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Michael Curtiz
Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland
Writing Credits:
Norman Reilly Raine, Aeneas MacKenzie

A depiction of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 106 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 5/18/2021

• “Warner Night at the Movies” Features
• “Battle Royale” Featurette
• Trailer


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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex [Blu-Ray] (1939)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 6, 2021)

“Golden Age” Hollywood stars don’t come much bigger than Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. They appeared together twice, with 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex as the second of these efforts.

Set in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth (Davis) sits on the throne of England, but she encounters a rival in the form of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Flynn). He returns home the charismatic victor in battle and he boasts aspirations to become king.

While Elizabeth fears this threat to her reign, she also falls in love with Essex. She combats her inner passions with her outer desire to remain queen as she works through this complicated relationship.

With Davis, Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in front of the camera and Michael Curtiz as director, Lives looks like a movie that should’ve garnered tons of Oscar attention. Indeed, it did snare five nominations.

However, these all came in technical categories, so Lives received no nods received no nods for acting, directing or Best Picture. What happened?

1939 happened. More than 80 years later, 1939 remains the go-to answer for many viewers’ choice as Hollywood’s single best year ever, so with all that competition, I guess Lives got lost in the shuffle.

Did the movie deserve greater recognition than it received? Not really, as beyond its star power, Lives lacks much to make it work.

Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play, Lives usually feels “stage bound”, as it concentrates on a few interior settings most of the time. Not that a movie can’t succeed in these locations, but Curtiz fails to bring the necessary energy to the material to overcome the limited number of areas we visit.

This means the movie largely relies on its characters for drama, but none of them become especially compelling. Davis gives Elizabeth the haughty grandeur she needs and reminds us why she became such a legend, but even so, she can’t turn the Queen into a particularly interesting role.

The screenplay just leaves Elizabeth without much substance beyond paranoia and insecurity. Davis does her best to distract us from these weaknesses, but she can’t correct the script’s concerns all on her own.

Flynn was more of a screen idol than a strong actor, so he falters when pitted against Davis. Flynn makes for a handsome Essex, of course, and if Lives focused on that character’s heroic side, he could turn in a capable performance.

Unfortunately, Lives requires Flynn to actually act, and he lacks the ability to flesh out the role as necessary. Perhaps if paired with a lesser foil, Flynn would seem fine, but against Davis, his weaknesses come to the fore.

The main issue here remains the thin nature of the tale and characters, though. Lives could – and should – become a compelling drama with a psychological bent – or at least a decent love story with complications. However, the film fails to find much substance across its narrative or roles, so it winds up as a disappointment.

The Disc Grades: Picture A/ Audio B/ Bonus B-

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became an excellent presentation, especially given the film’s age.

In terms of sharpness, the movie consistently demonstrated nice delineation. Nary a sliver of softness emerged, so the flick looked concise and accurate.

No issues with jagged edges or shimmering materialized, and no edge enhancement became apparent. Grain remained appropriate, and no specks, marks or other defects showed up at any time in this fresh presentation.

Colors were strong. Outside of white-faced Elizabeth, I thought flesh tones were a bit on the brown side, but that was a reflection of Technicolor. Otherwise, the hues tended to be vivid and full.

Blacks seemed deep and dense without too much heaviness. Shadow detail worked similarly well, as dimly-lit shots were appropriately clear and thick. I found nothing about which to complain here and thought the Blu-ray brought the movie to life in a terrific manner.

The DTS-HD MA monaural audio of Lives appeared fine for its era, and speech was more than adequate. The lines showed age-related thinness, but they were always perfectly intelligible and without edginess.

Effects became a minor aspect of the track, and they resembled the dialogue. Those elements lacked much depth but they were without notable problems.

Music was acceptable for its age, as the songs and score tended to be a bit tinny. There wasn’t much range to the music, but again, that stemmed from the limitations of the very old source. This became a perfectly solid mix for its vintage.

Under the banned of Warner Night At the Movies, we get a collection of extras that attempt to reflect the cinematic experience circa 1939. This means we find a newsreel (2:07), a musical short called The Royal Rodeo (14:28), a cartoon titled Old Glory (9:03) and a trailer for Dark Victory (3:10).

An intro from film historian Leonard Maltin explains the concept (4:23) and “Play All” lets us run these components in a batch. I always enjoyed the “Warner Night At the Movies” idea and it continues to be a fun addition to the disc.

In addition to the trailer for Lives, we also find Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale, a 10-minute, 36-second featurette. It includes comments from UC Davis Professor of Film Lincoln D. Hurst, film historian Rudy Behlmer, author Bob Thomas, composer John Mauceri, and actor Nanette Fabray.

“Royale” looks at the project’s path to the screen, cast and performances, music, and the film’s release. This never turns into an especially insightful program, but it gives us a decent overview.

Despite a typically dynamic performance from Bette Davis, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex never becomes much more than mediocre. It comes with potential positives but it seems too dull and superficial. The Blu-ray boasts stunning picture quality as well as relatively good audio and a decent array of bonus materials. Lives fails to hit the mark as a historical drama/romance.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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