Historical inaccuracies, be damned — I love the hell out of this movie! So it’s a great way to spend what would have been Elizabeth I of England’s birthday, taking a look back at this early film portrayal. Bette Davis is fantastic as Queen Elizabeth, and Errol Flynn is dashing as the Earl of Essex, even if he doesn’t quite have the acting chops. Olivia de Havilland as the fictionalized third in the love triangle is pretty pointless and just serves to prove The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is all about Bette.
The main part of the story between Elizabeth and Essex tells the basic historical story, overlaid with a thick romance, as pretty much every film and TV version since this would do. It’s only a little odd here that Davis and Flynn are merely one year apart in age, instead of the queen being much older — Davis allowed herself to be aged for the role and even shaved her forehead, all rather rare at the time in Hollywood. She reportedly studied Queen Elizabeth and took the part quite seriously. It shows.
What also shows is the lavish attention paid to the costumes. With Orry-Kelly as the designer, everything is rich and ostentatious, if not totally 1590s. But I can clearly see the period influences in the gowns. The skirt shape is a wide pannier, not a cone, in a vague attempt at a drum farthingale, which extends out from the hips. The women mostly wear upright wired ruffs, which are very iconic of the late 16th century. Elizabeth is dripping with jewels, as the queen is often said to have been, and the wigs worn by Bette Davis are quite reminiscent of QEI’s portraits. Her ladies in waiting have weird historical mish-mash-y hair, unfortunately. Also, the fabric choices for all the gowns is very modern.
The men’s costumes are standard-issue Hollywood Elizabethan, with very high trunkhose showing lots of leg. Because in the early days of film, apparently you could be a manly man in tights. Note how men only wear tall boots when they’re riding or doing military stuff or have immediately come in from said activities. When they’re at court just being courtly, they wear shoes, as it should be.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) isn’t a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not great history. But it is great entertainment with some fantastic actors and over-the-top costumes. I can watch this over and over again. How about you?