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

Olivia

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!

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Posted by on July 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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It’s Love I’m After (1937) – Leslie Howard and Comedy

a6e52ee3b2918cf1797224a9fce87d1eI never like Leslie Howard so much as when he is doing comedy or adventure. Remembered today for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind and a man who did serious acting on the stage, he actually has a real flair for comedy and high spirits. He’s wonderful in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, and I just saw him in a screwball comedy called It’s Love I’m After, made in 1937 and directed by Archie L. Mayo.

Here he plays Basil Underwood, a ham actor, evidently adored by his female public, self-centered and always fighting with his costar and girlfriend, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis) and quoting from his various plays, usually Shakespeare. He and Joyce have been on the point of marriage so many times, but they always manage to have a fight right before actually going through with it.

And then Marcia West enters the picture (played by Olivia de Havilland). She has seen Basil perform and become completely infatuated with him. Her fiancé is the son of an old friend of Basil’s and asks him for a favor, that he come to Marcia’s family house for the weekend and behave like a boar so she’ll fall out of love with him. Basil has been feeling a little unworthy of Joyce and resolves that he will do this good deed and will come back to Joyce a better man. Of course, since he was on the point of marrying Joyce that night, she doesn’t exactly appreciate this gesture; which is what Basil’s extremely devoted gentleman’s gentleman, Digges, told him would happen (played hilariously by Eric Blore).

its-love-im-afterBut Basil goes down for the weekend and tries to repulse Marcia. However she is not easily repulsed and his plans always seem to work in reverse The fiancé is in despair, poor Digges is in despair, and Joyce comes down to the house and soon Basil is in despair.

In this film, Leslie Howard also has the opportunity to spoof his own performance of Romeo from the 1936 movie Romeo and Juliet that he did with Norma Shearers. At the beginning of It’s Love I’m After, he is doing the last scene of Shakespeare’s play, with Bette Davis’ Joyce playing Juliet. While Olivia de Havilland practically faints with romantic ardor in the balcony, Basil and Joyce try to undermine each other; he kisses her tenderly and complains under his breath about her own, garlic breath. She puts her hand over his face so the audience can’t see him and calls him a ham at one point, while he keeps stealing glances up at the balcony and the lovely ladies. During the applause, they fight behind the curtain about who gets to take the first bow.

Poster%20-%20It's%20Love%20I'm%20After_05Although Bette Davis and Leslie Howard would seem like something of an odd couple, they actually have a very good rapport together. This is the third movie that they did with each other, although it is the only comedy, which is a pity. Neither actor is known for their comedy (especially Davis), but watching them play up their characters as feuding, self-dramatizing, larger-than-life actors is a ball to see and the script serves them well.

Now, Olivia de Havilland was only two years into her movie career and Marcia West is also a bit of a different role for her, at least as far as I’ve seen. Her Marcia West is an airhead and she plays her with such frenetic breathlessness that it’s like she’s channeling Carole Lombard.

itsloveimafter2And finally, Eric Blore. I don’t think this film would have been nearly as good without Eric Blore, who enriches any film that he appears in. He was in multiple movies with Fred Astaire, like Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance, as well as other great comedies like The Lady Eve. He always seems to be the butler or the valet. In this film, he is the valet; so devoted to Basil that he says “we” rather than “you.” He is the one Basil unburdens his soul to, usually laced with some Shakespeare, and knows all of Basil’s plays, lines and offstage misdeeds. He is also determined to get Basil and Joyce together again and without him, poor Basil would probably be a very lost soul, indeed.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Screwball Comedy

 

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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

thAC9RWMRG1939 – Starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland – Directed by Michael Curtiz

Apparently, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn loathed working with each other. Nanette Fabray – who had a small part as a lady in waiting to Davis’ Elizabeth I – said that Flynn and Davis would play their parts and as soon as the director yelled cut, stalk off in opposite directions. When Davis’ character was called on to slap Flynn, she gave it everything she had; and when he was called on to slap her on the rear, he similarly gave it everything.

Davis and Flynn were both top stars at Warner Bros. The previous year Flynn made The Adventures of Robin Hood, the highest grossing film for Warner Bros. Bette Davis won an Oscar for her role in Jezebel and they both starred together in The Sisters (in case you were wondering, Flynn was not one of the sisters).

