Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' (1939)

By Chase Kahn

Michael Curtiz's period melodrama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ('39) was certainly a lavish production fitting of a year that, 70 years later, has become the Hollywood studio benchmark and a divine culmination of good fortune in possibly the greatest year in film history.

However, this partly-pleasing, partly-grating film is hardly representative of the year in terms of quality. Bette Davis earned an Oscar nomination for Dark Victory instead, and Errol Flynn was better, and more appropriately cast in the Technicolor western, Dodge City.

It's kind of a weepy, stagey film about the doomed and conflicted romance between Queen Elizabeth (Davis) and the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereaux (Flynn) in late 16th-century England, and how neither party can fully embrace the other without placing themselves and their social and political standings first.

Bette Davis gives the performance of the film - quite remarkable considering the drab and unglamorous make-up job which resembles Tim Burton's vision of the Red Queen in his upcoming Alice in Wonderland more than anything else.

This was also certainly one of Olivia de Havilland's unfortunate pidgeon-holed Jack Warner characters. As Mistress Penelope, she gets to freshen-up and strut around in period dress, lip-synching here, pleading for love there, but it's a fruitless role - absolutely inconsequential to the film. Surely, a small stepping stone towards her liberating, game-changing court case in 1944, forever switching the balance of power from the studios to the actors.

Even Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score is somewhat dull and non-descript, just another link between The Privates Live of Elizabeth and Essex and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Curtiz, cinematographer Sol Polito, Korngold, etc. I could even swear to you that the opening backlot set of the exterior castle was the exact set used a year prior in Robin Hood.

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