Bette Davis was born to play Elizabeth I, and like the legendary queen she rules the screen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a sweeping yet literate historical love story co-starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Sumptuous costumes and a regal production design distinguish director Michael Curtiz's film, while a brand new 4K restoration sourced from the original Technicolor negatives distinguishes Warner Archive's jaw-dropping Blu-ray presentation. Robust audio and all the extras from the previous DVD enhance the appeal of this top-notch disc that commands the attention of every loyal classic movie subject. Highly Recommended.
"The necessities of a queen must transcend those of a woman."
So proclaims the lovelorn 63-year-old Elizabeth I of England (Bette Davis) as she struggles to put duty and country over her burning desire for dashing 31-year-old Robert Devereux (Errol Flynn), 2nd Earl of Essex, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, one of several noteworthy films produced in 1939, arguably the greatest year in Hollywood history. This stirring, literate, and beautifully mounted adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's acclaimed blank-verse drama Elizabeth the Queen may embellish history, but it remains faithful to its source and provides the indomitable Davis with a dream role that she plays to the hilt.
Directed with flair by Warner workhorse Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and shot in glorious three-strip Technicolor, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex beautifully weaves together history, pageantry, palace intrigue, and a substantive love story that never feels phony despite its improbability. A genuine affection that transcends the 32-year age difference seems to bond the titular couple, but the brash Devereux's bloated ego, impulsive nature, insatiable ambition, and unquenchable thirst for power constantly drive England's Virgin Queen to distraction. As a result, Elizabeth must finesse her fervent feelings for Devereux as she manages the very real threat he poses to her reign...all while ruing the loss of her youth and looks, dealing with a rebellious Ireland that can't be vanquished, and pondering the loyalty of a team of untrustworthy advisors who plot to sabotage her relationship and ruin the man she adores.
A few lame military skirmishes that Curtiz obviously filmed indoors on a soundstage provide a bit of spectacle, but the real war depicted in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is a fiery battle of the sexes that's more interesting than most because it takes place in 1596. The age disparity (chasm?) adds an extra note of complexity to the duel, but issues of equality, pride, insecurity, and responsibility pepper it as well. Of course, Elizabeth holds the cards and calls the shots (a rarity in this type of film), but while she's perfectly comfortable with that arrangement as a queen, she's hesitant to wield too much power as a woman for fear of alienating a handsome man half her age who could easily bed any lady-in-waiting at court.
And plenty of those ladies are indeed waiting, most notably Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland), who can't understand why Devereux appears so devoted to the moody, manipulative, often surly, and frequently cantankerous sixty-something monarch. Elizabeth's strength, intellect, maturity, and aura all attract Devereux, yet despite his constant professions of love, he refuses to bow to Elizabeth's will nor compromise his own...and she refuses to bow to anyone who brazenly defies her. Not exactly a recipe for a successful long-term relationship.
Throughout the film Elizabeth carries the weight of the world on her slight shoulders (and Davis carries period costumes that reportedly weighed up to 60 pounds on hers!) and often laments the burden. "To be a queen is to be less than human," she says, "to put pride before desire, to search men's hearts for tenderness and find only ambition." Devereux personifies that ambition and Elizabeth fears it "has jeopardized the prosperity of the English people and may endanger the very peace and stability of England." Might her subjects prefer the young, beguiling Earl of Essex on the throne over an aged, dour queen who's ruled with an iron fist for almost 40 years? Elizabeth and her advisors fear they just might, but does the increasingly weary monarch dig in her heels or give in to the feelings she has suppressed all her life and pay a hefty price for a happiness and fulfillment she has never known? If you're a student of history, you know the answer.
Long before actors routinely transformed themselves for a plum role (and to bait Oscar), Davis - who never shrank from appearing ugly on camera if the role required it - took the rash step of shaving two inches off her forehead hairline to more accurately depict the baldness that plagued Elizabeth in her later years. She also wears the queen's trademark pasty white makeup (used to hide her smallpox scars) and looks completely at home in the ornate period costumes designed by Orry-Kelly. Though she never passes for 63, the 31-year-old Davis does the challenging role justice, attacking it with customary gusto and lacing it with several of her patented mannerisms. (What would a Davis performance be without them?)
