Olivia de Havilland in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”

02 Jul

Watching the man she aims to get

Olivia de Havilland is a jealous schemer in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. She’s jealous of Queen Elizabeth and scheming for Lord Essex. Since Bette Davis plays Elizabeth and Errol Flynn plays Essex, you could see how such a thing might come about.

After appearing in Gone With the Wind, de Havilland returned to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner had the idea that her success would go to her head and promptly put her in a tiny role in a film that is a showcase for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.

She was, needless to say, not a happy woman when she made The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. However, she bided her time and in 1944 won her lawsuit against Warner Bros. which ended the studio practice of considering the time an actor was not working as time their contract was not in effect. Previously, an actor’s contract could extend beyond the stated length of time, because they had not provided service during their off days. When she won her lawsuit, she was free from her contract with Warner Bros.

But considering that she asked for Ann Sheridan’s role in Dodge City (it was an even smaller role than this one) because she was tired of playing the heroine, perhaps she enjoyed  playing Lady Penelope Grey in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, at least a little. She loves Essex, but he belongs heart and soul to his queen. Lady Penelope is jealous of Bette Elizabeth, she is in cahoots with Essex’s enemies and she does everything she can to show up the queen as an old hag and herself as young and beautiful. Unfortunately, her machinations result in Essex losing his head, but it’s not really her fault. He was the ambition one who wanted the throne, even if he did love his queen. But Lady Penelope is still full of contrition.

She actually only has one scene with Errol Flynn. Most of her scenes are with Bette Davis. Because her role is so small, I couldn’t help wishing we could have seen more of her in coquettish and scheming mode. She is quite bold in how she takes on the queen, even singing a rather pointed song about the sad love of an older woman for a younger man (okay, so it’s probably not really her singing).

playing chess with the queen and conteplating taking the knight

playing chess with the queen and contemplating taking her knight

I’ve always thought that though Olivia de Havilland is known for playing sweet roles (think Melanie from Gone With the Wind), it was part of her persona and that there was always a savvy person with an iron will at work just underneath the persona (which isn’t to say the sweetness wasn’t genuine, either). Even when she plays airhead heiresses in films like It’s Love I’m After, I still feel like she’s far more intelligent than her actual role. The script rarely calls on her to do anything terribly drastic, but I always imagine that if the need arose, she could stab someone with a knife or double cross them without batting an eye.

I love Love Letters to Old Hollywood‘s description of Olivia de Havilland as a “swashbuckler at heart” in her role as Maid Marion. The script may not have required her to be active in the way modern heroines are, but you just know she would have had the backbone to do so if the occasion called for it.

Perhaps another description of her can be also borrowed from Helena Bonham Carter. I was once listening to her talk about how she approached the character of Elizabeth (the current Queen Elizabeth’s mother) in The King’s Speech. She said when she read the following description – that Elizabeth was a “marshmallow made by a welding machine – soft and yet hard underneath” – her approach to the character came together. That is how I see Olivia de Havilland, too. Apparently soft, but also with a spine of steel.

That’s why I believe she makes such a great Melanie. Anyone else might have been too much marshmallow, but she has enough inner strength to keep the character from dissolving into sweetness. As my grandmother pointed out to me, it was Melanie who was the glue that kept everyone together. As soon as she died, the glue was gone and everyone dispersed.

Admittedly, the role of Lady Penelope is a small one, but it does provide a fascinating peek into a different kind of role Olivia de Havilland could have pursued if she had ever wanted to. Scheming, resentful, jealous, coquettish, rebellious. It’s rather fun!

This post is part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon. My huge thanks to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and  Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting! For more posts celebrating Olivia de Havilland, click here.

Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland!



Posted by on July 2, 2016 in Movies


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25 responses to “Olivia de Havilland in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    July 2, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Much food for thought in your comments. I like your mother’s opinion of Melanie. It is spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 2, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Thanks! I used to take Melanie for granted, but my grandmother’s comment really changed how I viewed her character.


  2. Judy

    July 2, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Must admit I’d forgotten de Havilland was in this – I need to watch it again and focus on her character rather than just the more spectacular performances by the two leads. I can certainly understand that she was fuming at the studio over this. Also enjoyed your thoughts on Melanie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 2, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      I had forgotten she was in it, too! I put the movie on and then remembered she was in it. Bette Davis and Errol Flynn do really pull out the stops, don’t they!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michaela

    July 2, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out! I saw this film a few years ago and I remember skipping class because I was so riveted by Bette and Errol that I didn’t want to pause it for later (okay, I also didn’t want to go to class). I was disappointed by Olivia’s character — it was a small part, yes, but the role’s pettiness and selfishness drove me crazy. I’m all for schemers and whatnot, but as you said, the script didn’t even delve into her actions that much, so it was hard to appreciate the character. Her semi-villainy was more annoying than awe-inspiring, if that makes sense. Like, Lana Turner in The Three Musketeers made my jaw drop at one point; Lady Penelope only has me roll my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 2, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      Yes, I know what you mean – her character is woefully underdeveloped! It might have been fun if she could have been a bit more villainous, though perhaps that would have skewed the movie, which is really about Elizabeth and Essex and the hopelessness of their romance. Bette Davis and Errol Flynn are marvelous together!

