THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX is a lavish costume epic put out by Warner Brothers in the banner year of 1939. Based on Maxwell Anderson's 1930 Broadway play (which starred Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt), ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, it focuses on the tragic love affair between the aging Queen Elizabeth I (wonderfully played by Bette Davis - she would play the same part again 16 years later in THE VIRGIN QUEEN), and the younger, dashing Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn in one of his best roles - though Davis wanted Laurence Olivier, and did not think much of Flynn), and all the court intrigues surrounding this doomed love. The title was originally to be the play’s, but Flynn demanded acknowledgement of his character, so it was changed to THE KNIGHT AND THE LADY, but that title upset Davis (the play had been specifically bought for her to star in), so it was changed again to it’s current one (there was already a book entitled ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, hence the longer one, which also referred back to other films, such as THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, about Elizabeth’s father, wonderfully played by Charles Laughton – who visited the set, and had private conversation with Davis).
The history is only marginally adhered to (as was common in Hollywood), such as no mention of Essex's wife, mistress, or children (4 with the former, 1 with the latter), romanticizing their relationship (he was a favourite, but not uncommonly so), which could also be seen as incestuous (her mother and his maternal great-grandmother were sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn); also posing both Sir Robert Cecil (a marvelously slimy Henry Daniell), and Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price in one of his earliest movie roles) as conniving rivals of Essex, though both did more for England, and rivalry was quite normal.
Directed by Michael Curtiz at the top of his game (a Hollywood director par excellence), this is a rousing, beautiful, full-blooded spectacle, where all the best in cinematography (Sol Polito), art direction (Anton Grot), costumes (Orry-Kelly), music (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and cast (a lot of the best character actors in the biz).
The story picks up as Essex is returning from defeating the Spanish Armada at Cadiz. Elizabeth, who had commanded Essex's return, is furious with him, as his pursuit of glory, which has found favor with the people, but has strained the royal coffers, causing high taxation (which the people are not happy about, but blame the ministers, such as Cecil – sounds familiar, no?); also, though Essex was victorious, he failed to capture the treasure fleet, as he had promised.
When Essex enters the court holding himself up as the returning conqueror, the Queen quickly castigates him for his vainglory. He defends his actions; they go back and forth, till Elizabeth clears the court for a private audience. We now see the stormy love these two share, both proud, stubborn, and passionate. She is concerned over her being older (she was 30 years his senior in real life, though the amount is not mentioned in the film), but he assures her he doesn’t care. Their banter fluctuates between declarations of love, and fighting over money (that age old subject of arguments between lovers). They end in a row, she banishes him from London, and he returns to his ancestral home.
Davis and Flynn have a great on-screen chemistry, and we never see the off-screen dislike they held for each other (in later years, while watching the film again with de Havilland, she admitted she was wrong about his casting).
The Queen’s secretary, Cecil (Daniell), tries to drive a further wedge by reading her an inflammatory letter from Essex to Francis Bacon, his only friend at court, which he has intercepted.
We then are taken to Hadham Hall, where Bacon (Donald Crisp) is visiting Essex, and trying to advise him against his headstrong ways. Though Bacon seems doubtful of the truth of Essex’s love for Elizabeth, the latter assures him that it is genuine.
Back in the Queen’s chamber Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland), who is in love with Essex, and therefore jealous of the Queen, causes the latter’s anger through conniving jibes. After Elizabeth orders the ladies out, one Mistress Margaret (Nanette Fabray in her film debut) remains behind, crying, and there is a touching conversation between the two women, as the younger, innocent child expresses her sympathy for the Queen, as her own love is far off in the Irish campaign.
While discussing Essex with Bacon, trying to figure out how to bring him back to court, Elizabeth receives news of the Irish rebels’ defeat of English forces, Bacon points out the now legitimate need for Essex to return.
Though Essex at first refuses to return, when Bacon explains the situation with Ireland, he quickly changes his mind, saying that of course the Queen needs him, being surrounded by nincompoops.
Upon his return Essex runs into Raleigh (Price), who wears his new silver armour, which Essex feigns admiration for, though Raleigh is not fooled, and Essex brings in the Queen’s guard, whom he has had outfitted with the same designed silver armour. Bacon again tries to caution Essex about pushing his enemies, but the latter’s arrogance dismisses the threat. As Essex comes to the Queen’s chamber Penelope tries to warn him to be careful, showing her love for him, but he plays off both.
Elizabeth and Essex’s meeting is, as usual, stormy, as they want to just love each other, but pride and ambition rear their ugly heads. Essex admits he believes he would be a better ruler because he is a man. The Queen gives him a ring, which her father had given her, and for the same purpose: should he need her forgiveness in a dire moment, to send the ring to her.
At a Privy Council meeting despite warnings from Elizabeth before and during Essex allows himself to be riled up into taking over the Irish campaign (historically known as the Nine Years War, 1595-1603 – and Devereux, in reality, talked himself into the situation), which his predecessors had failed at. For all his arrogance, Robert does prove himself kind of dim at times.
And he fails miserably in Ireland, being routed by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale – who had played Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood the year before, and to Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin 17 years earlier), and seemingly abandoned by the Queen (there letters were intercepted by Cecil et al by conning the jealous Penelope). But he ignores the order to disband his army, and return in shame to London, instead stopping off in Wales to re-arm, and march into the city at the head of his army.
The conspirators are a panic, Penelope in regret threatens to tell all, Bacon overhears, but diplomatically says he will not divulge. The Queen calls for court to meet. Essex marches in and takes control of the palace, entering the throne room, to meet Elizabeth.
Alone again these two passionate, prideful egos clash and jockey for dominance. They also discover that each had written extensively to the other, though neither received the others letters. Elizabeth falsely lies that she will share her kingdom equally (part of her feels that’s all he really wanted), as he will not accept a supporting role, in order to get him to send off his troops, and allow her guards the ground again; then has him arrested.
We skip over the trial (which can really slow a film down), and come to the Queen moving into the Tower, where Devereux is imprisoned. She has not slept in days, and is hoping he will send the ring for forgiveness. Penelope confesses all, hoping to save him. Cecil comes to ask permission for the guards to use force against the rowdy crowds, but Elizabeth denies him, and instead sends him to bring Essex to her.
Their final meeting is far more somber than previously. They both declare their love, and Elizabeth asks him why he did not send the ring. He explains because she would pardon him, and he would take her thrown, but she will not relinquish her crown; she explains that despite how much she loves him she has a greater love, that of England, and that his rule would be disastrous for the country. He finally understands, but also knows he must go to his death, for her sake, admitting he cannot let go of his ambition. And proudly he goes, in the tradition of the tragic hero.
The film was released in November of 1939, and was a huge hit. It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards: Best (color) Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Music (scoring), Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects, but did not win any (the first 2 were taken by GONE WITH THE WIND).
As suggested, if you’re a history buff, you may be disappointed in the fictions offered; Davis did her homework, but she was still cast in a romantic tragedy with historical trappings. And it is a rousing, deeply romantic, lushly produced spectacle that is fully entertaining.
“ELIZABETH AND ESSEX: BATTLE ROYALE” – a short documentary from 2005, with information provided by Lincoln Hurst (Professor of Film at UC Davis), Rudy Behlmer (author/film historian), Bob Thomas (author), and Nanette Fabray (actress).
En.wikipedia.org – articles on the film, and on the historical Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
Was to be published in "Multitude of Movies" #4 (Winter 2016), but a natural catastrophe caused the closure of the digest.