Bette Davis,once again.
This is the Third Bette Davis Blogathon, set up by IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD, and as usual I invite you to check out the link to find a lot of other blog posts about one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses of all time.
Once you’re done, come back here, because we are about to meet Bette Davis in her portrayal of The Virgin Queen.
Bette Davis as Elizabeth in a costume drama about her affection for a dashing young adventurer who’s actually in love with a younger, prettier woman?
Had we not just left this party?
Yes indeed, we already met Bette Davis as Elizabeth the First, when we discussed The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, from 1939, during the first BD Blogathon, in 2016.
But now it’s 2018… or rather 1955, and the powers that be in 20th Century Fox have decided that after Essex, it’s now the time of Sir Walter Raleigh to face the passion and the ire of Elizabeth.
The plot is…
Let’s see if I can summarize it: Walter Raleigh is an adventurer that uses social engineering (and plain old good nepotism) to approach the queen and dazzle her with his charm, in order to get an expedition to the Americas financed. At the same time, he meets, falls in love with and marries Beth Throgmorton (or Throckmorton according to other sources).
Things get confused. Courtiers plot to cast Raleigh in a bad light, Beth is jealous, Elizabeth grants Raleigh a ship but plans not to let hi leave England (then why…?)
When finally Elizabeth finds out Raleigh and Beth are married orders them arrested, wants them put to death, but then relents and they go live forever happily in Ireland.
The Virgin Queen was directed by Henry Kostner, the man that discovered Abbott & Costello and then launched a strong career as a director of family comedies and musicals. In the fifties, he shifted to costume dramas, of which this Elizabethan thing was one. Kostner was an actors’ director – he never won an oscar, but directed a number of Oscar performances. In this case, his cast includes Bette Davis reprising her role as Elizabeth, Joan Collins as Beth Throkmorton, and Richard Todd as Raleigh. No Oscars materialized.
Todd was an Irishman and a soldier, and therefore a good choice to play the cheeky Raleigh – a part that had been originally proposed to Burt Lancaster. The year 1955 was Todd’s year, with the back-to-back successes of the biopic A Man Called Peter and the blockbuster The Dam Busters.
The Virgin Queen was not as successful as those two, and later attempts – where he was usually cast as a military man of some sort – slowly faded from the public’s eye.
Collins had just hit Hollywood in 1955 with Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaos (that had not been a great success) and 20th Century Fox was eager to put her obvious charms to work. She was 22, and her performance as Beth Throckmorton is a good showcase of her talents.
As for Bette Davis, her career in the fifties was in a slump – as a critic noted
Miss Davis, with more say than most stars as to what films she makes, seems to have lapsed into egoism. The criterion for her choice of film would appear to be that nothing must compete with the full display of each facet of the Davis art. Only bad films are good enough for her.
And indeed The Virgin Queen is not a good film – it’s inferior to the old Elizabeth & Essex. In most of her scenes she appears irritated and frustrated, and ill at ease. She was 47 but looked tired, and much older – possibly due to medical problems in the previous years. Her presence is still extremely powerful, but it is not well served by the story.
The end result is a good looking movie that feels somewhat empty or stilted at times – and one that is heavy on the melodrama and light on history (not to mention fast and loose with history), which is a pity. The only true winning point of the movie is the mise-en-scene, and indeed the costumes were nominated for an Oscar that year.
As a bonus fact, a comic book was made of the movie, in a rather baffling marketing move. One wonders at what sort of audience the comic book tie-in was aimed.
Certainly worth a look, for Davis and the look most certainly, and to wonder how it would had been had Burt Lancaster played Raleigh.