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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: Review

Warner Bros. paired their two most popular stars of the day, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a fanciful depiction of a slice of British history.

In this glorious Technicolor presentation of a fictionalized true event in the life of Elizabeth I the vibrant and colorful use of the rich film format gives Gone with the Wind a true run for its money. And even though the story itself falls short of matching the film of the year in epic grandeur, the cast is certainly just as compelling, as is the Academy Award nominated art direction of Anton Grot, the nominated cinematography of Sol Polito & W. Howard Greene, and the nominated musical score of Erich Korngold (best known for the theme music to The Adventures of Robin Hood).

It’s true, Essex and Elizabeth (the film’s alternate title) does not enjoy notoriety comparable to the other films of 1939, but it did experience a fair amount of success back in the day due to what was considered at the time an unusual cross over appeal. You see, during the Golden Age of Cinema most films aimed at just one marketing group or another. Producers thought that if you tried to satisfy too many tastes, they would satisfy no one. Therefore, so-called “women’s pictures” were specifically designed to appeal to the ladies, while action films were meant to attract a male audience, etc.

And all though Elizabeth the Queen (another alternate title) isn’t a timeless drama for the ages, upon its initial release it managed to draw a multitude of audiences on many levels. For example, both my grandparents remember the film quite fondly. Even though my grandmother was a teenage-girl at the time, and my grandfather was a boy of nine. One enjoyed the film for its romance and the other for the adventure (I’ll let you guess which was which).

The divide in (and coupling of) appeal lays in the films two lead actors, Davis and Flynn. One was undeniably a staple of “women’s films” while the other was seen as the personification of action. Davis was at the top of her game when she took on the role of the Virgin Queen. She had just won the Oscar the year before for the title role in Jezebel, and she would complete three other key films of her career during 1939: Dark Victory, Juarez and The Old Maid. Whereas, Flynn was also experiencing the height of his popularity having completed The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before, and The Sea Hawk lay just a year away in his future.

Obviously, it was a risky tactic on the part of Warner Bros. The two very different stars might have polarized audiences, resulting in a box office failure that would have damaged the careers of both actors (a sincere belief of Davis and Flynn at the time). But the decision paid off, and the result is a beautiful film that stands as a fine example of work for everyone involved, whether in front of or behind the lens. Which just goes to prove that some of the greatest films of all time are incapable of being valued correctly until some time has elapsed. At least until they have actually reached the screen and been judged by an audience.

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