TBT: The Virgin Queen (1955)

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In my continuing quest to give more complete reviews to the major films about Queen Elizabeth I, I’m looking at The Virgin Queen (1955), where Bette Davis returns to the role after The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). I must admit that my delay in reviewing this film is that the ’55 flick is the weaker of the two, from plot to costumes. Sure, Davis still kicks ass, but there are problems, which I’ll get into.

The oddest thing is that this film is set in 1581 — so it takes place before the 1601 setting of Private Lives. The story now is about Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) flirting with the Queen and also with Beth Throckmorton (Joan Collins). If you’ve seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), just take that movie’s love triangle and extend it to 92 minutes, and you’re good to go. Despite the Raleigh focus, there’s only talk about ships / piracy / exploration, and minimal swashbuckling.

The costumes were designed by Charles Le Maire and Mary Wills, which did earn them an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, Color. Appropriate, since this is a super colorful production. None of the costumes recreate historical portraits, and the shapes and styles owe more to previous Hollywood efforts than 1580s imagery. That said, Bette Davis did allow her head to be shaved again, so the hair and makeup is on point.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

This color promo pic really shows the details of her wig & makeup.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

But the black & white test photos also show the incredible work.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

So glad the back view was available!

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Then there’s one of her bedtime looks where the Queen is vulnerable & old.

Several of the costumes from this movie have survived, thanks to Debbie Reynolds and others, so we can see plenty of detail about them. However, that just shows how fantastical a take on the period they are. Sure, it’s not much different than Orry-Kelly‘s designs for Private Lives (I found at least one recycled costume), but then, that also means the costumes are stuck in the 1930s. In another decade, we’ll get A Man for All Seasons (1966) with costumes by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) with costumes by Margaret Furse, among other Tudor-set movies, all of which have a stronger feel for accurate designs and fabric choices.

This yellow gown is the first thing we see Queen Elizabeth in, and from the neck up, I get an 1580s flair. But then I got the full view…

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I

It’s not terrible — the skirt is that same, wide-instead-of-round shape that a lot of early films used for Elizabethan court gowns. But the fabric is pretty weird. The large-scale, high-contrast damask looks modern and doesn’t resemble the more tone-on-tone brocades of the period.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

In the Debbie Reynolds costume collection catalog, this gown is described as: “Elaborate golden yellow and ivory brocade period gown with velvet bodice accented with faux pearls and rhinestones on sleeves.” The velvet insert at center front is, I guess, meant to look like a stomacher? I don’t understand the wide velvet band at the waist at all.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The back view shows the wide shape and that velvet belt/band more clearly. Nice pattern matching, at least.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Interestingly, the Queen’s gowns all seem to be back-laced in this flick. Which can be OK for this period — though if that was a real stomacher in the front, that’s where the gown would pin closed, no back closure.

That one isn’t as wild as Beth’s first court gown (I’m just going to skip over the fact that Elizabeth Throckmorton was called “Bess” not “Beth” because whatevs, Hollywood). The pink fabric had me howling!

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Beth is center in the pink, surrounded by shiny metallic ladies-in-waiting, so y’know, par for the course. I’ll give them the cartwheel ruffs though, those were just coming into fashion in the 1580s for England.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Beth & all the other ladies get zippers! Only the Queen rates lacing (& metal grommets, natch).

Behold, in all it’s pink cabbage-rose glory! If it didn’t have the wrist ruffs, this would be an OK dress for some Victorian flick, just add a derpy bonnet.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Described in the Debbie Reynolds’ catalog as: “Rose brocade with pink satin inset & sleeves.”

Thankfully, that is Beth’s most outlandish outfit. Well, except for her fondness for a floating ruff.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

This dress isn’t too bad from a distance. That’s Raleigh in his red Captain of the Guard uniform.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

But she didn’t get my memo that partlets are not kicky shrugs. Also, the costume designers have relied on some modern pleating techniques to add visual interest to a lot of these gowns.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

But it’s the floating ruff that really brings the boys to the room, right?

I do like how the costume designers used one of Beth’s outfits in two different ways.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Early in the film, she wears this grey outfit with a giant yellow hat & a purple sash thing.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The slashed sleeves of her doublet are lined in yellow, matching her hat.

1955 The Virgin Queen

This promo pic is from the yellow variation. It clearly shows the 1950s bullet-bra fit of this gown, which is standard in this production.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

At the end of the movie, she wears the same outfit with a different shirt & hat, & her doublet has purple under the slashes.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Costume designer Mary Wills’ sketch of this costume (via LACMA) highlights the yellow & the sash.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

While the costume on display now has the purple slashes & hat.

The Queen is always in bold colors or a bold pattern, like this striped outfit she wears hunting.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

This has a more typical skirt shape for the period, but maybe they just dropped the panniers since it’s not a court scene.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The back-lacing makes this look more like it’s a corset worn over a dress, which is weird.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The costume sketch by Mary Wills, via LACMA.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

And the costume on display.

