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Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Star of the month... Olivia de Havilland

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) is the historically inaccurate but very powerful and elaborate costume drama telling the story of Queen Elizabeth I and her complicated and furious love affair with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The title characters played by screen legends Bette Davis and Errol Flynn

Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray
They are complimented with a first rate supporting cast including Olivia de HavillandVincent Price (in his breakthrough performance), Alan HaleDonald Crisp and Nanette Fabray (credited as Nanette Fabares in her first adult film role).  As of June 2012, Olivia de Havilland and Nanette Fabray are the only two cast members in the film still alive at ages 95 and 91, respectively.

This was the first of two films where Bette Davis starred as Queen Elizabeth I - Davis later played the Elizabeth in the inferior film The Virgin Queen (1955), which tells of how the Queen met Sir. Walter Raleigh. Although not a sequel nor a prequel, it makes for an interesting parallel.

Bette vs. Errol

Bette & Errol did not like each other
This was the second time Bette Davis and Errol Flynn had starred together in a film, following their pairing in The Sisters (1938), a year prior. Davis and Flynn despised each other, and were both unhappy about working together for the second time. Bette Davis did not like Errol Flynn's drinking problem, and Errol did not like Bette's diva like attitude. Bette Davis had wanted Laurence Olivier for the role of Essex, who I feel would have been a more superior choice for this particular film.

Their off-screen antics were the result of the film's title. The original play the film is based on was called "Elizabeth the Queen". Flynn did not like this title, as he was a co-star, and felt his role should also appear in the title. The film was then going to be called "The Knight and the Lady". Bette Davis did not approve of this title, as she felt Elizabeth should be billed first, thus the eventual title of "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex".

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth stars at herself in a fragment of broken
mirror after smashing no less than 3 mirrors 
Queen Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII (the one who beheaded his 6 wives), and Anne Boleyn, who her father had beheaded when Elizabeth was just two years old. Elizabeth was known as The Virgin Queen, due to her never being married or having children. Despite her inability to bare children, I would question how virginal she really was considering the number of young men she had floating around her palace. She was one of the first powerful female leaders, and is even referred to in the film as "a king in petticoats".

The role of Queen Elizabeth is one of the most sought after roles for an actress to play, having also been played by actresses including Cate BlanchettDame Judi DenchGlenda JacksonAgnes MooreheadJean Simmons Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave, just to name a few. Despite being played by such brilliant and celebrated actors, no one in my opinion has played her quite like Bette Davis.   

Bette Davis has a natural commanding presence, which presents an assertive, powerful and authentic portrayal. She plays a tough Queen, yet compassionate towards those showing her compassion. In this film, Bette smashes no less than 3 mirrors, which calculates to 21 years bad luck.
Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray

Concluding Remarks
This was one of the first classic films I ever saw when I was about 14 years old.  I loved it from the first time I saw it, and having seen it a number of times over the past 14 years, I still love it. I would strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys good drama or tragic love stories.

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