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Cheesy History

I attempted to continue my non-cheesy movie viewing with a Bette Davis movie on TCM Sunday. I love Bette Davis. I just finished reading another biography of her: More than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis by James Spada (Bantam Books, 1993).

The Virgin Queen (1955) also starring Joan Collins was Davis’ second portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. Davis was reportedly delighted at the chance, especially since she was closer in age to what Elizabeth was at the time the movie takes place. She is wonderful, of course.

Joan Collins at this point had not reached her glory as a glamorous, conniving bitch (I use the word with respect, admiration and descriptive intent). She is a pretty girl. In a couple of early scenes, where she is flirtatious and comfortable maneuvering in the shifting sands of sixteenth century court, she shows a little of the vixen she would later portray so well. Later on, when she is merely in love with Sir Walter Raleigh, she’s a typical dull movie female. Give me a little vinegar every time!

Sir Walter Raleigh was originally the main character in the movie, before Davis got involved. I learned this in the pre-movie commentary from Ben Mankiewicz (grandson, I believe, of Joseph L. Mankiewicz who directed Davis in the divine All About Eve). The movie was originally called Sir Walter Raleigh, then Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virgin Queen, then finally The Virgin Queen.

Sir Walter Raleigh, in case you didn’t know, is the guy who spread his cloak over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t get her feet wet. I must remember to find out sometime if the story is true. According to this movie, Raleigh is lying, manipulative and self-serving. I don’t know what Elizabeth or Mistress Throckmorton (Collins) see in him. He schemes his way to court, sleazes a beautiful cloak (for the mud puddle trick) from an unsuspecting tailor, and loses no time in ingratiating himself with the Queen. He wants three ships, which he apparently knows how to design so that they will be more awesome than any ship hitherto known. Instead Elizabeth makes him Captain of the Guard.

At this point Mistress Throckmorton stops coquetting and begins to scorn Raleigh for being one of the Queen’s lap dogs. Now I would think that Captain of the Guard charged with guarding Her Royal Highness, who had a lot of enemies as rulers tend to do, would be considered a pretty manly job. Elizabeth I, remember, was no ordinary queen. She had inherited a nearly bankrupt kingdom that got no respect from the rest of Europe and, without the help of a king, pretty much turned things around. At this point in her reign, most of her kingdom and much of Europe agreed she was tops in sovereign rulers. And it was no shame to try to ingratiate yourself with a sovereign ruler in those days. That was a respected way to earn a living.

So the movie tacks twentieth century American sensibilities onto sixteenth century British history. I suppose this is a time-honored fictional technique. And perhaps we must be patient with 1950s Hollywood.

Still, it bothered me that Mistress Throckmorton kept trying to goad Sir Walter into asserting his manhood or something. To me, that’s not love. You love a person the way they are, not the way you would have them be. Of course, we always hope our loved ones improve themselves, say by turning from a life of crime or getting off drugs. But you can’t hold out your love as the prize if they behave a certain way. I don’t see any touching romance in that. Nor in belittling your supposed love, whatever your motivation is.

I know, I know, another time-honored fictional technique. All I can say is, time honors some messed up things.

Mistress Throckmorton finally decides or admits she’s in love with Sir Walter the first time the queen is about to banish or behead him (I was making all kinds of notes in the TV Journal abut the stuff in the movie that pissed me off, so I missed a few plot points). They get married without the benefit of clergy, probably to satisfy the Hayes Office.

Elizabeth does not behead him at this time but instead knights him and gives him one ship. She intends to send Mistress Throckmorton to the French court, which if you ask me would have been a good place for her. She might have gotten her coquettish ways back. Soon, however, she is fainting in the chapel, which, of course, is movie shorthand for being pregnant (now we know why they had to get married).

At one point, Sir Walter and the new Lady Raleigh attempt to flee to freedom in the New World, which, I hope you all remember from elementary school history, it is way to early to do. They are not going to meet Thomas Jefferson and say, “Ooh, loved your Declaration.” They’re not even going to meet the Pilgrims (which is just as well, because Collins’ wardrobe would not have been a hit). But it’s a movie and I suppose it does add to the entertainment value to be able to say, “Hah! Things are MUCH better here in America!”

I will admit that the entertainment value of the movie was not bad. My main entertainment was my criticisms, but I’m sure other viewers are less nit-picky. I’m used to movies playing fast and loose with history, and this one does it in spades. I’m also used to movies portraying the biggest stinkers as desirable love interests.

In summary, I did not get the non-cheesy experience I sought. Bette Davis, I repeat, was wonderful. She far outclassed her material. My lesson is sad but true: you can have great production values, beautiful costumes and sets, and my favorite actress, and still wind up with a big old piece of cheese.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Whatever Happened to Playwright Steve? « Mohawk Valley Girl

  2. Pingback: Old Movies on a Rainy Sunday | Mohawk Valley Girl

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