Davis considered herself a serious actress, not just a star, and she was quite outspoken regarding what she wanted or thought and she was not quiet about her contempt for Flynn, who she thought was a pretty face and not a real actor. Errol Flynn, on the other hand, had no particular pretensions to greatness and preferred a more easy going approach to making films.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX[1]But it all works, somehow, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. I don’t know why, exactly, but I enjoyed it a lot. The important thing is to be willing to go with it, no matter how slightly over-the-top it is, and let yourself get caught up in the central conflict and romance. Partially because of the presence of Errol Flynn, somehow it never entirely goes over the top. If Davis had had her way and they’d cast Laurence Olivier, I think the film could have potentially been too lugubrious.

The movie is about the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. He’s had some military victories and is more popular than the queen. All the women in the court seem to adore him and all the men mistrust him. But the queen is besotted and he genuinely returns her love, though with less intensity.

All they do when they meet is quarrel, but they love each other, despite her fear that she is much older than he is. The only real trouble is that he is ambitious. He wants to rule and she knows it.

And the scheming that goes on in that court regarding Essex is something else. Even Elizabeth schemes – to keep him out of trouble, to get him to come back to court after a quarrel. Everybody schemes except Essex. He’s too straightforward for his own good. But no one schemes better than Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon.

Annex%20-%20Flynn,%20Errol%20(Private%20Lives%20of%20Elizabeth%20and%20Essex,%20The)_04[1]The movie is quite a spectacle. It’s in glorious Technicolor, with extraordinary costumes, a dazzling collection of character actors…and the supreme Olivia de Havilland in an undeservingly small part, which she played so well that I wished I could have seen her more. De Havilland usually plays the good girl, but here she demonstrates, however briefly, that she can play a coquette and a schemer. I wish I could have seen her in more roles like that.

The film also offered Vincent Price an early, breakout role as Sir Walter Raleigh…who is no friend of Essex. Alan Hale is, for once, an enemy of Flynn’s, and Donald Crisp is magnificent as Essex’s friend who acts often as a go between for Essex and the queen and generally has his finger to the wind. Henry Daniel is also present, adding his snaky schemes to the mix for good measure.

The historical accuracy is, at best, atmospheric rather than accurate, more an excuse for a romance in heightened dramatic situations. Most of the characters are historical and there are many historical events wafting about in the background to lend the appropriate feel. There are references to Henry VIII and his many wives, the constant, nearly futile, struggle in Ireland and the deep fear of Spain.

It’s a curious combination: part Errol Flynn historical adventure (though the film is largely static in the manner of a play) and part Bette Davis melodrama: intensity and fun meet, in extraordinary, Technicolor costumes.

968full-the-private-lives-of-elizabeth-and-essex-screenshot[1]Notes: The movie was adapted from a play, “Elizabeth the Queen” by Maxwell Anderson. Because they were going to have Flynn in the film, the studio was going to call it “The Knight and the Lady” but Davis thought that was ridiculous since the movie was about Elizabeth, so they finally managed to get both actors in the title of the film with The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

Bette Davis loved realism. She was one of those actresses who, if she lived today, would shave off all her hair and go on a crash diet to look deathly ill. As Elizabeth, she was playing a woman thirty to forty years older than Davis was (she was around 30) and she shaved off several inches of her hair above her forehead so that it would look like she had no hair under her wig.

There is a lovely score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who also composed the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood and there are several Robin Hood deja vu musical moments. Even some of the sets look rather familiar.

Olivia de Havilland made eight movies with Errol Flynn and in two of them she didn’t get Flynn (for an enjoyable look at all eight movies they made together, check out the article “Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland” on Reel Classic). The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was the first movie she made after her triumph as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (she was nominated for best supporting actress, but lost to Hattie McDaniel). Jack Warner of Warner Bros, however, had the idea that actors should be kept in their place, which is why de Havilland wound up with such a small role. To all accounts, she responded graciously. She did, however, have her revenge by winning a groundbreaking lawsuit against Warner Bros in 1943 regarding her contract, that was significant in reducing the power of the studios.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2014 in Historical Drama

 

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