The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), is a romantic drama film based on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (played by Bette Davis) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (played by Errol Flynn).

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, and was based on the Maxwell Anderson play, Elizabeth the Queen, which had been successful on Broadway with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in the lead roles.

Also featured in the film's cast were Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price and a young Nanette Fabray. The score was composed by Erich Korngold.

The film was produced by Warner Brothers, who ensured the best of production values, and allowed the additional expense of filming in color. Among the film's five Academy Award nominations was a nomination for "Best Color Cinematography". The film became the hit the studio had anticipated and returned a handsome profit.

Davis recounted later in life her difficulties in making the film. She had been very enthusiastic about the challenge of playing Elizabeth (in 1955 she played her as an old woman in The Virgin Queen ). She had lobbied for Laurence Olivier to play the part of Essex, but Warner Brothers, nervous at giving the part to an actor who was relatively unknown in the United States, instead cast Errol Flynn, who was at the height of his success. Davis felt he was not equal to the task, and also believed from past experience that his casual attitude to his work would be reflected in his performance. For her own part, she studied the life of Elizabeth, worked hard to adopt a passable accent, and shaved her hairline to achieve a greater resemblance. She was tipped to receive an Academy Award nomination for her role; however, she was nominated in that year for Dark Victory.

The public liked Flynn's charming rogue of a character, his undisguised Australian accent notwithstanding, but the critics found him to be the weak link in the production, with The New York Times writing, "Bette Davis' Elizabeth is a strong, resolute, glamour-skimping characterization against which Mr. Flynn's Essex has about as much chance as a beanshooter against a tank."


Stine, Whitney and Davis, Bette : Mother Goddam. Virgin Books. 1974


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