Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Warner Bros., 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Monday Turner Classic Movies had run, back to back, the two movies Bette Davis made in which she played Queen Elizabeth I of England — obviously a tie-in to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II the same night — The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Warner Bros., 1939) and The Virgin Queen (20th Century-Fox, 1955). I had hoped we might squeeze both movies in on the same night but settled for watching just the first, which began life in 1930 as a play written by Maxwell Anderson, Elizabeth the Queen, which was produced on Broadway with the real-life couple Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, both her lover (though the script is coy about whether they ever had sex or not, paying obeisance both to the Production Code and to Elizabeth’s historical reputation as the “virgin Queen”) and her rival for power. In 1931 MGM signed the Lunts to a movie contract and bought the rights to three of their stage vehicles: The Guardsman, Elizabeth the Queen and Reunion in Vienna, but after The Guardsman was released to disappointing box-office returns — it was a hit in New York City, where audiences loved the Lunts and desperately wanted to see their first film together, but elsewhere in the country moviegoers had never heard of the Lunts and couldn’t have cared less about them or their film — MGM canceled their contract (not that the Lunts minded much, since they were still making big money on the stage), filmed Reunion in Vienna in 1933 with John and Lionel Barrymore and Diana Wynyard, and put Elizabeth the Queen on hold. Eventually they sold the rights to Warner Bros. as a vehicle for Bette Davis, who had wanted to play Elizabeth I for years and had even tried to get Jack Warner to loan her out to play Elizabeth in RKO’s film Mary of Scotland (1937), in which Katharine Hepburn played Mary, Queen of Scots.

Jack Warner refused to loan Davis out (during her 18 years as a Warners contract player Davis was only loaned out twice) and RKO had a hard time casting Elizabeth — Ginger Rogers gave a test under a false name and RKO head Pandro Berman was about to sign her until he realized who she really was and told her, “The moment audiences see the credit, ‘And Ginger Rogers as Queen Elizabeth,’ they’re going to start laughing.” (Eventually the male lead on the film, Fredric March, pulled strings — as he often did — and got his wife, Florence Eldridge, the part.) Jack Warner had his own set of problems making Elizabeth and Essex; he saw it as a golden opportunity to cast his two biggest stars, Davis and Errol Flynn, in the same film, but Davis didn’t want to work with Flynn: she’d already made a movie with him, a modern-dress film called The Sisters (1938), and had been appalled by his indifferent, happy-go-lucky approach to acting, so different from her regard for her craft as almost a calling in the spiritual sense. She knew whom she wanted to play Essex: Laurence Olivier, who in 1939 was as hot-looking as Flynn and by far a better actor — but Warners overruled her on the ground that Olivier’s name meant absolutely nothing to the U.S. box office in 1939. (Instead he played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights that year, followed it up with two big successes filmed in 1939 but released in 1940 — Pride and Prejudice and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca — and seemed destined for U.S. stardom until World War II started and he went home out of a sense of patriotism.) Later — years later — Davis watched Elizabeth and Essex and decided Flynn hadn’t been so bad after all, but Flynn was long since dead by then.

The film is a handsomely produced costume drama but one with quite a lot more emotional and political weight than the norm for such films; from the opening (and I’m inclined to attribute the depth to Anderson rather than the screenwriters, Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie) the script expertly limns the central conflicts: between war and peace (Elizabeth craves peace for her kingdom, at least in part because she feels the endless wars are causing her to tax her people beyond their ability to pay — unlike too many modern politicians, she’s all too aware of the physical cost of endless war and its direct threat to the well-being of the population), between love and power (Elizabeth is torn throughout the movie between her physical — and, perhaps, emotional — attraction to Essex and her nun’s vows-like devotion to the nation), between youth and age (at a time when virtually no movies acknowledged that younger men ever fell in love with older women, or vice versa, this film not only depicts the age difference between Elizabeth and Essex but makes it a major issue in the plot). Davis’s Elizabeth is not the cool, collected ruler proclaiming patriotic platitudes she’s been depicted as in most of the films about her; she’s virtually bipolar, changing both her politics and her emotions at the turn of a shilling and leaving most of her courtiers in abject fear that her feelings about them will take a glare-ice turn and they’ll find themselves in the Tower or facing the executioner’s axe. According to the histories of the making of this movie, Davis was as imperious as her character: faced with Flynn’s demand that his character as well as hers be referenced in the title, Jack Warner wanted to call it The Lady and the Knight (or, even worse from Davis’s perspective, The Knight and the Lady!) and Davis pointed out that she wasn’t playing a “lady,” she was playing a queen, damnit! Eventually Warners’ marketing department came up with The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — referencing the 1933 international hit The Private Life of Henry VIII (who was, of course, Elizabeth’s father) — though there are some prints circulating that identify the film merely as Elizabeth and Essex and lists it as Essex and Elizabeth, which no doubt has Bette Davis’s corpse doing cartwheels in her grave.

