The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Classic Movie Review 101

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I would not have taken that from your father the King; much less will I take it from a king in petticoats!


Today’s movie is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). This film was directed by Michael Curtiz. It features another pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Today’s movie is a highly-fictionalized version of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex.

I love the sword and cape movies. Errol Flynn is so chevalier and carefree. He is the perfect rouge. Bette Davis was really knurled up with make-up to take on the unflattering look of Queen Elizabeth. Her acting was very precise. Olivia de Havilland had a very minor role in this film but its a veritable who’s who of English male actors.
So on to the cast.


The great Errol Flynn played the Earl of Essex. Flynn was first covered in Episode 75 – Captain Blood (1935).

Olivia de Havilland played the role of Lady Penelope Gray. De Havilland was covered in Episode 75 – Captain Blood (1935).

Alan Hale played Earl of Tyrone. Hale was covered in Episode 80 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Vincent Price played Sir Walter Raleigh. Price was covered in Episode 45 – The Last Man on Earth (1964).

The illustrious actress Bette Davis played Queen Elizabeth. Bette Davis was born in 1908 in Massachusetts. Planning from an early age to be a dancer, Davis was bitten by the acting bug. After high school, she enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School. Davis’ Broadway debut was in 1929.

Her first film role was Way Back Home (1931) for Universal. However, this film and the next did not impress the studio. In 1932, she signed a seven-year deal with Warner Bros. She did much better with this studio and was showing her star power by the time she made The Man Who Played God (1932). Davis was also noted for her role in Of Human Bondage (1934) but it took until the film Dangerous (1935) before she won her first Oscar.

In 1936, she refused a role and was suspended without pay. This resulted in a lawsuit, which Davis lost. Maybe as a result of the lawsuit she started getting better roles such as Jezebel (1938). Warner’s would not loan her out for the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (1939) unless they took Errol Flynn as Rhett.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Davis’ roles wound down through the 1940s but she jumped back up with All About Eve (1950) for which she received an Oscar nomination. By the end of the 1950s her career had tapered off again. In 1961, she placed, what is a now famous, Job Wanted ad in Hollywood trade papers.

Davis received another Oscar nomination playing a crazy former child star in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Davis had another big hit, it was Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

Davis suffered a stroke in the early 1980s. She passed away in 1989 from breast cancer.

Donald Crisp played the role of Sir Francis Bacon. Crisp was born in England in 1882. As a young man, he served in the Boer War with the 10th Hussars and later completed his education at the University of Oxford.

Crisp traveled to America in 1906 by ship. On board, his singing talents landed him a job with an opera company. He toured the US with the opera company and became interested in theater. By 1910, Crisp was working for entertainer George M. Cohan. It was during this time that he met legendary director D.W. Griffith. Crisp followed Griffith west in 1912.

During the early years in California, Crisp directed dozens of films and was in over 100 silent film roles. He played the role of Gen. U.S. Grant in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Crips returned to England to serve in World War I (1914-1918). After the war, he returned to directing in the US. Some of his best known directorial work includes Buster Keaton in The Navigator (1924), Douglas Fairbanks in Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), and The Runaway Bride (1930).

Crisp made his mark on the talkies 1930s and 1940s, although he again took time off to serve in World War II (1939-1945), this time with the US Army Reserve. Movies during this period include working with Katharine Hepburn in The Little Minister (1934) and A Woman Rebels (1936), with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in That Certain Woman (1937), with Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), with the great Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940) and with Gregory Peck in The Valley of Decision (1945).

Crisp in best known as the father from How Green Was My Valley (1941). Crisp won the best supporting actor Oscar in the John Ford directed film. However, my favorite of his is in the Martin Maher, Sr. in The Long Gray Line (1955) with Tyrone Powers and Maureen O’Hara.

Crisp continued to act and was a major influence in getting movies financed. His last movie was Spencer’s Mountain (1963). Crips died in 1974 at the age of 91.

Nanette Fabray has a small role as Mistress Margaret Radcliffe. Born in 1920, Nanette became a singing and dancing child vaudevillian. During her 20s, she began doing musical comedies. She tried film but never really made it big. Her most notable film role was in The Band Wagon (1953) where she was again singing and dancing.

In the 1950s, she turned to television and did very well. She replaced Imogene Coca on the “Caesar’s Hour” 1954-1957. She had her own sitcom, “Westinghouse Playhouse” in 1961. She continued to work on television and on stage. Her most recent stage work was in 2007.


In 1596, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, returns to London after a victory over the Spanish at Cadiz. The true cockiness of Errol Flynn comes through in his portrayal of Robert. As Robert rides through the streets, Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland), Mistress Margaret Radcliffe (Nanette Fabray), and the other ladies of court look on. On another balcony, the lords of the court are look down with disdain and jealousy.

In chambers, Sir Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) counsels Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) about her dealings with the Earl of Essex. Robert enters the throne followed by the royal lords including Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price). The Queen busts his chops about not returning with the Spanish treasure fleet to England. Robert tells her as a man he expected a different greeting. The Queen calls Raleigh forward and makes him commander of the guard. She promotes another man as commander of the military. He again appeals to her love and she says she has nothing for him. When he starts to storm out the Queen slaps him. Robert calls her a king in petticoats.

After some time, Robert sends her a letter telling her to take a flying leap. His letter borders on treason. She is also crazy in love with Robert. Bacon goes to see Robert and tries to convince him to take the right path. Robert admits that he loves the Queen as well.

