Friday, June 8, 2012

The Virgin Queen (20th Century-Fox, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I screened the 1955 film The Virgin Queen, the second and last film in which Bette Davis played Queen Elizabeth I of England. Last Monday Turner Classic Movies screened it back-to-back with the earlier one, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, made at Warner Bros. in 1939 with a prestigious literary source (Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway stage hit Elizabeth the Queen), a major budget for the time and — much to La Davis’s disgust — Errol Flynn as her co-star (she wanted Laurence Olivier, who would have brought the part of Essex far more emotional depth but wouldn’t have been as big a draw at the box office) as well as a phenomenal musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which like many of his film scores in this period might almost have been an opera based on the film’s story if the characters had been singing instead of speaking their lines: certainly the music was strong enough it could have been used as the basis of an opera on the Elizabeth-and-Essex story rivaling the efforts of the two major composers who did set this story, Gaetano Donizetti and Benjamin Britten. Elizabeth and Essex also offered a lot of resonances; made in 1939, at a time when Hitler and Stalin were both still alive and at the peak of their powers, it wasn’t just an historical spectacle but a serious film about absolute power and what it does to the psyches of both the people who have it and the people who want it. Alas, The Virgin Queen has few if any of those resonances; it’s basically a swashbuckler and was in fact based on a story by Harry Brown called Sir Walter Raleigh in which Elizabeth was supposed to be merely a minor character. Only the producing studio, 20th Century-Fox, signed Bette Davis to play Elizabeth, and she not surprisingly demanded that her role be increased and that she, not Raleigh, be the title character — it still rankled her that Errol Flynn’s casting in Elizabeth and Essex had meant that his character horned in on a title that in the stage original had named only Elizabeth the queen.

Davis always said she liked this film better than Elizabeth and Essex, partly because she was 16 years older when she made it and therefore didn’t have to wear as much age makeup as she had in the earlier movie (though for both films she had her head shaved about two inches up her forehead so she would look like she was balding, as the real Elizabeth was — as I’ve noted before, one thing I’ve long admired about Davis was her willingness to make herself look ugly when she felt a role required it) and partly because she thought Richard Todd, who played Raleigh, a far better actor than Flynn. Ironically both Flynn and Todd played Robin Hood on film, and Todd comes off here as a strong screen presence but with only a fraction of Flynn’s charisma. The main problem with The Virgin Queen is the plot: like Elizabeth and Essex it revolves around a romantic triangle between Elizabeth, a young man at court she has the hots for and a young lady-in-waiting who’s the young man’s real love interest: this time around she’s called “Beth Throgmorton” (the name sounded more like “Throckmorton” to me but maybe that’s just because I grew up in Marin County, California and was familiar with the Throckmorton Street in Mill Valley) and played by Joan Collins, who’s attractive and right for the part whereas in Elizabeth and Essex the third point in the triangle had been the monumentally overqualified Olivia de Havilland. (Fortunately for Olivia’s career, she got to make Gone with the Wind the same year.) [Note to Charles: At least both Richard Todd and Joan Collins pronounced the “t” in “often.”] Whereas Elizabeth and Essex had dealt with such serious political issues as pointless imperialist wars, wasteful spending on them and the lure of absolute power, just about the only dramatic issue in The Virgin Queen centers around Raleigh’s desire to explore the Americas, for which purpose he’s designed a radical new ship and wants Elizabeth to fund the construction of three of these vessels for his expedition.

The script by Harry Brown and Mindret Lord features a lot of the similar back-and-forth Elizabeth and Essex did, in which a bipolar Elizabeth oscillates between love (or at least lust) for Raleigh and rage at him — just about every time they get together Raleigh is understandably uncertain whether Elizabeth is going to want to have sex with him or send him to the Tower. There’s one genuinely poignant scene in which Elizabeth receives Raleigh in her bedchamber and takes off her wig, under which is a white wrapping that makes her look like a particularly malevolent spirit in a fairy tale, pointing out to him that she’s twice his age and bald and is all too aware that she’s a lot more turned on by him than she can expect him to be turned on by her. But too much of Davis’s performance is just a Xerox of her work in Elizabeth and Essex, where she had a far stronger director — Michael Curtiz instead of Henry Koster, a German expat who was fine in Deanna Durbin’s musicals and a fey fantasy like The Bishop’s Wife but was totally out of his depth handling an historical spectacle. The Virgin Queen was also hampered by being in CinemaScope, and in particular by the dictum 20th Century-Fox had laid down in their guide to making CinemaScope films (which not only got issued to their own employees but also to anyone at any other studio licensing the CinemaScope name, logo and technology) that because the screen was so big, close-ups were no longer necessary. Directors with the level of independence and clout of George Cukor on the 1954 A Star Is Born ignored this piece of idiotic advice and shot and cut as they always had, but Koster either couldn’t or wouldn’t defy the no-closeups edict and so he and his cinematographer, the usually reliable Charles G. Clarke, shot the film from miles away in a series of static tableaux that made this movie more like a stage play than Elizabeth and Essex, which actually had started as a play, did.

 The Virgin Queen is an O.K. movie that largely wastes a capable cast: among the supporting players are Herbert Marshall as Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester (who had been one of Elizabeth’s most trusted advisers and, according to some accounts, her secret lover, but had died well before the events depicted in either Elizabeth and Essex or The Virgin Queen); Dan O’Herlihy as Lord Derry (an Irishman whom Raleigh hired for the Queen’s guard, which got him into hot water with others at court who didn’t think someone from a country with which England was in the middle of an extended guerrilla war was appropriate for her guard); Robert Douglas as Sir Christopher Hatton; Romney Brent (a friend and collaborator of Cole Porter) as the French ambassador; and Jay Robinson, the marvelously queeny Caligula in Quo Vadis?, largely wasted as Chadwick. If you’d never seen Elizabeth and Essex you’d probably like it just for the ferocity of Bette Davis’s performance — but not only had she done the role much better in the earlier movie, the overall production was much more interesting, the story was deeper and richer and Korngold’s music was far superior to the score for The Virgin Queen — whose composer, Franz Waxman (father of Congressmember Henry Waxman), turned in a score that “works” for its role in the film but has nothing like the sweep and scope of Korngold’s music for Elizabeth and Essex. It’s a nice try, but compared to its illustrious predecessor The Virgin Queen comes off as decidedly second-best.