This lavish but talky 17th-century extravaganza proved to be a showy vehicle for Davis. Flynn, much to his chagrin, was used as a handsome prop and his experience with his fiery costar did little to enhance his reputation. This romantic fantasy, which has little to do with history,
begins as the Earl of Essex (Flynn) triumphantly enters London after conquering Cadiz. The public adores Essex, but Queen Elizabeth (Davis), fearful of her lover's growing power, humiliates Essex before the court. Not only has Essex failed to bring her the riches of Spain, Elizabeth announces, but
he has allowed the Spanish to sink England's treasure ships and deprive the nation of much-needed funds. The queen then appoints the slavish Sir Walter Raleigh (Price), Essex's erstwhile rival for power and Elizabeth's favors, to high office, making him Essex's superior. Essex retires to his
country estate, but not before Lady Penelope Gray (de Havilland), Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting, who loves Essex from afar, advises him that the queen's appetite for power must be curbed. Francis Bacon (Crisp), Essex's powerful friend at court, arranges a conciliatory meeting between the headstrong
Essex and his queen, but they quarrel. And Elizabeth realizes that Essex is interested in marrying her so that he can rule England on equal terms with her. Then, at a cabinet meeting, Essex is goaded by Raleigh, Sir Robert Cecil (Daniell), and Sir Thomas Egerton (Stephenson) into taking on the
impossible mission of stamping out the rebellion in Ireland under the leadership of the crafty Tyrone (Hale). Elizabeth tries to prevent Essex from rising to this challenge, but eventually she gives him his royal marching orders, and Essex leads a disastrous expedition against Tyrone. The Irish
forces peck away at the English, gradually reducing their numbers. Worse, Essex's letters to Elizabeth asking for supplies and reinforcements are intercepted before reaching the queen, Cecil and Egerton having duped Lady Penelope into turning the letters over to them. Essex's forces dwindle due to
starvation and in time they are surrounded by Tyrone's soldiers. Essex is compelled to surrender, but he is allowed to leave Ireland with his men.
Returning to London, Essex finds that he is still popular, but he is incensed at the thought that the queen has betrayed him and his men by ignoring their plight. Essex and his soldiers seize control of the palace, and he announces to an enraged Elizabeth that she is his prisoner. She explains
that she never received his pleas for help, but Essex is only interested in power now, insisting that Elizabeth share the throne with him. While the lovers jockey for position, Lady Penelope decides to tell Elizabeth that she unwittingly kept Essex's letters from her. But before she can inform her
queen of these shadowy intrigues, Cecil frightens her off, saying, "You have a lovely head and neck, milady. It would be pity to separate them." When the sly Elizabeth appears to accept Essex's offer of joint rule, Essex allows his men to be replaced by guards loyal to the queen. Elizabeth then
promptly has Essex arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Later, Elizabeth offers Essex the role of consort, but he refuses, telling her it's all or nothing at all. In agony, the queen sends Essex to the headsman's block, ending their star-crossed relationship and this somewhat overlong film.
Much of this picture is visually arresting. The rich color, the ornate sets and costuming, the swift and sweeping direction by Michael Curtiz, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's opulent score, present a feast for the eyes. The film earned Academy Award nominations for Best Color Cinematography, Best
Score, and Best Special Effects, losing to GONE WITH THE WIND, STAGECOACH, and THE RAINS CAME, respectively. But the acting is stiff, especially in the scenes in which Davis and Flynn interact. Reportedly, the lack of chemistry between Davis and Flynn, then the reigning king and queen of the
Warner Bros. lot, was a result of Davis' hatred of Flynn and his pranks. She had to bend to the Flynn's will in 1938, when she was billed beneath him in THE SISTERS, but this time around she demanded and got top billing. Davis also demanded that Warners give her Laurence Olivier in the Essex role,
but she got Flynn instead. For his part, Flynn is said to have resented Davis' high-handed ways, and he looks uncomfortable with her in almost every scene they share. As a result confrontations between them that should be filled with passion are hollow and unconvincing.
The seething animosity between the two exploded before the cameras in the scene in which Essex defies the queen and she slaps him. In the first take of this scene, Davis swung her bracelet-laden arm full force into one of Flynn's ears, jarring the actor and leading to a between-takes confrontation
between the actors that Flynn described in My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Davis refused to pull her punch on the next take, and Flynn, knowing that it would reflect badly on him, still planned to retaliate if Davis hit him as hard as she did in the first take. This time around, however, Davis' hand only
breezed by Flynn's face. This was the take used by Curtiz, but Flynn would get his revenge in another scene, when the actor allowed his hand to sail through Davis' Elizabethan dress and land on her "Academy Award behind." Davis never again spoke to Flynn off camera. Olivia de Havilland has a
thankless role as the lady-in-waiting, but she had promised executive producer Jack Warner that if he allowed her to go to Selznick to play Melanie in GONE WITH THE WIND, she would return to her contract studio and not make any demands.
The title of this film was long in debate. Warner wanted to shorten the original Maxwell Anderson play title to ELIZABETH AND ESSEX until he learned that a novel by Lytton Strachey had the same title and that agents for the novel wanted $10,000 just to use the title. Flynn, who felt that he was
playing second fiddle to Davis, demanded that a title be used in which he would at least take precedence, especially since he was losing out on billing. He proposed THE KNIGHT AND THE LADY. When Davis heard about this, she threatened to walk away from the production and the original Anderson title
was adopted. Studio booking agents, however, hated the title THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, and begged Jack Warner to change it, claiming that exhibitors were objecting to it on the grounds that it sounded too much like the Alexander Korda-produced British films THE PRIVATE LIFE OF
HENRY VIII (1933) and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN (1934). But Davis held firm and Warner let the title stand. The most incongruous fact about the film was that Essex and Elizabeth were never lovers; he was only 34 when he was beheaded in 1601 and Elizabeth was 68. The age difference is suggested
in one scene where Lady Penelope taunts the red-wigged queen about her age in a song (performed with another lady-in-waiting played by Nanette Fabray, who later would become a success on TV), causing Elizabeth to go berserk and smash every mirror in her chambers. Davis was also well aware of the
age difference between herself and the woman she was playing. When her friend Charles Laughton, who had played another British monarch in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, visited Davis on the set, she told him that she felt she had a lot of nerve trying to play Elizabeth at her age. "Never stop
trying to hang yourself, Bette," Laughton said, and those words became a credo for Davis (Whitney Stine, Mother Goddam).
The blank verse employed by playwright Anderson is often marvelously delivered by Davis (as it was by Lynn Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt during the Broadway smash run in 1930), especially her keening and melancholy statement at the finale, when she sends her lover to his death, saying: "I
could be young with you, but now I'm old. I know how it will be without you. The sun will be empty and circle around an empty earth...And I will be queen of emptiness and death...Why could you not have loved me enough to give me your love and let me keep as I was?" Davis would play Elizabeth once
more, this time closer to the age of the character she so dearly loved, in THE VIRGIN QUEEN (1955), where her younger lover this time was Richard Todd, playing Sir Walter Raleigh.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: This lavish but talky 17th-century extravaganza proved to be a showy vehicle for Davis. Flynn, much to his chagrin, was used as a handsome prop and his experience with his fiery costar did little to enhance his reputation. This romantic fantasy, which has… (more)