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Elizabeth is back with her ladies in waiting and she is in a snit. Lady Gray has a rap battle with another lady and insults the queen with her lyrics. The Queen ends up breaking all of the mirrors and throwing everyone out. Mistress Radcliffe asks about her boyfriend in Ireland. They Queen says she will have him recalled. The Queen calls in Bacon and ask why Robert has not returned to court. She wants to orders him back, but needs to lure him to return. As she looks for a way to get Robert back, a messenger from the front in Ireland comes in to report that the English Army has been destroyed and Radcliffe’s boyfriend is dead.

She decides that Robert will be recalled to help with the Irish problem. When Robert hears of the defeat in Ireland he returns to court. Raleigh has a new suit of silver armor given to him by the Queen. Robert mocks him and gives the same thing to queens guard. He now has a true enemy.

Lady Gray intercepts Robert and tells him that the Queen plans on taking revenge against him. Then kisses him and is overseen by the Queen. Robert and the Queen get a little kissy face. It then turns into a verbal sword fight, but Essex/Flynn laughs his way out of it. They get back to the kissy face.

At the next privy council the Lords manipulate Robert into leading the fight in Ireland even though the Queen had warned him not to get involved. The Queen is pissed. The Queen gives him a ring that can be used to gain the Queen’s forgiveness.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

In Ireland Robert feels he has been abandoned by the Queen as his fight the local Irish in a series of losing battles. It seems that Cecil and Raleigh have tricked Lady Gray into intercepting the message between Robert and the Queen. Robert is ordered back to London but decides to attack the Irish. With no messages from Robert the Queen has lost faith in him.

Rashly rushing forward, Robert’s army is performing poorly in the swamp. A peace commission comes from Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) but winds up forces him to surrender. Robert is convinced he lost because the Queen failed to support him.

Robert lands back in England and leads his army against the Queen. Raleigh secretly orders troops out to fight Robert’s army. The Queen refuses to defend the castle. Robert makes it in with his armed men to see the Queen. Robert tells her he wrote letters and did not receive any in return. She clears the room except for her and Robert. They work it all out and are about to get back on track when the Queen asks Robert to stand behind her throne. However, he wants to be King. She says she would not trust him as the King. She says he can take the throne but he will not have her. She agrees to share the throne if he will disband his army.

When he disbands his army, she has him arrested and taken to the tower. While Robert rots in the tower the queen waits for him to send the ring. She cannot understand why he has not done so. Lady Gray tells about the letters and begs for Robert’s life. Robert’s pride won’t let him send the ring.

While a mob is outside the tower protesting the execution, the Queen orders Robert brought to her. Robert comes into the Queen’s room through a secret stairway in the floor. Dracula would have been proud. She asks when he never sent the ring. He said it would have broken his heart if he sent the ring and she refused her promise. He says he would try to be King again and she says she loves England more than she loves him. So he goes to his death and she rules on.
Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Boleyn was executed 2 ½ years after Elizabeth was born. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was born in 1565, 22 years after Elizabeth. Robert’s great-grandmother was the sister of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth ruled from 1558 – 1603.

Robert received a Master’s of Arts from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1579. His father having died, his mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s long-standing court favorite. Essex first came to court in 1584. He quickly became a favorite of the Queen. He was awarded Master of the Horse in 1587 and when his step-father died he was given the former’s monopoly on sweet wine making him very wealthy.

Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Robert took part in a punitive expedition in 1589 against the Spanish led by Sir Francis Drake. In 1590, Robert married Frances Walsingham and had three children. He also had one child with his mistress, Elizabeth Southwell.

Still moving up politically, he was made part of the Privy Council in 1593. However, he openly clashed with the Queen. One time she slapped him and he partially drew his sword.

Robert later became popular when he captured Cadiz in 1596. With Walter Raleigh as second in command, Robert disobeyed the Queen and chased the Spanish treasure fleet leaving England exposed to attack by another Spanish fleet. Fortunately, a storm scattered the fleet. However, damage was done to the relationship between Robert and the Queen.

In 1599, Robert was sent by the Queen, with an Army of 16,000 men, to put down the Irish Rebellion AKA The Nine Years’ War (1595-1603). Robert got bogged down in a series of fights in the south of Ireland. Losing two important battles, Robert made a truce with the Irish commander. The Queen was pissed that Robert made the peace.

Robert returned to England against the Queens orders. He burst into her bedroom early one morning and soon found himself being investigated by the Privy Council. He was confined to York House. During this time, Raleigh and other worked to insure he would not regain his power.

Robert began conspiring with the Catholic King James VI of Scotland about overthrowing the Queen. Essex was tried and stripped of the sweet wine monopoly leaving him broke and back in confinement again.

Having no money, he was released from confinement. He gathered his loyal followers and fortified his home. On Feb. 8, 1600, his gang marched to London and tried to force an audience with the Queen. His group was forced back and Robert was captured shortly after.

Robert was found guilty of treason and became the last person executed in the Tower of London on Feb. 25, 1601. It is widely reported that it took three strokes of the axe to remove Robert’s head. The man swing the axe had been convicted of rape earlier and was pardoned by Robert on the condition that the become an executioner. No good deed…

The Essex Ring, that could free Robert is largely believed to be a myth as it was not written about until 1623.

World-Famous Short Summary – Couple has a little spat that leads to tragedy.

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Beware the moors

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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