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?