Elizabeth and Essex is a well-done movie, superbly cast (aside from Flynn, who’s superficially “right” for the part but hardly sounds the depths Olivier would have — ironically, Flynn would improve as an actor in the 1940’s even as his career declined) — not only does Olivia de Havilland play a lady-in-waiting who’s both a rival for Essex’s affections and a pawn in the conspiracy of Essex’s enemies at court, but Henry Daniell as Sir Robert Cecil and especially Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh (one could make a case that this is the finest non-horror role Price ever played on film) make superbly understated villains. Even Nanette Fabray (in her first film, using her original last name, Fabares) makes an appearance as Margaret Radcliffe, who gets two big scenes — in one of which she sings Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (in a musical setting by the film’s composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and Sir Walter Raleigh’s satirical “Love’s Answer” (the movie Raleigh has written this as a bitter lampoon of Elizabeth lusting after a man half her age, and Elizabeth has the predictable hissy-fit when she hears it); in another she tells Elizabeth about her plan to marry her fiancé as soon as he returns from the Irish campaign Essex is leading — only he’s killed there, which makes Elizabeth even more sour on the whole business of militarism and glory in general and Essex in particular. The plot starts with Essex becoming an instant hero to the British people by besieging the Spanish city of Cadiz — only to be dressed down by Elizabeth because the only reason she authorized a British raid on Cadiz was to steal the treasure from Spain’s ships and use it to feed the population, and while Essex was busy attacking Cadiz the Spanish had the chance to sink their own ships to keep the British from getting the treasure — and eventually Elizabeth is talked into launching a war in Ireland to keep Philip II of Spain from conquering it and using it as the base for an invasion of England. (Even in Elizabeth’s time there were “proxy wars” between the superpowers. There’s quite a lot of plus ça change, plus ça même chose about this movie.)

Elizabeth wants to keep Essex at home managing the military’s supplies, but Essex insists on leading the campaign in Ireland himself — and gets his ass kicked by the Irish leader, the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale — and any fan of the Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood is going to be jarred by this film’s showing them on opposite sides!), who defends his country with what would now be called a guerrilla campaign, avoiding pitched battles and hiding in the boggy Irish countryside until he tricks Essex into bringing the English force into the open, surrounds it with his men and forces Essex to surrender. (Incidentally, William Shakespeare wrote the play Henry V while Essex was raising his army for the Irish campaign, and fully intended his audiences to see the Henry V = Essex parallel; fortunately he got his play on the stage before Essex returned, defeated!) One reason for the failure of Essex’ campaign — at least the way it’s presented here — was that Cecil and Raleigh intercepted both Essex’s letters to Elizabeth pleading for more men and supplies and her letters to him, so each thought they had been abandoned by the other; Elizabeth eventually figures it out when Lady Penelope Grey (Olivia de Havilland) confesses her role in the plot. Out of a mix of motives the writers leave powerfully ambiguous — love, hurt, revenge, power — Essex refuses Elizabeth’s order to disband his army and marches it into London, surrounding the queen’s palace and seemingly ready to stage a coup d’état — only Elizabeth tricks him into sending his soldiers away and then has him arrested, saying a sorrowful farewell that might have been a bit more sorrowful if director Michael Curtiz had staged it with the sensitivity Sidney Franklin showed in The Guardsman, in which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne played the final scene “in character” as a performance by the fictional husband-and-wife acting team they were playing in that film. (Fontanne’s performance as the Queen I recall as considerably more quiet than Davis’s, condemning Essex to death far more in sorrow than in anger.)

Elizabeth and Essex is a good movie that could have been even better (especially with a stronger male lead; Olivier would have been great, and so — I think — would Cary Grant; despite his reputation as a comedian he occasionally got scripts that showed his serious acting chops, including None But the Lonely Heart and Notorious, and it’s interesting to imagine him dropping Essex’s comic/romantic mask and showing the man of steel underneath), but it holds up beautifully for Davis’s performance, for the supporting cast (Daniell and Price in particular), and also for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s astonishing musical score; at least two major opera composers set the Elizabeth-and-Essex story (Donizetti in Roberto Devereaux and Britten in Gloriana — ironically, Britten wrote his Elizabeth I opera as an occasional piece for the coronation of Elizabeth II and apparently infuriated the Royal Family by picking a particularly unglorious part of her namesake’s reign — not the settlement of the religious question or the defeat of the Spanish Armada!) but Korngold’s music is powerful and expansive enough he not only didn’t have to worry about the competition, he left one (this one, anyway) wishing he had written his own opera on this story based on his music for the film.