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.
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…
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.
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 back view shows the wide shape and that velvet belt/band more clearly. Nice pattern matching, at least.
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!
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.
Thankfully, that is Beth’s most outlandish outfit. Well, except for her fondness for a floating ruff.
I do like how the costume designers used one of Beth’s outfits in two different ways.
The Queen is always in bold colors or a bold pattern, like this striped outfit she wears hunting.
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.
In this court scene, Beth is wearing a black and white gown, maybe because she’s sad that Raleigh is going away.
The last gown Beth has is a fairly innocuous reddish number.
Queen Elizabeth’s gowns all continue to be colorful and elaborate.
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.
And nothing beats vivid red for meeting a condemned man, right?
Have you watched The Virgin Queen? Where do you rank it among movies about Queen Elizabeth?
Modern folk can’t say Bess…
…and somebody (soon to be unemployed) at that studio couldn’t write “Bette.”
At least the little tag/sign faced away from Ms. Davis ;)
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.
I’m so annoyed by the princess-seaming and that whole silhouette. But what really got my attention is this pic:
She is wearing a whole damn pheasant on her head, isn’t she? Just … wow.
Hopefully it’s fake! So much in this flick is ;)
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!
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Just here to remark on very beautiful Joan Collins was.
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?