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).
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.