Bette Davis Month: The Star Holds Court as ‘The Virgin Queen’

By  · Published on April 24th, 2011

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

All this month, Old Ass Movies will be celebrating the 103rd anniversary of Bette Davis‘s birthday. The iconic film star acted in far too many movies to care to count, but it seems as though she’s been reduced to a pair of eyes in popular culture. She’s the subject of a 80s pop tune, not the star that she should be recognized for being, and that needs fixing.

This is our last week of exploration, and even though we’re not ending on the last film in Davis’s career (or even her last iconic role), we’re ending on the last time a character matches the actress. She would go on to such triumphs as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush…, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Return to Witch Mountain (seriously), but Bette Davis playing the mercurial, demanding Queen Elizabeth I at the height of her career is just too-fitting.

The Virgin Queen (1955)

Directed By: Henry Koster

Written By: Mindret Lord

Starring: Bette Davis, Richard Todd, Joan Collins, and Robert Douglas

Bette Davis enters into the film as a God. In the short time it takes for us to meet Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd), watch him wipe the floor with a man in a sword fight, see him use a little cleverness to earn favor from a man high up in court, and to steal the French ambassador’s cloak right off the tailor’s rack – Queen Elizabeth I gets mentioned half a dozen times. The movie is definitely Raleigh’s, but she steals every scene she can from right under his doublet.

It’s funny, considering she was in a movie called All About Eve that was all about her (she wasn’t Eve), and now she show’s up in a movie called The Virgin Queen that’s not really about the Virgin Queen (who she played).

Still, she’s a presence. She enters as if from nowhere and begins holding court whether she’s with one person or one hundred. Every line of hers is calculated, witty, evasive, and just tender enough to keep those close keep coming back for more than just her riches. If it’s better to be feared than respected, Davis makes it clear it’s even better to be both.

Raleigh desperately wants three ships to take sailing to the New World, so after winning Lord Leicester’s (Herbert Marshall) admiration, he gets an invitation to court and impresses Queen Elizabeth I with his straight talk. That doesn’t mean she’ll grant him the ships, so he’s forced to embark on a non-romantic courtship of the most powerful woman in the world while navigating the choppy seas of love with Mistress Throgmorton (Joan Collins), the murderous jealousy of ousted right hand man Sir Christopher Hatton (Robert Douglas) and the danger of getting too well fed and too comfortable on the striped cushion of the Queen’s favor.

A period piece about 16th century British royalty might scare a few away (or suck a few in), but it’s got all the splendor of the genre without all of the air. It’s fast-paced both in action and dialogue (with writing that challenges the actors to speak as fast and sharply as possible), and with a 90-minute-long runtime, it sails by at a brisk clip. Every scene is utilized fully, twisting the plot into a knot and delivering some sick 16th century burns.

The intrigue and romance is distilled into its sleekest form, which makes the courtship between Raleigh and Throgmorton seem even more chaotic but never gives a chance for the audience to catch its breath. This flick is not a deep exploration of the cold air inside a castle. It’s the celebration of the hot hearts beating inside its walls.

The most important heart is Queen Elizabeth’s, and Davis plays her unflinchingly (just as she did years before in Essex and Elizabeth (with the same shaved-back hairline and shock of curly red on top)). She could walk into a room, grab a man by the testicles, remark plainly that she owns them, and the man would thank her for it. In fact, she does that verbally on several occasions in the film.

She’s not a monarch that rests on her titles for respect. She’s a tornado stuffed into human skin, holding firm to every ounce of reverence and fear with every word and every silence she offers.

It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Meryl Streep based her Prada-wearing Devil on Davis in this role.

Ultimately, it’s the strength of the writing (particularly the tennis game of back-and-forth dialogue and the essence of the treachery of offending the wrong person in court) that sets the foundation for success, but it’s Davis who takes a sledge hammer to that foundation and rebuilds something entirely more beautiful out of it. Due credit goes to Todd, Collins and Douglas for rising to the task of holding their own next to the master (something that Errol Flynn couldn’t do in Essex and Elizabeth), but watching Davis demanding attention without needing to move many muscles at all is a glory to behold.

It breaks the slow-burn genre rules of what we know period pieces to be nowadays, offers a ton of buckled swash, and commands the viewer to fall in love (out of fear) with a woman projecting herself from the 16th century through a massive movie star in the sweltering heat of her prime.

Next week, we leave Bette Davis behind, but we celebrate another birthday with Sabrina and Audrey Hepburn.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.