‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex’ From 1939: A Costume Drama of Love and Ambition

Can a queen be a woman, too? Queen Elizabeth I endures this dilemma in the Warner Bros. 1939 costume drama “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” This Technicolor movie brought 16th-century England to life with opulent costumes and lavish sets, earning five Academy Award nominations.

Our question, however, is whether movies made over 80 years ago entertain modern audiences. Through streaming services, home media, and Turner Classic Movies, classic films are now widely available. Most people need only see the right old movie to appreciate Hollywood’s Golden Age. A good place to find your good-film fit is within a favorite genre. Fans of costume dramas should look no further than this tale of ambition and ill-fated love.

A Queen Must Do Her Duty

At 63, the aging Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) has long been England’s sole ruler, but she deeply loves Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn). When he returns from military victory with public adoration, the queen tells adviser Sir Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) that she must put royal duties above her feelings for Essex. Upon Essex’s arrival in court, she denounces his profitless military victory, which burdened England’s overtaxed people. Offended when she promotes two comrades above him, he angrily leaves London.

While Essex is away, Elizabeth pines for him. She is tormented by their mutual pride, her age, and suspicion that he prefers the beautiful Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland). She can banish all mirrors from her sight but cannot forget their age discrepancy. She longs to bring Robert back without humbling herself. When she learns of her troops’ defeat in Ireland, she summons Essex for military advice.

The lovely Olivia de Havilland plays Lady Penelope, the rival for the Earl of Essex’s affections. (Warner Bros.)

When Essex returns to London, Penelope seeks his affection, but he loves Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth and Robert are alone, they renew their romance, but their wooing is interspersed with as much fighting. Elizabeth persuades Essex to take a military post in London, safe from arrows as well as from malicious plotting by enemies at court who want them parted. However, Essex soon accepts those enemies’ challenge to attack Ireland. Before he leaves, they swear their love, Elizabeth giving him a ring which guarantees forgiveness.

The Facts and Fashion of History

Many characters in this film, including Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Devereux, and Sir Francis Bacon, are real historical figures. The story was based on Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway play “Elizabeth the Queen,” which included fictionalized romantic elements from the 1695 novel “The Secret History of the Most Renowned Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, by a Person of Quality.” Robert Devereux was a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth, although there is no proof that they were lovers before his cruel execution for treason.

Queen Elizabeth I has been frequently depicted on stage and screen. Her long, powerful reign made her legendary, and her status as the Virgin Queen has piqued curiosity for generations. Although she never married, historians speculate whether some of her favorites, such as Robert Dudley, who was Essex’s stepfather, were lovers. This film’s story focuses on the centuries-old legend about a ring of forgiveness and intercepted messages.

Although many events in this story are fictional, the lavish depiction of the Elizabethan court truly brings Shakespearean England to life. Historical architectural features like large fireplaces and opulent chairs, and authentic details like quills and swords, create an authentic setting in which Queen Elizabeth and her court come to life. The costumes feature period details, and many of the actors resemble the actual people they are playing.

Many thought Bette Davis, at 31, too young to play the queen. However, she physically transformed into the aging monarch by shaving her hairline two inches back to imply baldness under her red wigs and replacing her own eyebrows with tiny drawn-on ones. Her heavily powdered face replicated the ghostly makeup Elizabeth wore. She further conveyed age by walking stiffly and making her voice harsh. The heavy gowns were stifling under the hot lights, but this great actress wore them with the ease of Good Queen Bess herself.

Bette Davis, 31 years old at the time, changed her appearance for the role. (Warner Bros.)

Love and Animosity

This film was the second and last romantic pairing of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Surprisingly, Olivia de Havilland, Flynn’s famous screen sweetheart in seven movies, plays a supporting role in this film, while his love interest is Bette Davis. Although Miss Davis was only one year older than her co-star, her character is over 30 years older. Romances in which the woman is significantly older were rare in classic films, in which the men were usually older. However, this story’s May-September romance is very endearing.

Few couples depicted in film have as tumultuous a relationship as Elizabeth and Essex. They love each other deeply, but each is headstrong and proud. The strength and stubbornness that each cherishes in the other causes frequent arguments about politics and foreign policies. They truly have a love-hate relationship, with fondness turning to loathing in a moment. This animosity was not difficult for the actors to achieve, since Bette Davis was disappointed at the casting of Errol Flynn as Essex instead of Laurence Olivier. Thus, their relationship was tense during filming.

Errol Flynn as Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a historical figure who is cast in a fictionalized romance. (Warner Bros.)

Although Robert’s rebelliousness infuriates Elizabeth, she loves him because he alone treats her like a woman, not a queen—defying her, fearlessly contradicting her, turning his back on her, and even playfully shoving her. Essex loves Queen Elizabeth for her strong character and determination, seeing past her age. They share a mutual love for England, but that national loyalty divides them, since they have different beliefs about political policies. Ultimately, the very things that unite them separate them, making this a compelling, moving, yet tragic love story.

Duty Before Desire

The moral of this story is that leaders must put duty before their personal desires. That duty is especially hard for royalty, who inherit rather than choose positions. Queen Elizabeth and Robert Devereux are parted forever for England’s sake. Essex knows that he would destroy Elizabeth by sharing her throne, since he would try to impose his own governmental ideas. Elizabeth knows that England needs her as its ruler, so she must forego her personal desire to marry Essex.

Can this film be enjoyed by modern viewers? Its historical setting was centuries old in 1939, so it doesn’t contain cultural references that can date a film or that 21st-century audiences might not understand. The vibrant Technicolor footage is more familiar to modern viewers than the black-and-white cinematography of many vintage films. (Don’t be confused by the original black-and-white trailer; the film itself is indeed “thrillingly filmed in Technicolor.”)

In addition, the film stars iconic performers like Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, whom many may recognize at least by name. Even if unfamiliar with them, anyone who enjoys dramatic acting will appreciate their dynamic performances in this movie.

Made 81 years ago, this film is just as entertaining and inspiring today as in 1939. The moving story of ill-fated romance between dynamic historical figures jumps out of history books into a dramatic, albeit fictionalized, story of love, ambition, and personal sacrifices that good rulers must make for their countries.

‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex’
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, and Alan Hale
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Released: Nov. 11, 1939 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.

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Author: Tiffany Brannan