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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Headsman Claims a Warners Prize

Davis/Flynn Go Hammer/Tong in The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Old-age Bette Davis regularly spat on this because it had Errol Flynn as Essex rather than her preferred Laurence Olivier. She finally saw Elizabeth and Essex again and came around to how fine Flynn actually was in a tough part. Having to moon over that death's head make-up, wig, and popping BD eyes while Olivia DeHavilland fairly hurls herself at you? --- well, that took acting beyond what Olivier could achieve. And to him, just watch Fire Over England and know how less effective Olivier would have been than Flynn as Essex. EF plays for as much humor as possible in face of, well, that Davis face, which is scary as what Mario Bava cooked up for some of sojourns later on. There was incident where BD slapped Errol too hard for a scene, him whacked by rings, bracelets she had on, to which he evidently cussed loudly and ended whatever prospect they might have had for friendship. Flynn implied she wanted more than latter, to which he demurred, so maybe there was personal basis for Queen Bette saying what a punk actor he was. She'd defame his talent from seeming moment Errol died in 1959.

"Troubled" productions play well in revival. If what they do on screen is less interesting, you can read action in terms of off-set conflict and division with studio brass, which was rife between Flynn, Davis, DeHavilland, and Warner Bros., players driven like slaves they were, despite big money most got (in Flynn's case, $5000 a week). He had a tough go at lines, them dense and mouthfuls of text from source play simplified to what matinee mobs could grasp. Davis had showed up looking more grotesque than producer Hal Wallis could abide, but the deed was done (her shaved-back hairline), and besides, the severe de-glamour had worked for Of Human Bondage, and from triumph of that, BD evolved to WB's most valuable femme asset. She was fresh wind of then-perceived reality after spent bolt of Kay Francis and such who were more known by clothes they wore than emotion they enacted. It's easy to forget how revolutionary Davis came across where doing her things for a first time. She made bold strokes that were gambles then, if familiar now. Most serious actresses would emulate her, knowingly or not. There would probably not have been an Ida Lupino without Davis paving way, and Joan Leslie, a frank admirer, mimicked BD with all due respect on several amusing occasions.

How would this have been as "The Knight and The Lady"? Sounds like a title for Republic to conjure with, and yet it was proposed almost to point of release. East Coast sales hated The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex. They said it sounded like an Alexander Korda export, which everyone figured for bad news. We like some of Korda now, but lest we forget what drag he was considered by high-dollar distributors and showmen who liked flow of cash through wicket windows. His stuff was British and that meant accents and no meaningful stars. To let anything American smack of UK goods went against B.O. grain, and so it was for Pvt. Lives E&E, which lost money in the end, despite being good and liked by most who ventured forth to see it. But what made others duck beyond the daunting title? Maybe Flynn not in action, despite costume and sword he wears, but doesn't use. Plus he and DeHavilland together, but not really, and sharing but one scene. They had been tendered before as a team, and this seemed a betrayal of natural expectation. Fans could not be denied what monthly mags gave them right to anticipate, and Flynn/DeHavilland in love combat, then ultimate clinch, was a least these two together implied, so why risk withholding it where they shared a bill? (but note: two so far, Charge Of The Light Brigade and Four's A Crowd, had ended with the pair parted, so Elizabeth and Essex was in that sense more of the same)  

Michael Curtiz Directs Flynn and Davis
Davis insisted the show be called "The Lady and The Knight," her placement first on credits and the title. "Elizabeth The Queen" would be OK too, as that crowded Flynn's character off altogether, though anyone seeing final product could have no doubt this was fully BD's picture. She howls, shrieks, breaks mirrors (many), and does "Bette Davis" all over the place. She's also funny and then suddenly wise in quieter scenes with Flynn, her Elizabeth knowing his Essex is too immature to recognize forces lined up against him, not on battlefields, but in royal court. These scenes are beautifully played by Davis and Flynn. My emotional investment in their hopeless love is complete each time I watch, and that's the mark of great performing. Michael Curtiz directed The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex. Evidently, none of principals could stand him, even as all realized no one could do this job so well. He had remarkable way with composition, such sweep even where we're confined to a throne room (big enough to play football in). DeHavilland threw a fit one afternoon when he tried overworking her. I'd like seeing an outtake of that ... wonder if it would be as good as her "son .. of ... a ... bitch" blooper from 1943's Devotion that came back to haunt her in a recent lawsuit against Fox and "Feud." The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex is available on extraordinary Blu-Ray. 


Blogger daveboz said...

A fantastic essay, with equally fantastic photos to match! It’s Christmas — again! Thanks for another excellent piece.

10:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

How nice of you to say that, Daveboz. Thanks a lot!

9:01 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It probably irritated Davis that acting seemed to come naturally to Flynn, and that he never seemed to take it as seriously -- certainly not as seriously as she did.

I remember a Davis appearance with Dick Cavett, where she claimed to have "adored" Flynn. Very strange remark, considering what went on during the making of the movie.

