Startlingly fine, largely unheralded storybook treatment of Elizabeth Tudor’s wilderness years (timed to Elizabeth II’s Coronation Year) is definitely not for the historically minded.* But taken on its own terms, it’s remarkably successful entertainment. Director George Sidney’s other period pieces (THREE MUSKETEERS/’48; SCARAMOUCHE’52) are as bright, shiny & thoughtless as the musicals he’s best known for (ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50; SHOW BOAT/’51; ANCHOR’S AWEIGH/’45). But BESS courts an unusually dark & sober look for an M-G-M TechniColor production, presumably reflecting the preferences of cinematographer Charles Rosher, who worked almost exclusively with director Sidney toward the end of his career. How Rosher got away with such a restricted color palette here is something of a mystery. Not that he cuts down on saturation levels or skimps on his signature Hollywood portrait iconography. Jean Simmons (as the young Elizabeth) & her then husband Stewart Granger (as a highly romanticized Thomas Seymour) are positively ravished under Rosher’s lighting schemes. With limited opportunities, Deborah Kerr is fine as step-mother Catherine Parr, while Charles Laughton, with even less screen time, reprising his Henry VIII after 20 years, gives a masterclass on ham acting of genius, catching something large & true in a deathbed scene. In fact, the entire cast is unusually strong, with a bracing dash of strangeness to the Prince Edward of Rex Thompson (later Deborah Kerr’s son in THE KING AND I/’56). And all wrapped up in a Miklós Rózsa score that nods respectfully toward Erich Korngold’s PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX/’39. LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH64ZlgGl0I
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The charges against Granger’s character in the film were anything but spurious. Thomas Seymour’s brother Ned (the film’s main villain) was the good guy of the pair.