Jul 14, 2021

On Blu-ray: Costume Dramas Green Dolphin Street (1947) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)


This pair of dramas newly on Blu-ray from Warner Archive features two vastly different, but equally wrenching explorations of the complications of love. In both cases the turmoil is set in grand locations with actors in lavish costumes. 

Green Dolphin Street (1947) 

Based on the novel by Anya Seton, this drama/disaster film stars Lana Turner and Donna Reed as sisters Marianne and Marguerite, who live with their parents in the Channel Islands in the 19th Century. They both fall for their neighbor William (Richard Hart) who happens to be the son of Dr. Edmond Ozanne (Frank Morgan) who their mother (Gladys Cooper) reluctantly gave up in her youth for a more wealthy and socially-connected husband (Edmund Gwenn). The poor but intriguing Timothy (Van Heflin) watches from the sidelines, in love with Marianne, but aware he can never have her. 

William falls for Marguerite and when he settles in New Zealand, where he connects with the now successful Timothy after a disastrous mishap in the Navy, he attempts to send for her, but in a drunken stupor writes Marianne’s name in his letter instead. This unlikely mistake forms the basis for considerable heartbreak. It’s the flimsiest anchor for the story and requires a certain level of belief for the film to work at all. 

That error is a weak link in an overlong production that never quite gels. The colonial perspective on the Maori people doesn’t help as seen through modern eyes. 

There’s a certain moody romanticism to it though, helped along by the sweeping theme song which would evolve to become the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is also magnificent; he especially knows how to light Turner to her best advantage. Add to that a nail-biting earthquake sequence and there’s enough to recommend this exploration of desire, loss, and finding satisfaction in unexpected ways. 

Special features on the disc include a radio production of Green Dolphin Street and a theatrical trailer.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) 

There’s a reliable cinematic grandeur to the costume flicks Warner Bros. produced in the classic age. The studio had the formula down: a brightly trumpeting score, glam costumes, settings that are just lavish enough, and a reliable cast of supporting characters. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has all of that, and the sparkling print on the new Blu-ray elevates it further, but a weak connection between the leads keeps it from greatness. 

In order to succeed, this adaptation of the play Elizabeth the Queen needed chemistry between its queen and earl. While there are moments that Bette Davis (as Queen Elizabeth) and Errol Flynn (as the Earl of Essex) connect, their personal dislike of each other is too evident for them to truly sizzle. Instead of giving the union tension, the conflict makes them appear cold and distant. Davis had not enjoyed her experience starring with Flynn in The Sisters (1938) and she wanted Laurence Olivier to play his role, so it is clear that the contempt was much stronger on one side. 

Independently, Flynn gives a moody, thoughtful performance which feels unusually sincere. Davis is less effective. She can’t help but be grand and imminently appropriate in the role of a queen, but she relies too much on distracting physical ticks: a weaving head, twitching hands, to build her character. The supporting cast is solid in that cheerfully efficient Warner way, with Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, and Henry Stephenson comfortably revisiting the period film milieu. Vincent Price and Nanette Fabray are also pleasing in roles that came early in their careers. 

Special features on the disc include a carry-over from previous DVD editions of the Leonard Maltin’s Warner Night at the Movies 1939, which includes a newsreel, the musical short The Royal Rodeo, the cartoon Old Glory and a theatrical trailer. There’s also the featurette, Elizabeth and Essex: Battle Royale

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review.

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