10:48 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Another possible cause for fan disappointment: Alan Hale is on board, but appears only briefly as a battlefield adversary. Hale was Little John to Flynn's Robin Hood, and had action credits going back to Fairbanks.

Anything to the story Davis passed on "Gone With the Wind" because it would have included Flynn as Rhett Butler?

3:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've always thought that Davis didn't realize what kind of movie she was in; Flynn did.

4:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff inquires via e-mail about Elizabeth and Essex being shown on TV with a different title:


Outstanding post about a neglected and to an extent underrated opus.

My memory may fail me, but I seem to remember encountering two slightly different syndication prints of this. Prints of THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX looked great (probably IB Technicolor). But it would also occasionally turn up as ELIZABETH THE QUEEN. This never looked nearly as good as ESSEX (this had somewhat washed out Eastman color?) and the picture may have been slightly shortened. No, I'm not thinking of Fox's 1955's THE VIRGIN QUEEN (not only a different movie, but this had really dreadful color syndication prints), but a version of ESSEX with a different (reissue?) title card. "Elizabeth the Queen," of course, was the name of the Maxwell Anderson play that was the basis of the 1939 film.

Does this ring a bell?

In "The Westmores of Hollywood," Frank Westmore's entertaining memoir of his famous family of makeup artists, Davis is said to have taken the necessary shaving of two inches of her hair above her forehead (by Perc Westmore) with the aplomb of a trouper. According to Westmore, she did, however, take a hard look at herself in the mirror afterwards and said something to the effect (I don't have the book handy) of, "Gad. This is going to play havoc with my sex life."

-- Griff

From John: I remember ELIZABETH THE QUEEN as a title used on syndicated prints of THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. The color on these, as you say, was weak, some sections out of register. They were at least an improvement on the first time I saw the film, on Asheville's Channel 13, a late show, and in black-and-white. That would have been around 1970.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

For what it's worth, AAP's 1957 catalog has the film listed as ELIZABETH THE QUEEN.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I was watching TWILIGHT TIME's 3D Blu-ray of THE MAD MAGICIAN yesterday. From the commentary I learned that Patrick O'Neal had just acted on stage with Bette Davis in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA during which he got rough treatment from her. He was aided greatly by Vincent Price who gave him the background on her insecurities. We tend to think of these people as untroubled by the demons that trouble us. Thing is, they weren't. No one is. Laurence Olivier for my money was wrongly cast in everything he was in. Flynn, on the other hand, was a natural. It's interesting that one of those ads features a Paramount Fleischer Popeye cartoon (Never Sock A Baby). Shows how strong Popeye was then. Would be now, too, if they'd re-release them to theaters. I have the dvd of this. I found setting the brightness down on my projector enhances the color wonderfully. For many things these things are too bright (though for 3D we want all the brightness we can get).

7:23 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Another fascinating essay! Back in the 80's, Key Video released numerous Fox and Warners classics in VHS. The WB/UA catalogue was somehow affiliated with CBS/Fox at the time. I had a copy with the title ELIZABETH,THE QUEEN. I do recall the print as being somewhat muddy; the DVD looks much better. Oddly, the box title was PRIVATE LIVES; the liner notes did mention the film was also known, by the alternate title, probably by way of explaining the substitute print used.

6:57 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I remember seeing this on a local station that ran Warner films in the wee hours, a B&W print with the "Elizabeth the Queen" title. Saw it again years later on cable, in color; it also had the "Queen" title, but the title card was different, a bit simpler than the one in the B&W version.
Usually if a movie gets a new title for TV syndication, it's for the original version of a film that had been remade (e.g., the Ricardo Cortez "Maltese Falcon" becoming "Dangerous Female").

1:26 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I see that Hal Wallis produced a trilogy of Tudor tales - this, Anne of a Thousand Days, and finally Mary, Queen of Scots.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Having just watched this (it's late 2021) for the first time, I can say I was amazed how much of a "look and feel" this shared with 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" - produced by the same hands, starring many of the same names, perhaps this ought not to have been so surprising - but how different in tone this was from that earlier film, and how few other films of that era share the "look and feel" of these two films.
From now on, I'll consider these two films to be like a brother and sister - a kid brother, with a much older sister.
I wonder if "Elizabeth & Essex" was an attempt to get those Technicolor production values which were so successfully used in "Robin Hood" away from the "children's entertainment" label which "Robin Hood" picked up somewhere along the way.
I've recently watched the Hal Wallis produced historical costume dramas from the 1960s, which are all resolutely mature in tone and content - so "Elizabeth and Essex" played for me like the missing link between the kid-accessible "Robin Hood" and those later films, like an early attempt trying (and for that time, failing?) to take Technicolor costume dramas out of the "family entertainment" ghetto the kid-friendly success of 'Robin Hood' threatened to confine them to.

6:12 AM  

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