Watching 1939: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Release date:  Sept. 27, 1939

Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell, James Stephenson, Nanette Fabray (as Nanette Fabares), Ralph Forbes, Robert Warwick, Leo G. Carroll

Warner Brothers

Michael Curtiz

The film is a dramatic depiction of the political and romantic relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (Davis) Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Flynn). While Queen Elizabeth I is in love with Essex, her duty to her country comes first.

Awards and Nominations:
• Sol Polito and W. Howard Greene were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color
• Anton Grot was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction
• Nathan Levinson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording
• Byron Haskin and Nathan Levinson were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects
• Erich Wolfgang Korngold was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939)

1939 Notes:
• Nanette Fabray’s first film and she is billed as Nanette Fabares.
• Michael Curtiz directed six full-length features in 1939.
• Olivia de Havilland was in five films in 1939 and two of these co-starred Errol Flynn. Flynn was only in two films in 1939.
• Bette Davis was in four movies in 1939, two of them co-starred Donald Crisp. Donald Crisp was in six films in 1939.
• Vincent Price’s third movie

Other trivia: 
• While rehearsing a scene where Bette Davis has to slap Errol Flynn, Davis full on slapped Flynn in the face, according to the biography “Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis” by Ed Sikov. In his book, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” Errol Flynn wrote, “Joe Louis himself couldn’t give a right hook better than Bette hooked me with.”
• Errol Flynn was in a car wreck during filming while drinking and driving, which resulted in facial scars, according to Sikov’s book.
• Hollywood make-up artist Perc Westmore shaved Bette Davis’s hairline back for the role, according to Sikov’s book.
• One of eight films Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn acted in together.
• Bette Davis wanted Laurence Olivier in the role of the Earl of Essex, according to Sikov’s book.
• Based on the stage play by Maxwell Anderson, titled Elizabeth the Queen, which starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
• Bette Davis played Queen Elizabeth twice. In this film and “The Virgin Queen” (1955).
• Olivia de Havilland singing was dubbed by Faith Kruger
• The original title was slated to be The Knight and the Lady. Davis fought this because putting “The Knight” first would make it a man’s picture and Flynn would get top billing.
• Bette Davis and Errol Flynn didn’t get along. In the 1980s, Davis and De Havilland watched the film together and Bette told Olivia, “Damn, he’s good! I was wrong about him.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In the 1980s, when Bete Davis rewatched this film, she said about Errol Flynn “Damn, he’s good!”

And I will echo that sentiment about all the actors in this film. Bette Davis is just wonderful as Queen Elizabeth, and Errol Flynn was very dashing and a bit of a scoundrel (and now I’m questioning his motives. Was he really in love? Was this a political ploy to get to the throne? Reading about the real Essex, I’m not so sure) And Olivia de Havilland isn’t your sweet Melanie Wilkes that she played this same year. As Lady Penelope Gray, Olivia is conniving, devious and quite vicious towards her queen. While de Havilland received top billing and this was her fifth film with Errol Flynn, she doesn’t have a great deal of screen time.

1939 was an important year for Olivia de Havilland. It was really the year she made her breakthrough in Hollywood. She had been acting in films since 1935. And while “Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) cast her in the plum role of Maid Marion, many of her films were light comedies or costume dramas (see: The Great Garrick, Anthony Adverse, It’s Love I’m After, Four’s a Crowd). But in 1939, de Havilland received more meaty roles. She was able to show her range with Lady Penelope Gray, was in the western Dodge City with Flynn, and of course her most well-remembered role, Melanie in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). After 1939, there was no question that Olivia de Havilland was a star.

Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray in ‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.”

This film is also interesting because it is Vincent Price’s third role. He plays Sir Walter Raleigh. His early roles weren’t the creepy characters we came to know later on, but Price plays a dislikeable Raleigh well.

This film was also the first screen role for Nanette Fabray, who was billed as Nanette Fabares. Fabray’s role is brief, but she shares a poignant one-on-one scene with Bette Davis and gets many close-ups. Not bad for your first film.

By this time, Bette Davis was already well-secured as a top star in Hollywood, as was Errol Flynn. Essex and Dodge City were Flynn’s only two film roles in 1939. Davis and Flynn may have hated each other, but you can’t tell in the film. It also may have aided in the love/hate relationship of Queen Elizabeth and Essex.

When I first watched this film in high school, I didn’t care for it. Revisiting it now, I appreciate it much more. Michael Curtiz’s film is quite dazzling. The Technicolor is beautiful and highlights Orry-Kelly’s lavish costumes well. Of the 11 films Orry-Kelly designed for in 1939, four of them starred Bette Davis.

While I wouldn’t say this is Bette Davis’s best film, or my favorite, “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” is definitely a solid film with a magnificent performance from Davis. The whole package deal of Curtiz, costume and set design, and the cast make this a sparkling production.

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4 thoughts on “Watching 1939: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

  1. This is actually one of my favourite Bette Davis roles. She plays Queen Elizabeth so well. She played her again in The Virgin Queen (1955), where she also did a good job. I also love Olivia in this film. It is great seeing her as a not-so-nice character for a change!


  2. Jessica, a really good review of a most memorable movie. A powerful cast led by Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX had it all: political intrigue, treachery, sumptuous settings by Anton Grot, gorgeously photographed by Sol Polito, the historically accurate costuming by Orry-Kelly, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s, wonderful music score. The movie looks great, acting is great, and what more could a viewer ask for entertainment in 1939 or any other time. Well worth watching.


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