Friday, June 20, 2008

Elizabeth and Essex

June 20 being the anniversary of the birth of Errol Flynn, TCM showed a couple of his lesser-remembered movies today. One that's too well-known to fit that bill is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

Flynn stars as the male title role, that of the Duke of Essex, one of the many courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, played by Bette Davis. The movie is a love story, about the tempestuous, and ultimately tragic, love affair that Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen", carried on with Essex. Her Majesty, or at least as she appears in this Hollywood portrayal of her, believed that her first duty was to England, and not to any one man. As a result, a lot of man got close to her, but the minute they got too close, they became a threat and had to be done away with for the good of England. (The same ultimately happened to Sir Walter Raleigh as well.)

Davis is quite good as the Queen, and her scenery-chewing acting style fits well with playing a character who is, after all, an autocrat. She's clearly got emotional "issues", as we'd say today, but then, she really did have a chaotic upbringing. In real life, her mother (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of her father, Henry VIII) was executed when Elizabeth was just two and a half years old; there was a succession battle over who should succeed Henry, involving three of his children; and Elizabeth was eventually jailed for some time thanks to the Catholic versus Protestant split that her father had started. England was unstable when she first came to the throne, and her monarchy brought stability to England.

Flynn is effective, too; it's obvious from even just a few scenes why the ladies loved him and he was such a screen idol in the late 1930s. The camera, and the Technicolor, flatter him; Flynn may never have looked better on screen than he did in Elizabeth and Essex. Of course, it's not just the ladies of the 1930s who would have loved him; the ladies of the 16th century would have found Flynn irresistible, including Her Majesty. On the other hand, it would also be very easy to see why other men would be jealous of Essex.

Those other men are part of the wonderful studio system, in which there were always character actors around, and new up-and-coming actors to play the younger parts. As evidence, we get Donald Crisp playing Francis Bacon, Leo G. Carroll as one of the older lords, and as Sir Walter Raleigh, a young Vincent Price. The ladies-in-waiting involve some of the younger Hollywood women, as Olivia de Havilland is Lady Gray, and an 18-year-old Nanette Fabray shows up, too.

The cast is excellent; the Technicolor is gorgeous -- it doesn't only make Flynn look good; Erich Korngold wrote an appropriate period score; and Michael Curtiz keeps the proceedings running smoothly. (Curtiz himself would be a good subject for an extended post, as his Ĺ“uvre includes period pieces like this; dramas like Casablanca; westerns like Dodge City, and even a gangster movie like Angels With Dirty Faces.) With star power like this, it's no wonder the movie is available on DVD.

One interesting note of trivia: legend has it that the title came about as a result of the studio system. The movie is based on Maxwell Anderson's play "Elizabeth the Queen", a title not suited to somebody like Errol Flynn who was used to getting top billing. Of course, the studio execs couldn't expect Bette Davis to take second billing, either. So apparently the compromise was made to have both stars' characters included in the title.

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