside the principal palace grounds even if the talk is filled with witty repartee delivered by experts. To his credit, director Michael Curtiz directs these dramatic scenes with great smoothness (the huge and cumbersome Technicolor camera glides over the enormous sets of the queen’s court with amazing grace), and he does his best to imbue the battle scenes in Ireland with some tight pacing and action (though they’re shot on interior soundstages themselves). It’s the colorful court of Elizabeth, however, that most catches our eye with multi-colored pennants and tapestries on the walls and the glorious Orry-Kelly costumes dazzling from beginning to end (if the costume design Oscar had been in existence in 1939, surely these clothes would have vied strongly with Walter Plunkett’s creations for Gone with the Wind and Adrian’s fanciful designs for The Wizard of Oz).
This was the first and only color film Bette Davis made during her initial eighteen year tenure at Warner Brothers (others like Mr. Skeffington were planned for color that inevitably didn’t happen), but she has made sure that her performance as Elizabeth I would be captured as historically accurate as possible: she shaved her eyebrows and trimmed her hairline back three inches to accommodate her bright red wigs and used something similar to the pasty egg white make-up Elizabeth used to hide her wrinkles from her subjects (Davis was thirty-one at the time, less than half the age of Elizabeth during the time of the movie’s action). In performance, Davis’ Elizabeth is as tightly wound as a spring ready to snap (just watch the clinching and unclinching of her left hand throughout the movie), always on guard against all those around her who would use her for their own purposes. Errol Flynn was not Davis’ choice for Essex (Laurence Olivier was her selection, but he was busy with Wuthering Heights), but he acquits himself well: certainly his stunning looks and courtly manner were suitable for the role, and he handles the dialogue quite well if less theatrically than his co-star. Donald Crisp is subdued and faithful as Essex’s tutor and loyal friend Francis Bacon while Henry Daniell and Vincent Price are as entertainingly calculating as one would expect as members of the court sworn to keep Essex from the throne. Olivia de Havilland, though she plays it well, is wasted in the small role of the jealous Lady Penelope Gray (in a song she sings to defy the queen, she’s dubbed by Faith Kruger), but it’s fun to see the incredibly young Nanette Fabray as a lady in waiting pining for her love lost to the Irish wars. And though he has only one scene, Alan Hale is marvelous as the hearty Earl of Tyrone who bests the cocky Essex and yet comes to him jovially and full of good spirits.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is retained faithfully in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. From the opening credits whose clarity, sharpness, and color are mind-boggling, this is one sensational transfer. Gone are all of the color registration issues from the DVD and what remains are colors bright, rich, and true, and detail so stark that individual roof tiles or pearls on a tunic can be easily counted. The movie has been divided into 35 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is typical for its era, but the fidelity is first-rate throughout. The large amounts of dialogue have been expertly recorded, and they have been blended with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s stately, gorgeous Oscar-nominated score and the appropriate sound effects. There are no problems with hiss, flutter, pops, or crackle.
Special Features: 3/5
Warner Night at the Movies (SD): Leonard Maltin hosts a succession of 1939 shorts: a trailer for Dark Victory, a newsreel, the cartoon Old Glory, and the musical short The Royal Rodeo with John Payne and Scotty Beckett.
Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale (10:36, SD): a brief overview of the production with film historians Lincoln Hurst, Bob Thomas, and Rudy Behlmer, conductor John Mauceri, and actress Nanette Fabray.
Theatrical Trailer (3:29, HD/B&W)
There is court intrigue and pageantry aplenty in Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. With colorful leading performances from Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, a marvelous and expensive production, and a cast of great character actors, this Warner Archive Blu-ray release comes with a hearty recommendation!
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