      And then the script backs off by making de Havilland’s character sorry at the end, which rather diluted everything that came before, though I might not have noticed if Olivia de Havilland hadn’t been in the role. 🙂


  4. Simoa

    July 3, 2016 at 11:49 am

    That’s such a brilliant point about Melanie. Things do fall apart once she’s gone. And I totally agree with you Olivia was steely and sweet in equal measure. Can’t wait to check this one out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 3, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      It’s truly a showcase for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn – Olivia de Havilland kind of comes and goes in brief flashes – but it is a really interesting film! And fascinating to see her in a slightly different role. I hope you get a chance to see it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Silver Screenings

    July 4, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    I wish Olivia had more screen time in this film, but she did make the most of what she had. (I think it’s rather rich that Jack Warner – of all people – would think that success would go to Olivia’s head.) Like you said, it would have been interesting if she’d had more roles like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 4, 2016 at 8:51 pm

      Yes, it might have been quite intriguing to make the story more of a love triangle, though I suppose that might have taken away from the central romance the movie was trying to tell… but it would still have been fun!

      So true…Jack Warner does seem to have lacked a sense of irony…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    July 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I have only seen this film once, but I do need to see it again. Great post.

    I also invite you to check out my article for the blogathon

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 5, 2016 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks so much for hosting! It’s has been delightful to participate and read everyone’s contributions.


  7. Eric Binford

    July 5, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    De Havilliand was known for being ruthlessly ambitious, something at odds with her image. Even sister Joan Fontaine was afraid of her! She was also known for her easy-going attitude. I think her binary personality is used to great advantage in The Dark Mirror (she plays twins, one good, one bad) and The Heiress (she is mousy during the first half, cold and heartless during the second half). She has much more range than she gets credit for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 5, 2016 at 8:24 pm

      Yes, I definitely agree! When I hear her described as “sweet,” it seems to shortchange her abilities so much. Even roles where she’s supposed to be the “good” one (like In This Our life) you still see these flashes in her eyes that indicates she’s not just sweet pushover.

      “Binary personality” is a great way to describe her seemingly at-odds personality! I sometimes wished she had played even more villains. She’s the kind of person I could imagine doing something dreadful to someone (like killing them) while all the while smiling sweetly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        July 5, 2016 at 9:32 pm

        I’ve read that she didn’t like to play unsympathetic characters. Too bad because, as you said, she was very good. I love her in My Cousin Rachel because she plays a woman who may or may not be a cold killer. She plays it right in the middle so you are never sure about her. It’s a fine, fine example of her ability to suggest sourness underneath the sugar — like lemon inside a sweet pastry! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          July 6, 2016 at 9:12 am

          Yes, you make a great point! No one plays such an ambiguous, “is she good, is she evil?” kind of character better than she does. She really is unique how she makes both possibilities seem plausible.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Phyl

    July 5, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Both Olivia and Errol are so gorgeous in this film you really wish it went differently. The thing I noticed most in this film was Davis’s fidgeting. It was really distracting! I did wonder why Olivia’s role was so small…

    Thanks so much for contributing to the Blogathon! I hope your Princess O’Rourke dvd comes soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 5, 2016 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you so much for hosting! It was delightful (and thank you for your kind wishes about the DVD – I’m looking forward to seeing it)!

      Yes, she is rather fidgety! It kind of made me think of a person imprisoned in her own palace, so to speak (like a caged lion), like she had so much energy and she couldn’t release it and was longing to get out and be more active, but was made powerless by being queen.

      It would have been fun if Olivia de Havilland had a bigger role – love triangle, maybe!


  9. Joe Thompson

    July 5, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Stanislavski said “There are no small parts, only small actors.” It was nice to see Olivia De Havilland take what could have been a throw-away part and build it up into something important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 5, 2016 at 8:31 pm

      Yes, that’s a good point! I don’t think we would really have remembered the role at all if she hadn’t been in it.


  10. July 6, 2016 at 7:56 am

    I also loved the description: externally soft, but very strong in the interior – it suits Olivia perfectly. I also wish she had more screen time in this movie, but at least when she appears she is really gorgeous – her dresses are marvelous!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 6, 2016 at 9:27 am

      Thanks so much! Her dresses are stunning! The more I think about it, the more the idea of a love triangle sounds fun, as frustrating as those can sometimes be. But to see Bette Davis and Olivia de Hailland square off would have been worth it! 🙂


  11. hamlettethedame

    July 6, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I completely agree — her characters generally seem to me to be very strong, although often with a layer of kindness and gentleness that other characters don’t see through. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 6, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      Thank you! That’s a wonderful point – so seldom do other characters see through her sweetness. It really makes her an interesting performer.



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