Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The (1939)

Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The (1939)

“The necessities of a queen must transcend those of a woman.”

Synopsis:
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis), Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) and Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) are determined to separate the aging queen from her young lover — the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) — by sending him to battle in Ireland, and enlisting the help of jealous Lady Gray (Olivia de Havilland) in intercepting his letters to Davis. When Flynn returns and demands joint power with the queen, their romance becomes more tenuous than ever.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Bette Davis Films
  • Errol Flynn Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Olivia de Havilland Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Strong Females
  • Vincent Price Films

Review:
Michael Curtiz directed this adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play Elizabeth the Queen, originally starring Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt as the star-crossed regal lovers. The basic theme of this historical romance is that it’s lonely at the top: poor Queen Elizabeth can’t afford to truly trust anyone, even the man she’s clearly happiest and most relaxed with. Davis and Flynn have fine romantic rapport, and turn in first-rate performances; they’re a suitable match for one another. Meanwhile, the entire production — including the inspired art direction (by Anton Grot), vibrant Technicolor cinematography (by Sol Polito), majestic score (by Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and ornate costumes (by Orry-Kelly) — is lushly mounted, so that even the relatively stage-bound feel of the film doesn’t detract from the inherent drama of the story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I
  • Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex
  • Vibrant cinematography and sets


  • Orry-Kelly’s regal costumes
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s majestic score

Must See?
Yes, for the lead performances and overall production values.

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One thought on “Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The (1939)

  1. Agreed – a once-must for the literate script (filled with some perfectly splendid writing), the grandeur of the production, and for the performances; I’ll pretty much include everyone – even Nanette Fabray (listed as Fabares) in a small but effective role as Mistress Margaret.

    This is certainly a rousing tale in every respect. But it sure ain’t history. I went to Wikipedia for some backstory info and found none. But I did find this from The Guardian (under the circumstances, not a bad source):
    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/oct/30/private-lives-of-elizabeth-and-essex

    So we’re left with revisionist storytelling. While watching, I found myself wondering, ‘Did these two even have sex? Even once?’ It seems I needn’t have wondered. That said, the concocted drama is still rather compelling – especially when it comes to the specifics of who can and who cannot be trusted at court – and the cast makes the most of it.

    ~as does Curtiz; this is yet another fine example of his command of material. He gets sturdy performances from everyone and keeps the heightened theatrics rather fervid. It may all largely be hooey but it’s not dull.

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