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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1939)

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teaser The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson, this historical drama depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) and the roguish and willful Robert Devereaux (Errol Flynn), Earl of Essex, which is complicated by the intrigues of the English court. Essex's ambitions potentially threaten the throne, and the Queen is ultimately forced to choose between Essex and England.

Though promoted as a historical romance, there was little love between Bette Davis and Errol Flynn on the set of the film. Reportedly, Davis was jealous of Flynn because he was the highest paid star at Warners at the time yet she was the one who gave the studio prestige through her Oscar nominated performances. She also had requested and been denied Laurence Olivier for the role of Essex yet she would later state that during her scenes with Flynn, she would pretend she was acting with Olivier. Flynn had his own issues with Davis. He disliked her domineering personality and felt his own acting suffered in comparison to hers. To combat this unpleasant situation he demanded, as the top-paid star, to have the title changed to The Knight and the Lady to reflect the importance of his role. When Davis heard about this, she threatened to walk off the set but the studio remained committed to the original title.

The conflict between Davis and Flynn reached a climax during the filming of the scene where Essex defies the Queen and is slapped by her. According to Flynn in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the actor recalled that when Davis hit him during the first take, "My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets and shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn't knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf." Flynn would later get his revenge in a scene where he positioned his hand so Davis would run into it: "It went sailing right through her Elizabethan dresses, slappo, smack on her Academy Award behind. She went about two feet off the ground." Despite all the animosity between the two actors, however, Flynn would later admit that Davis was "the greatest thing in the movies." As for Davis, she liked this role so well that she repeated her impersonation of Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen (1955) which detailed her relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd).

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is undoubtedly one of the most stunningly designed Technicolor films produced by Warner Brothers. Its Academy Award nominations included Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. Anton Grot's continuity sketches often provided direct models for director Michael Curtiz's shot placement and the cinematographers? lighting schemes in the finished film.

Born in Poland, Art Director Anton Grot (1884-1974) brought a broad interest in modern art, especially German Expressionism and abstract art, to his work in Hollywood. His taste for abstraction contributed much to the success of Busby Berkeley's musical numbers in films such as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and to the classic noir-ish struggle between light and dark in the design of Mildred Pierce (1945). Likewise, his designs for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex compliments and underscores the emotional nature of each scene. In Elizabeth's court, the gray walls and vast spaces underline her sense of isolation. Wooden doors with heavy carved patterns add to the sense of monumentality. Essex's residence has warmer, richer colors and a greater sense of intimacy to provide an effective contrast to the impersonality of the court. Throughout the film, the often plain walls of the sets are covered with abstract patterns of colored light and silhouettes of off screen characters. Doorways, windows and mirrors are used to frame characters within shot compositions. In the set of the Tower dungeon, especially striking are the heavy arches, which seem to weigh down upon the queen, and the staircase in the middle of the floor from which emerges not only the Earl of Essex, but the last rays of warm light before Elizabeth is sealed off permanently in her world of isolation and mistrust.

Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Aeneas MacKenzie, Norman Reilly Raine
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene, Sol Polito
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Queen Elizabeth), Errol Flynn (Essex), Olivia de Havilland (Lady Penelope Gray), Vincent Price (Raleigh), Donald Crisp (Francis Bacon), Alan Hale (Earl of Tyrone), Henry Daniell (Sir Robert Cecil), Henry Stephenson (Lord Burghley).
C-107m. Closed captioning

By James Steffen

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