When Elizabeth gazes into a mirror and recoils at the grotesque image it reflects, it's tough not to fast-forward 22 years and recall Davis taking that same moment to the nth degree in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Another harbinger of a Davis movie to come occurs a bit later when Elizabeth picks up some dried fruit from a small dish and munches on it while sparring with Devereux. Eleven years later, Davis, as Margo Channing, would mimic that bit - albeit with candy - while bickering with Bill Sampson before the iconic party scene in All About Eve. Interestingly, Davis would take another stab at Elizabeth I in 1955's The Virgin Queen, which takes place 15 years before Elizabeth and Essex and depicts the monarch's equally turbulent relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh, who has a minor role here as Devereux's rival. (A 28-year-old Vincent Price in just his second film appearance ably portrays the 44-year-old Raleigh.)
Davis lobbied hard for Laurence Olivier to play Devereux, but the studio insisted on Flynn, whom she did not respect as an actor. Flynn wasn't high on the role either because it was subservient to Davis' part. He also didn't like the original title, Elizabeth the Queen, feeling it further marginalized his character. Flynn demanded a title change, and when producer Hal B. Wallis settled on The Knight and the Lady, the queen of the Warner lot balked. Elizabeth would be relegated to secondary status over Davis' dead body, so at last, a compromise was reached with The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Davis would later write she imagined Olivier in Flynn's stead during their love scenes, but toward the end of her life, she reportedly came to appreciate Flynn's work and deemed him brilliant.
I might temper that praise just a tad, but won't dispute the casting of Flynn over Olivier was a wise choice. In addition to his movie-star looks and romantic appeal, Flynn supplies welcome subtle humor, an irresistible devil-may-care attitude, and plenty of sensitivity and conviction. He also makes the preciously crafted dialogue sound authentic...not an easy task. He's certainly more natural than Davis, who's always riveting, but when a larger-than-life actress portrays a larger-than-life character the resulting performance sometimes flirts with histrionics. William Wyler knew how to rein Davis in. Michael Curtiz not so much.
After allowing De Havilland to play Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, studio chief Jack Warner worried the actress might become too big for her britches, so he demoted her to supporting status here. Her thankless part merely requires her to look breathtakingly beautiful, and she accomplishes that directive with ease. Elizabeth and Essex would be the sixth of eight films De Havilland would make with Flynn, but they're only together briefly on screen. (Her best scenes are with Davis.) Donald Crisp as Sir Francis Bacon, Alan Hale as Ireland's Earl of Tyrone, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell, James Stephenson, Leo G. Carroll, and 18-year-old Nanette Fabray (billed here as Fabares) in her film debut round out the impressive supporting cast.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex would mark Davis' fourth major feature of 1939, along with The Old Maid, Juarez, and Dark Victory. (Imagine any A-list star today making that many movies in a single year, let alone two or three.) All those acclaimed dramas would cement Davis' standing as the era's premier actress, but Elizabeth and Essex stands apart as an example of Davis' eagerness to go against the Hollywood grain, expand her range, and take risks in a risk-averse industry.
Curtiz, of course, deserves credit, too. Though it might not rank among the best historical pictures of all time, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex hits all the right notes, and Curtiz never allows its opulence, pomp, and pageantry to overshadow the lyrical script and colorful performances that bring it to life. Like the two mercurial main characters, Hollywood and history have always had a love-hate relationship, but unlike Elizabeth and Devereux, the two find common ground in this film. And for that reason - and many others - it's well worth peeking in on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
"Good enough to eat" doesn't even begin to describe Warner Archive's latest delectably yummy 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. A brand new "HD master sourced from a 4K scan of the original Technicolor negatives" yields a breathtaking picture bursting with lush, vibrant hues and distinguished by razor-sharp detail levels. From the moment the distinctive Warner Bros logo (dressed with appropriate regal trimmings) flashes on the screen, it's instantly evident this will be a very special transfer, and the quality never wavers for the next 106 minutes. Incredible clarity and pitch-perfect contrast combine with faint grain to produce an eye-popping image that remains true to its celluloid roots and the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Sol Polito. The intricate costume patterns (some of which are quite faint), fabric textures, minuscule bejeweled adornments, delicate lace designs, and breastplate carvings are all razor sharp, as are the details on tapestries, the dancing flames of roaring fires, and the velvet-lined upholstery.
