“He was just beautiful, Errol,” Bette Davis once remarked about Errol Flynn, her costar in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). “He himself openly said, ‘I don't know really anything about acting,’ and I admire his honesty, because he's absolutely right.”
Maxwell Anderson’s play Elizabeth the Queen opened on Broadway on November 3, 1930 with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt acting out the tempestuous relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Warner Bros. secured the movie rights to the costume drama and signed two of the studios top draws—Davis and Flynn—to play the leads.
Flynn wanted his character to be part of the title and suggested calling the picture something other than Elizabeth the Queen. Warner Bros. first came up with The Knight and the Lady, which Davis didn’t cotton to, then Elizabeth and Essex, which was a copyrighted book title and therefore jettisoned. And so, in the spirit of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), the film became The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
Photography began in June of 1939 and, true to many a Bette Davis film set, there was discord in the air, first between the strong-willed actress and director Michael Curtiz, then between Davis and Flynn, for whom she had little regard. She perceived the actor as having a limited range, a too-casual work ethic and, worst of all, he wasn’t Laurence Olivier, her personal choice for the role.
In his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn recounts in detail how a famous scene unfolded:
Bette Davis, at this time the greatest thing in movies, was starred opposite me. It was the Maxwell Anderson adaptation, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a great love story between Essex and, of course, the first Queen Elizabeth. I was playing the young Lord Essex, the love of the first Queen Elizabeth of England, and the queen’s part was played by Bette Davis. Essex had been younger than Elizabeth I of England, and Flynn was younger than Bette Davis of Warner Bros.
Now Bette was a dynamic creature, the great big star of the lot, but not physically my type; dominating everybody around, and especially me, or trying to. This drove me off. The normal reticence I feel with leading ladies was even exaggerated in this situation. Something else was annoying her very much: although she was crowned the queen of Hollywood as an actress, she heard I was getting more money than she, and she had been in the business much longer than I. Getting more dough than she earned might have grieved her some, because she was a far better actress than I could ever hope to be an actor—she was a three-time Academy Award winner (sic). It must have struck her as outrageous, I guess, because for one reason or another I had got out of Warner Bros. $6,000 a week, while she was still on about five.
Well, you combine this with an animosity or a hurt that comes from being turned down to an invitation for an after-work drink a couple of times, and you get a special atmosphere in which something might happen.
There is a time when Essex comes back from Ireland. The scene occurs on an enormous set, with about six hundred extras. When Essex returns, he walks an aisle the length of the set, which is the Court of England, and she is expecting him. She is fanning herself and she is angry. Why hasn’t Essex been to see her? But he has a point of view, too: Why hasn’t she sent him through Ireland? That is the reason why he has been militarily defeated. He is angry, too, though he is acclaimed by the public. She is furious, because he is stealing her thunder…
So I have this long walk, one of the longest dolly shots I know of in motion picture history, with these six hundred extras around, and I have to approach her and say, “Your Majesty…”
She replies something like, “Well, m’Lord Essex, what have you to say for yourself?”
The dialogue goes on, about like this: “I have much to say for myself—but little for you!”
At which time, in front of the whole Court of England, she is supposed to haul off and whack Essex right over the face, leading to another scene whereby he says, “Thank you, Madame, that is sufficient.”
This takes a lot of doing on the part of the lead actress. You have this mass of extras in costumes looking on, you have me, you have all the camera crew to worry about, the lights. These things take a tremendous amount of care and technical knowledge on the part of many technicians. The background, the set, the extras, the costumes, the air itself, all must be authentic.
Bette Davis, at a certain point, has to look exactly…she must move her head to look exactly like the original contemporary Elizabeth—and being the great actress Bette is, she does, too, she looks somewhat like Elizabeth—striking.
Another thing that contributed to what eventually happened was that Bette’s belly had to be pulled in with corsets, to give her the tiny Elizabethan waist, so the poor girl had to draw in her breath while they prepared her, with force applied here and there, and squeezed her inside the stays. This cannot put a girl in good humor, especially if she is at it from six A.M. to six P.M.
We had two portable dressing rooms, neither very large, although hers was much grander than mine. The bosses of Warners figured they would give her a most magnificent dressing room and fix it up with beautiful curtains, and everything else, and pay her less money than me. I personally didn’t care if I was on a park bench. Our adjoining rooms were on this vast set, one of the most expensive that the motion picture industry ever built: the Court of Elizabeth of England.
Now picture this…
I put on my armor, it is pretty heavy, and hearing a call to go onstage, I assume there is going to be a rehearsal. The camera is coming along, I know the dialogue, I know where I am supposed to meet Miss Davis, at the other end of the set—two hundred and fifty feet away—and I take this long walk. But when I arrive there, instead of seeing Bette Davis, I find a stand-in. That seems a bit discourteous, but then, she is a great actress, and I know besides she has the point of view she is the best in the world, and I am certainly anything but an actor: and I have been left to meet this stand-in when I arrive, armor and all, at the end of this long walk. Well, that is nothing much, I write this off as the business of picture-making.
I went through this long walk a couple more times, each time meeting the stand-in. I played the scene at the end of the walk and the camera movement was fine.
Finally, they called the first real rehearsal, and I must say, that as Bette assumed her place on the throne, dressed as Elizabeth, with great big square jewels on her hands, and on her wrists big heavy bracelets, she was living the part. She was Queen Elizabeth.
I started the walk down through the English court. The cameras were grinding, the extras were gazing at me or at the throne, and I reached the Queen, and then there was that dialogue I quoted…
Then of a sudden, I felt as if I had been hit by a railroad locomotive.
She had lifted one of her hands, heavy with those Elizabethan rings, and Joe Louis himself couldn’t give a right hook better than Bette hooked me with.
My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets, shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn’t knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with about a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf.
