Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon: My Analysis of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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I would like to begin by thanking the two gracious hosts of this wonderful blogathon, Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birthday of such an iconic actress, and it’s easy to see that both of you worked very hard to make this possible! I’m incredibly honored to participate in this blogathon, I wish Olivia an incredibly happy hundredth birthday, and without further ado, on with the post!

After the resounding success of Gone With the Wind, our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland had hoped that Warner Brothers head Jack Warner would recognize her star potential and offer her more prominent and challenging roles. However, realizing that he could have a diva in the making he decided to try putting her in her place and giving her the thankless role of Penelope Gray, Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, presenting her with a measly third billing below the title and the names of stars Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Despite the fact that Olivia was hardly present during the entirety of the film, it allowed her to be paired with some of her most frequent costars and collaborators. It marked her sixth of nine films with love interest Errol Flynn, her second of four films with Bette Davis, and her eighth of eleven films with director Michael Curtiz.

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Theatrical poster for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Notice de Havilland’s paltry billing below the title.

Interestingly, the artists involved with the film faced off almost as much as the characters did. This was Flynn’s sixth collaboration with Curtiz, and it appeared that his dislike for the director grew more intense with each passing film that they made together. To make matters worse, Bette Davis had initially campaigned for Laurence Olivier to be cast opposite her, and felt that Flynn was unfit to speak the blank verse of period pieces like The Private Lives. Her distaste for him climaxed when they were rehearsing a scene in which Elizabeth slaps Essex hard across the face, and Davis decided to slap him for real. Errol took the blow but vowed to retaliate if Bette chose to slap him again once the cameras started rolling. Luckily the take that was used in the film was an artificial slap, but it wasn’t until decades later that her opinion changed of his performance. While watching the film with costar Olivia, she exclaimed, “I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Flynn was brilliant!”. Just like Errol Flynn, it took decades for Bette Davis to change her opinion of Olivia de Havilland as well. Olivia had been a fan of Bette’s long before she first starred with her in It’s Love I’m After, but she was later quoted saying, “We had to make three pictures together for her to warm up to me.” while Bette replied, “I was probably jealous of you, you were so damn good looking.”. The two remained close friends until Davis’ death in 1981.

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Our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland looking as lovely and regal as ever as Lady Penelope Gray in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

The first thing that I noticed as I watched the film was how astoundingly beautiful both the cinematography and Technicolor were. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex truly looks like a storybook in every sense of the word from the ornate costumes designed by Orry-Kelly to the obviously artifical foliage seen in the sets. De Havilland looks more like a Disney princess than a lady-in-waiting, while Davis looks surprisingly accurate as Queen Elizabeth II, and it is said that Davis herself took drastic steps to make the look possible, including shaving her eyebrows and two inches off of her hairline in order to achieve the illusion of baldness underneath her lavish wigs. She later mentioned that her eyebrows never grew back correctly, and that she had to use an eyebrow pencil to fill them in afterwards.

The story itself, based on the 1930 play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson, was obviously a poor depiction of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, Flynn’s character was a cousin to Queen Elizabeth in reality, and many other aspects of the film appear to be fabricated. The film is entertaining in parts nonetheless, yet incredibly frustrating as both of the main characters are intensely opinionated and fight like cats and dogs the entire time, which leads to their relationship’s ultimate demise. Both Flynn and Davis seemed to portray themselves in the picture, which unfortunately only added to its inaccuracies. The only actor in the film who gave a truly unique performance was Olivia de Havilland, portraying a madly jealous and infatuated Penelope Gray who had the audacity to butt heads with and sabotage her queen at every turn.

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Frequent costars Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

Despite how obviously immature her character seemed to be in her love for Essex, I still rooted for de Havilland to end up with Flynn in the end (but don’t we all?). I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for her character to appear only to be let down as I sat through what seemed to be an hour and forty minutes of the Bette Davis show. Still, there were a couple of other supporting performances worthy of a mention, like Vincent Price and Nanette Fabray, both of whom I was delighted to see in practically cameo appearances. All in all, the film is a magnificent spectacle visually with a borderline fictional story that somehow managed to keep my attention, but if you’re looking to watch an Olivia de Havilland film on her hundredth birthday, I would recommend that you look elsewhere as she is practically nowhere to be seen.

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7 thoughts on “Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon: My Analysis of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

  1. Was going through the list of participants and was checking blogs to see if posts were up and came across yours! I apologize I didn’t see it sooner! I will add it to today’s wrap-up post.

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      1. I was JUST thinking today that Olivia should have voiced one of the Disney princesses. Love the quote about why Bette was jealous lol. I too wanted Olivia and Flynn to end up together. They’re both so gorgeous in this film!!

        So glad you could participate!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, I’m sorry for commenting here, but this was the only place I found where I can let you know that I nominated your for a Liebster Award! I hope you’ll have time to participate! Here’s the link to the questions you’ll have to answer 🙂
    https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com/2016/06/25/my-second-liebster-award-is-also-here/
    I’m so happy you’re going to participate in the Agatha Christie Blogathon, I think you chose a marvelous movie!

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  3. Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon with such a great post. I’ll add it to the recaps on my blog.

    I would also love to invite you to participate in my next two blogathons. Here are the link below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/announcing-the-joan-crawford-blogathon/

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/announcing-the-second-annual-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

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