Colors are staggeringly gorgeous. The bold reds on the beefeater uniforms leap off the screen, royal purples are dense, and pale blues, bright pinks, cool lavenders, and emerald greens all grab attention yet never look artificial. Say what you will about three-strip Technicolor, but when it's reproduced properly - like it is here - it transports the viewer to another realm and lends the on-screen action a you-are-there quality that heightens its intensity and impact. Couple it with deep blacks and crisp whites (a couple of Elizabeth's white gowns look so stunning they rival their colorful cousins) and you've got a practically perfect image.
Close-ups exude an almost three dimensional feel. You might think the age makeup on the 31-year-old Davis might look obvious and overdone, but not so. Yes, you can tell she's playing a much older woman, but her heavily powdered face never looks overly theatrical, and a faint pock mark is even clearly visible on her right cheek. The dashing Flynn's finely trimmed beard and trademark mustache are well defined and De Havilland's fresh complexion radiates. Flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout, shadow delineation is superb, and not a single nick, mark, or stray bit of dirt dot the antiseptically clean source material.
The terrific clarity does make painted backdrops stand out and the period sets look a bit flimsy, but I'll gladly accept such minor drawbacks. Watching this jaw-dropping rendering of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex today, it's impossible to imagine the film is 82 years old. On a scale of 1 to 10, this transfer earns a 100.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex received an Oscar nod for Best Sound, Recording, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track honors Nathan Levinson's work. Clear, well-modulated, and often robust, the track wonderfully complements the sumptuous visuals. A wide dynamic scale handles all of the soaring highs and weighty lows of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rousing Oscar-nominated score without a hint of distortion. but despite its omnipresence, the majestic music never drowns out dialogue. All the conversations are well prioritized and easy to comprehend. The battle sounds and ominous drumrolls add some punch to the track, and only a couple of errant pops and a bit of faint surface noise during quiet moments mar its purity. Once again, considering the track's age and the relatively primitive recording equipment used at the time, this is a stellar audio presentation.
All the supplements from the previous DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Warner Night at the Movies, 1939 (SD, 33 minutes) - Film historian Leonard Maltin hosts this recreation of a typical night at the movies circa 1939. The lineup includes a three-minute preview for another Davis 1939 picture, Dark Victory; a two-minute newsreel that pivots from the latest developments in World War II to summer fashions and the exploits of fishermen in the Northwest; the nine-minute Old Glory, a rare serious cartoon directed by Chuck Jones that features an animated Uncle Sam teaching Porky Pig about the importance of freedom in American society; and the 14-minute Technicolor musical short subject, The Royal Rodeo, filmed on leftover sets from The Adventures of Robin Hood and starring such noteworthy names as John Payne (eight years before his career-defining role in Miracle on 34th Street), Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards (the voice of Pinocchio in Disney's animated classic), and adorable child actor Scotty Beckett.
Featurette: "Elizabeth & Essex: Battle Royale" (SD, 11 minutes) - This featurette chronicles the film's production history, with special attention paid to the animosity between Davis and Flynn on the set. Nanette Fabray recalls her experience working on her first film and expresses her admiration for both Davis and Flynn. In addition, several historians discuss the stellar supporting cast and the memorable music score
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview, strangely in black-and-white, heralds "the screen achievement of the year!"
An impressive production distinguished by opulent sets and costumes, a literate script, and stellar performances by Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex stands as an entertaining - if not completely accurate - historical romance that paints an affecting, dimensional portrait of England's Virgin Queen. A scrumptious 4K restoration sourced from the original Technicolor negatives yields a transfer fit for a queen, robust lossless audio bolsters the impact of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's memorable score, and all the extras from the previous DVD are included in Warner Archive's superior Blu-ray presentation of this time-honored classic. Highly Recommended.