This eye-searing gown is described in the Debbie Reynolds costume catalog as “rose-colored silk.” In photos and in the movie, it looks orange or red, so I have to question that it’s actually silk too.

Bette Davis, The Virgin Queen (1955)
The Virgin Queen (1955)

Kick up those heels, girl!

The Virgin Queen (1955)

In the catalog pic, it looks like a faded orangey color. Not seeing the “rose” at all.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

In the film, the light washes it out a bit more, & it looks orange compared to the red of her throne & dais. Oh & that silver puff-sleeve gown on the first lady-in-waiting? I think it’s recycled from the space-age gown QEI wears in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In this court scene, Beth is wearing a black and white gown, maybe because she’s sad that Raleigh is going away.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Kinda Victorian or something, dunno.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Daww, she wears her heart on her sleeve. And still her ruff floats when it shouldn’t.

The last gown Beth has is a fairly innocuous reddish number.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The sleeves have nice little Elizabethan puffs at the top, but that bodice is totally 1950s.

Queen Elizabeth’s gowns all continue to be colorful and elaborate.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

If she wore 16th-c. stays with this, the shape would be perfect. The bodice & sleeves are quite 1580s.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

I keep thinking I’ve seen this dress before, but maybe I’m remembering the green satin & velvet gown Catherine wears in Diane (1956), which has a similar bodice, even though it’s for an earlier period.

Probably the most  historically accurate gown is this black one worn in several scenes towards the end of the film. None of my screencaps show it better than this promo. The gold embroidery is a modern pattern, but it evokes period embellishment, and the gist is that the Queen is dripping with jewels and gilded to the hilt. It works!

She also has a couple bedroom scenes where she’s in an embroidered nightcap and gown, including this final one with Bess.

1955 The Virgin Queen

And nothing beats vivid red for meeting a condemned man, right?

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The embroidered gloves are a nice period-esque touch.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

The gown on display shows some of the embroidery on the sleeves.

 

 

 

Have you watched The Virgin Queen? Where do you rank it among movies about Queen Elizabeth?

11 Responses

  1. Roxana

    Elizabeth I used to dress her maids of honor in white and older ladies in black in order to set off her off brilliant costumes.

    Reply
  2. Alexander Sanderson

    Bette Davis was such a power-house of a performer and really pulled out all the stops when a role demanded… shaving her forehead was a really such a Stanislavskian ‘method’ thing to do! It certainly shows commitment and looks incredible with her in the wigs or nightcap. The costumes certainly do level over to the camp on occasion (to say the least) and all the bullet bra shaped bodices certainly make me chuckle. I think though that the fabric choices confuse me the most; they just seem so odd in regards to period, style and the general aesthetic. Sorry, but slightly off topic – I had a look through and did a search and I can’t find an article on Queen Katherine Howard on film/tv. Would you perhaps consider looking at her in the future? I know that she is quite often overlooked or simply labelled a silly tart, but I really do find her fascinating and think her hugely misunderstood. Much thanks for all your amazing work!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Katherine Howard is a good idea! We haven’t gotten thru all of Henry VIII’s wives yet – just Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, & Jane Seymour so far.

      Reply
  3. hsc

    Some of you probably already know about this, but it’s worth a mention:

    Before Davis’ hair grew back, she had to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, where she presented the Oscar for Best Actor to winner Marlon Brando.

    To hide her hair, she wore a tight-fitting cap that appears to be a glitzier recreation of one of the nightcaps in THE VIRGIN QUEEN, though not the actual item.

    She also wore a dress that had an interesting hint of period styling– two different fabrics layered in a way that suggested a stomacher and forepart– while still remaining firmly in 1950s fashion.

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D3bzioLWkAEGSfV.jpg

    https://c8.alamy.com/comp/A2JM7B/grace-kelly-and-marlon-brando-win-oscars-in-1954-A2JM7B.jpg

    In this gif of her entrance, you can see that it’s just a calf-length dress, rather than a full gown, and check out the weird way that the off-shoulder neckline is divided into peaked sections that flap in the back as she moves:

    https://media4.giphy.com/media/26xBJ42JjCMXI9oLC/giphy.gif

    While the cap is very close to one that’s in the film, it appears to be slightly different in shape and in the amount of decoration. This is the actual costume piece, from an auction and on display:

    https://www.julienslive.com/images/lot/1466/146663_8.jpg?1522864121

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DoCRwbTXkAId_NT.jpg

    The Oscars cap appears to be more solidly covered with decoration, and with a smooth edge with no overhang of the decorative overlay.

    I guess simply wearing a wig in her usual style/color wouldn’t have gotten enough attention.

    Reply
  4. Patrick Keogh

    I hate how both this film and Golden Age seemed to picked up the mistaken idea that the Bess/Raleigh shenanigans happened in the 1580s, when very clearly it was 1592 that they were discovered and they had ahem consumated inate 1591. Maybe because they want to tie it more with the Armada period? Or just outdated scholar ship?

    Reply

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