[box cover]

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Amiable nonsense with little historical credence, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) features a one-note performance from a heavily made-up Bette Davis and an unusually passionate Errol Flynn as, respectively, Queen Elizabeth I and the aristocrat Robert Devereux (1566-1601), the second Earl of Essex. Based on the middlebrow claptrap of Maxwell Anderson's play Elizabeth the Queen, the film fantasizes a long-unconsummated love between the Queen and Essex, who beat the threatening Spaniards at Cadiz in 1596 only to return to find himself spurned by the Queen in a manner that doesn't make much sense as presented but is convenient for the plot. Essex later brokers an end to an Irish uprising, which further riles the queen, who has him beheaded in 1601 after a failed coup. The Queen herself died two years after his ceremonial decapitation, which fits into Anderson's retrograde notions of historical romance. Elizabeth and Essex has none of the darkly Godfatherian intrigues of 1998's Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Rather, this is a colorful, brightly lit spectacle (shot by Sol Polito) that takes a courtier's posture toward royalty. Further fealty was paid to the film via five Academy Award nominations, though it won none. Essentially, the picture is big screen make-work, helmed by Warner bedrock director Michael Curtiz with no distinction. A succession of character actors in underwritten parts — including Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Alan Hale, Vincent Price (as Sir Walter Raleigh), and William Daniell — pass momentarily before the camera to exhale their lines before being swept aside in favor of long, dull, engineless duologues between Davis and Flynn, Davis and Olivia de Havilland, and Flynn and de Havilland.

*          *          *

Warner's single-sided, dual-layered disc of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex comes in a deceptively vibrant transfer (1.33:1) that turns shockingly poor in its middle third — soft, out of focus, and eventually even with ghost lines — before reverting back to merely adequate for its final act. Audio is monaural Dolby Digital in English and French, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Supplements directly related to Elizabeth and Essex are twofold. First, there is a grainy, scratchy, black-and-white trailer for the film (3:25), and then a retrospective "making-of" entitled (ungrammatically) "Elizabeth and Essex Battle Royale" (10 min.), in which a series of talking heads voice anecdotes of dubious provenance that have been handed down from one generation of starry-eyed fan-magazine-level film geeks to another. Among the speakers are academic Lincoln D. Hurst, writer Rudy Behlmer, journalist Bob Thomas, and conductor John Mauceri, who talks about Erich Wolfgang Korngold's bombastic music. Only supporting actress Nanette Fabray, a surviving cast member who was actually there, has much credence when she talks about the feud between Davis and Flynn. There is more, however. In an effort to recreate a typical 1939 night at the movies, Warner Home Video has added to the disc a panoply of additional features not directly related to the film itself. These selections kick off with a black-and-white trailer for another Davis showpiece, Dark Victory (3 min.), followed by a Movietone newsreel (2 min.) that reports on the conquest of Denmark by the Germans and new linen summer fashions, then by "The Royal Rodeo" (14 min.), a color short in which some singing cowboys led by John Payne visit a vaguely alpine palace to entertain a fussy child king in an SS captain's cap and foil a coup. Finally there is the color cartoon "Old Glory" (9 min.), Chuck Jones's rare serious Merrie Melody in which Porky Pig receives a lesson in patriotism from Uncle Sam. The Johnny Quest-level realism of the human characters was achieved through rotoscoping. The whole array is introduced by a giddy Leonard Maltin (4 min.), but there is no "play all" function. As in keeping with Warner's vintage collections, the box cover is a reproduction of one of the film's original posters. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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