Celebrate QEI’s Birthday With The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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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?

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The ruff & the bow trim along the shoulders, waist, & skirt are reminiscent of the Armada Portrait of QEI (yeah, it’s a small touch, but still).

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

So much detail, even in black & white.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Beautiful bejeweled wig.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

This gown reads as black onscreen, but this catalog image shows that it’s dark green. Reminds me of the Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth & the many images of her wearing black.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

When Essex first arrives at court, coming from his triumphant battle & riding through London directly to see the queen, it’s appropriate that he’s wearing boots.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

But when he’s just hanging around court, sweet-talking her maj, Essex wears shoes. See? Is that so difficult?

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Errol Flynn as Essex in a publicity still. Wearing shoes, not boots. UR DOIN’ IT RITE!

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

+10 for great wig. +5 for Bette Davis’ standard makeup actually working well in this historical era. -5 for floating ruff. -5 for princess seams. -40 for that green floral fabric.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

With the ladies in waiting, we get French hoods as visors/headbands, weird fabric choices, really weird necklines, and peplums for days.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Don’t cry. Nobody will remember your goofy hair in this movie.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Miss de Havilland, Disney is calling, they want that princess dress back.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Cat-fight, 1590!

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Did someone lose a glass slipper?

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Catalog image of Olivia de Havilland’s actual costume.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Classic movie-version of Elizabethan with modern darts in the front, but otherwise trying hard for a 16th-c. style.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Long before there was Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, there was Bette Davis in Elizabeth: The Space Age.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Silver holographic lamé, FTW!

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

This gown is definitely an allusion to the Ditchely Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, even if it’s not a recreation.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Tons of detail on Essex’s outfit as well as Elizabeth’s.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

So… pink is period, but that fabric is, uh, not quite right.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

In black & white, I love the hell out of this gown’s design. I’d love to make a version of it someday.

7 Responses

  1. Sarah

    That man was certainly ridiculously good looking! I coulda sworn St. Joan Collins was in this movie in a superb lavender riding habit.

    Reply
  2. Lyn

    Reading this now (TCM is playing the movie today) and unfortunately there’s lots of broken links for the images.

    Reply
    • Lyn

      Never mind, submitting my previous comment caused the pix to show up. Love this movie, but yeah, the fabric choices are certainly interesting: what a shame given how much effort and detail went into the costumes.

      Reply
  3. ladylavinia1932

    Errol Flynn always had the acting chops, even if Warner Bros sometimes refused to allow him to display them. Even Bette Davis finally admitted that he was a much better actor than she had originally assumed.

    Reply

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