In front of all these people, I couldn’t say anything. Dazed, I was aware that Bette was playing the scene to the finish. I heard the director, Curtiz, say, “All right, boys and girls, we do it again.”
If your teeth have been rattled, and your head was ringing, and you felt deaf from the pound of costume jewelry hitting you as hard as a lady like Bette Davis can swing—why, I felt a horrible surge of anger that turned my stomach. I thought, My God, I have to go through this again! I must talk to her.
But what was I going to say to the great Miss Davis? Still, I made up my mind that I would present myself at her dressing room and ask if I could see her. It was a difficult thing to know how to do—she was such a big wheel—even though I was getting more money.
I intended being very polite. I would say, “Well, I don’t know about the camera, Miss Davis…”
When my ears stopped ringing and I got over this feeling of anger, I went and carefully knocked at her door.
“Who is it?” That voice she has, the same onstage and off.
“Bette, it’s me—Flynn—er, Errol.”
I open the door. She was in front of the mirror, but she didn’t turn around. She just looked into the mirror, dawdled at her make-up, with me behind her, cautiously, like a boy with cap in hand. She continued piddling with her make-up, powdering her face, not offering for me to sit down.
I started to speak. “Bette, I want to talk to you about something…”
She shut me up instantly. “Oh, I know perfectly well what you are going to say…” in a loud voice, “but if you can’t take a little slap, that is just too bad! That’s a pity!...I knew you were going to complain…I can’t do it any other way! If I have to pull punches, I can’t do this. That’s the kind of actress I am—and I stress actress! Let’s drop the subject…You’re ready, I hope…”
I hadn’t a chance to open my mouth.
She said, “Would you mind shutting the door?”
I did. I backed out. Having had that blow across the ear, having heard this, and seeing her in front of the mirror, you know what I did? I went back to my dressing room and threw up.
I had to think it over again, fast, because pretty soon there was going to be another rehearsal. I found a certain anger accumulating. I didn’t like it, so I went back again, and once more I knocked at the door.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, come in…” She said, “Well…” and she was still playing in front of the mirror, “what is your problem now?”
“I’d like to figure out this next rehearsal.”
“I have told you about the next rehearsal. It is the same as it is going to be in the scene. I cannot do it any other way!”
For the first time, she turned around and faced me. “I am telling you I cannot do it any other way!”
This was it.
“I will give you one more chance to try. Do—you—get—me? One—more—chance—to try. You are a great actress, I know it; so certainly you can learn not to hit me with the whole weight of your fist the next time—and if you can’t do it…well…let’s—leave—it—at—that!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
And I left.
I walked back to my dressing room and threw up for the second time; because I knew one thing for certain: that if she hit me again unnecessarily that way, that in front of all those extras there would be a noise such as this—Thump! Thump!
I knew this. That is why I threw up.
I thought, Oh my God, what a scandal this is going to be, but I am not going to be dominated this way. My life has been hard enough with one woman already, and if women are going to slap me around all the time—that little jaw will have my fist in it.
The second assistant came along and said, “All is ready, Mr. Flynn?”
This is the end of me, I’ll do what I propose to do, I’ll drop Bette Davis in the guise of Queen Elizabeth of England in front of that whole division of extras…Warners…the press…
It was one of the hardest things I had to decide. You talk about fear. I knew it then, because I knew I was going through with this. I knew I had to do it. If she hit me, and I knew she was going to, I would have to whack her and drop her—and I believed that if I did, after what I had just been through, I might break her jaw.
All right now…the long walk up that aisle, everybody is there, the color is tremendous…my own extras are murmuring to me, “M’Lord Essex, you are back?”
I am back, and an extra murmurs, “Quite, he is not in favor with the Queen.”
Far up the line there is Queen Elizabeth fanning herself…
This is about to be one of the longest walks I have ever taken. Every step was a yard…
I clanked all the way down the aisle in this steel armor. At one point, earlier, when I rushed off to the wars, they had to rig up block and tackle for me so that I could get on my horse, because it was impossible for any living man to get his eyes off the ground and get onto the horse the way I was supposed to. I walked down a stairs, My dear lady, farewell…an invisible steel wire caught me under the arms, and I was derricked up over the horse’s arse, onto his back, then I galloped off in all directions. Now I was jangling down the aisle wearing all that Doug Fairbanks-Flynn armor…
I can see her…closer…now the rings on her fingers—and ever step is leading me rapidly toward the Queen, and I know I have to do it—I know she is going to whack me. She is going to put me in my place, whatever that place is.
I was poised and ready. I knew as soon as I got hit again hard—as hard as I have ever been hit before—harder than even in the boxing ring—just what would happen.
I felt that Bette was quite determined to do it.
I arrived, and the dialogue was developing that leads to the Queen’s swipe at the face of Essex.
I braced myself for this hit—and the counterpunch to it. True, I would be disgraced. Me, a man, hitting the world’s favorite on the chin was not going to look pretty, but I had to do it. I didn’t care.
We went through the dialogue. Well, M’Lord Essex, and so forth…
I was sort of on my toes. I didn’t forget a line.
It came time for her to hit me and I braced myself…ready.
She did it in the most beautifully technical way. Her hand came just delicately to the side of my nose, missing by a fraction of an inch. I don’t even believe she touched me, but I could feel the wind go by my face, and it looked technically perfect.
Then, there was the rest of the scene.
In other words, she had learned, because she could see in my eyes, I am quite sure, as I approached, that “Just give it to me, Bette, and you will be as flat as a sardine in a can.”
I had to decide this for my own self-respect.
When she did it this time, I didn’t flinch an inch. Even though I was expecting the worst.
She said, “I would like to do that again,” but the director said that was enough.
I must admit that afterward, for the third time, I went secretly behind my dressing room and vomited again.