Saturday, February 18, 2006

BACKSTAGE INTRIGUES


THE PRIVATE LIVES OF BETTE & ERROL

By 1939 both Bette Davis and Errol Flynn stars had ascended the upper echelons of the cinema firmament. Where only a few short years before neither would have anticipated such heights in professional success, each was now a qualified box office draw and a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. It therefore seemed preordained that these two rising titans would be teamed in one of the most anticipated and lavish spectacles to be brought to the big screen; The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex.

Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play “Elizabeth, the Queen,” the title presented a quandary in billing in that it totally eclipsed Flynn’s character, Sir Robert Devereux. And although Davis campaigned hard to keep the title in tact, it was mutually – if reluctantly - decided upon that the working title of the film would make reference to both characters. After briefly toying with the working title of “The Knight & the Lady,” the final decision on the more lengthy The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex was approved by all and the project began in earnest.

Previously, Flynn had costarred with Davis in The Sisters (1938). It had not been a happy experience. For Davis, possessed no subterfuge when it came to expressing her likes and dislikes on the set – and she emphatically disliked Errol Flynn, whom she considered a ‘pretty boy’ with talents substandard to her own. To be certain, Flynn never took himself seriously – though he did pay – if not concerted – then at least some attention to his prowess as an actor. It is precisely this ‘devil-may-care’ quality that made his acting seem effortless.

But to Davis’s maniacal perfectionism, Flynn appeared unprofessional, aloof and quietly noncommittal. For example; in preparation as Queen Elizabeth, Davis shaved her own hairline back and donned several, decidedly unflattering, red wigs to assimilate herself into the role. A more vane actress might have merely chosen to wear a flesh-colored skull cap under the same set of circumstances.

On Elizabeth & Essex’ Davis repeatedly urged Jack Warner to cast her idol, Laurence Olivier instead. Warner, whom both Davis and Flynn were under contract to, was accustomed to having in his own way in most things. But Warner’s iron-fisted approach to making movies had already been tested in 1939 with an outright rejection from independent producer, David O. Selznick to have both Flynn and Davis costar in Selznick’s pending production of Gone With The Wind. Although, on this project Warner would be forced, on more than one occasion, to acquiesce to the demands of his female star – he was nevertheless resilient to casting Flynn opposite Davis from the start.

To this end – and perhaps as sour grapes and sibling rivalry at having lost out on the Selznick deal - Warner mounted one of its most sumptuous and lavish spectacles with ‘Elizabeth & Essex’ – sparing no expense on costumes by Orry-Kelly and several mammoth sets. Both the sets and costumes would appear – almost verbatim (although in B&W) – in another Flynn epic, Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk the following year. If not in running time, then at least in scope, ‘Elizabeth & Essex would rival the opulence of Gone With The Wind with its magnificent Technicolor photography. It was the beginning of a battle royale that would have director, Michael Curtiz ruing the day he decided to tackle the project.

The cast was rounded out by the stellar contract players – including long time Flynn costar – Olivia de Havilland (as Lady Penelope), Nannette Fabray (billed as Fabares in the credits, as Mistress Margaret), Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh) and the immaculate, Donald Crisp (Francis Bacon). Of particular note is de Havilland’s bit part. It was deemed as punishment for the actress having had the impertinence to cajole Jack Warner’s wife into convincing her husband that she should play Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. Warner had flat out refused de Havilland’s personal pleas to appear in Selznick’s film. He had even forbidden her from partaking in a screen test – which de Havilland nevertheless completed in secret at Selznick’s request.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex commenced at a gruelingly slow pace. Throughout the shoot, costars were amazed at the level of mutual disdain brewing between Davis and Flynn. Nanette Fabray recalls how, after each take, the actors would immediately turn their backs to one another and disappear quietly into their own corners of the set without so much as a word. Possibly Flynn harbored the same animosities towards Davis, though perhaps he merely desired to temper her vane dislike by simply removing himself from the equation whenever possible.

However, during one particular scene it became quite obvious to all that Flynn’s own level of tolerance had been pushed to its limit. Robert Devereux has just returned from a successful campaign in Spain that nevertheless has met with the queen’s disapproval on all fronts. Called to court to explain why no Spanish treasures were seized during his siege, Elizabeth’s humiliation of Devereux is predicated more on the fact that she is passionately in love with him but cannot outwardly show her affections by affording him the luxury of personal accolades.

After stripping Devereux of his rank, the discarded warrior turns to leave court without being dismissed. “Sir Robert,” the queen declares, enraged and approaching, “You dare turn your back on Elizabeth…you dare?!?” She slaps him in the face – more the puzzled affectation of a woman scorned than a queen.

Under normal circumstances, slaps are usually rehearsed and faked with only a light touch and sound effect added in post-sync. But Davis, perhaps out of spite for having to ‘endure’ Flynn rather than Olivier as her costar, hauled off and belted Flynn across his cheek with her hand, atop which was perched a jewel-encrusted ring. Both the ring and fist left welts across the actor’s cheek.

In the scene as it remains in the film, Flynn is understandably shaken, surprised and almost immediately angered by Davis’ assault. Yet he manages to deliver his final verbal blow to her with equal scarring aplomb, “I would not have accepted that from your father, the king. Much less will I accept it from a king in petticoats!”

Despite these mutual animosities that continued as a daily occurrence on the set, both actors were turning in the performances of their respective careers. Oddly enough, none of their spiteful backstage intrigues seemed to have found their way into the love scenes as they unfolded for all to see during daily rushes. Indeed, in viewing the film from the vantage of nearly seventy years removed, there is a longing, pining and distinct chemistry between Elizabeth and Robert that is so natural, vibrant and stimulating that it seems grossly impossible to even imagine the two actors barely able to stand one another between camera setups.

However, Davis frequently complained of Flynn throughout the shoot – both to the other actors and particularly to Jack Warner. On several occasions it is rumored that the iron mogul himself, in anticipation of being brow-beaten by Davis, took to hiding in his private Men’s room.

And although there was no love lost between Davis and Flynn for many years afterward, an interesting postscript follows. In the mid-1960s, Olivia de Havilland, who had remained Davis’ friend throughout the years, was summoned by Davis to Warner Brothers to screen one of her old films. The film Davis chose for their viewing was The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Upon the final fade out, Davis reportedly turned to de Havilland as said, “My God, he’s marvelous. I was wrong, so very wrong, about him all this time.” The compliment came too late. Flynn had died of a heart attack in 1959.

Flynn, as always, cut a dashing figure in tights. As Sir Robert however, his performance was enriched, perhaps by these conflicts endured backstage, or perhaps simply through a maturity in his craft – to a level that few of his subsequent endeavors would either reach or top.

When it was all said and done the film proved to be one a thrilling good show. Buttressed by a pronounced and melodic score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and under the masterful direction of Michael Curtis, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex was an unqualified success. That, it emerged as only a modest triumphant at the box office seems to attest more to the fact that 1939 was a zenith year for entertainment. In the shadow of Gone With The Wind all other films understandably paled by comparison.

However, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex did not cheat its audience of a good time. Rather, in its talky excess and idiosyncratic charm of watching Davis and Flynn stake one another like a pair of hungry leopards, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex delivered the sort of melodramatic spectacle that continues to find its audiences engaged, if for no other reason than to see these two titans at the top of their game, and, in blazing Technicolor.

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).