“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: