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Warner Home Video presents

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

"I don't know which I hate the most—you for making me love you, or me for needing you so." - Elizabeth I (Bette Davis), to a portrait of her beloved, Essex

Stars: Errol Flynn, Bette Davis
Other Stars: Vincent Price, Alan Hale
Director: Michael Curtiz

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:46m:14s
Release Date: 2005-04-19
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ C+CB+ C


DVD Review

As history, this movie is poppycock, but as a bodice-ripping soap opera, it's a whole lot of fun. Made in 1939, perhaps the greatest year in the history of Hollywood, and directed by reliable craftsman Michael Curtiz, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex comes with a highbrow pedigree: not only is it about the legendary queen of England at the height of the Renaissance, it's based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, celebrated Broadway author of the first half of the last century. It's about a time when the greatest history plays in the language were being written, and there are more than a few nods to the two epic Shakespearean tetralogies; this one, though, is more play than history, and it's not too reductive to say that it's principally a drama about a high-maintenance queen and her occasionally flaky boyfriend. There aren't a lot of grand conclusions to be drawn about politics and art, but guys, here's today's lesson: it's probably not a great idea to piss off your girlfriend, especially if she's the Queen of England.

Bette Davis's hair is a flaming scarlet, her skin is powdered to the point of kabuki, and her eyebrows have been plucked with brute force to give the actress an appropriate likeness to Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, imperious English monarch, a woman reigning over fiercely patriarchal institutions: her court and her country. The wardrobe department has gone hog wild, too, giving the Queen epic lace collars the size of satellite dishes and dresses made with enough satin and silk to provide window treatments for a hotel ballroom. And while it's good to be the queen, that's not enough: she wants the exclusive attention of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, as well. Theirs is a love not suitable for court, for he is her best military field commander, and has thus earned the enmity of the other lords trying to win Elizabeth's favor—they conspire against Essex, trying to turn the Queen against him. Errol Flynn is dashing as always as Essex; you've got to have charisma to burn to pull off those outfits, for one thing, and to bill and coo with your monarch without it seeming like sucking up or impossibly saccharine.

It's kind of a fun movie to watch, in large measure because it ratifies the idea that the older you get, the more you realize that life is exactly like high school, even if you're the Queen of England. In a fit of pique, Elizabeth sends Essex off to command her troops in Ireland, and hectors the messengers, looking for a letter from him, like a high school girl trying to will the phone to ring: he'll call, won't he? He said he'd call. Olivia de Havilland is on hand as the equivalent of a sophomore with a crush on the senior quarterback, who doesn't dare talk to him because he's dating the head cheerleader; Vincent Price, Alan Hale and Donald Crisp are chief among those conspiring to get Elizabeth to dump Essex, because she's, like, totally hot, and is crazy rich and ready to party.

The screenplay also has some fun with the vocabulary of the time—there's lots of characters calling one another "brazen wench" and "forward hussy." There are a couple of well-staged action sequences, with Essex at war especially; and there are all of the appropriate trappings of a film set in this period. (What would an Elizabethan picture be without the dank prison cells in the Tower of London?) Davis and Flynn are the reasons to watch; and forget every last bit of this movie when it's time to take the exam in European history. 

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A rather shoddy effort, actually, especially given the stellar quality of other Warner classic releases. There are all kinds of flecks and discolorations, practically in every shot of every scene; there's also much evidence of acid burn, and a good number of shots have a gauzy, unfocused look. Some of the early Technicolor work remains strong, but overall, this is wanting. 

Image Transfer Grade: C

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Typical mono track of the period; some hiss and some uneven dynamics, but it's all audible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Dark Victory
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Night at the Movies 1939
Extras Review: Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale (10m:34s) features several of Warner's utility players (Rudy Behlmer, Lincoln D. Hurst, Bob Thomas) discussing the film, with an emphasis on how much Davis and Flynn disliked one another; there are also a few words on some of the supporting players, and on the film's score. And Leonard Maltin is back to introduce Warner Night at the Movies 1939, an effort to re-create what the experience for the original theatrical audience for the feature might have been like. You'll find a trailer for another Bette Davis picture; a newsreel emphasizing the Nazi blitzkrieg in Scandinavia; then a Merrie Melodies cartoon, Old Glory, in which Porky Pig gets a history lesson from Uncle Sam, featuring animated American heroes including Patrick Henry, Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln; and finally, a two-reel musical short, The Royal Rodeo. It's worth watching for two principal reasons: first, it was shot on the sets constructed for The Adventures of Robin Hood; and it features Cliff Edwards, who the following year would provide the voice for Jiminy Cricket.

Extras Grade: C

Final Comments

It's a history play without much history, but lots of Hollywood classic style thrown in instead. Fine work from Flynn, Davis and Curtiz make this a professional and well-made Elizabethan soap opera. Will those two crazy kids ever get together? Pop in the DVD and find out! Yea, verily. 

Jon Danziger 2005-05-09