Historical epics have always been fodder for the Hollywood grist mill. Despite wild inaccuracies and artistic license, many know what little they do of history from watching such films. During the golden period of movie making (1930-1960) Hollywood's love affair with 'period costume melodrama' went through several cycles, cresting about mid-way through the 1950s with a sumptuous renaissance photographed in glorious Technicolor. MGM, the purveyors of all things done in good taste in those days embraced the public's fascination for such spectacles. The results are magnificently on display in director George Sidney's Young Bess (1953); a radiant chronicle of the bitter, often harrowing childhood of Elizabeth I (Jean Simmons). The screenplay from Jan Lustig and Arthur Wimperis is based on the novel by Margaret Irwin and covers one of the most turbulent periods in English history.
Following the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn (Elaine Stewart), young 'Bess (Noreen Corcoran) is exiled with her governess Mrs. Ashley (Kay Walsh) to Hatfield House and declared illegitimate by her father King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton). The girl grows up quickly and defiantly. Although repeatedly and ever so briefly recalled to court, Bess (now played by Jean Simmons) is a willful thorn in the King's side. She displeases him and disapproves of his multiple wives. So the King favors the boy, Prince Edward (Rex Thompson) to succeed him on the throne.
But when Henry marries Catherine Parr (Deborah Kerr) Bess realizes she has a strong ally. Gradually, Henry comes to admire Bess for her stubborn fortitude. And although he plots to behead Catherine like he did all the others before her, illness claims his own life first. On his deathbed Henry appoints Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger) to watch over his kingdom jointly with his brother, Ned (Guy Rolfe). Unfortunately, Ned schemes and takes over as Lord Protector and guardian of Prince Edward VI (now, the King). He further secures his place with the high council by frequently sending Thomas off to fight the French at sea even though England's armada is a measly twenty-five tall ships to France's three hundred. Nevertheless, Thomas is successful at thwarting several attacks and invasions. His heroics earn him the respect of the people but also the contempt of his brother and his brother's wife, Ann (Kathleen Byron).
Meanwhile Bess confesses her love to Thomas leaving Catherine no choice but to confront her. The wounds inflicted by this betrayal never fully heal and Bess retreats to Hatfield House once again. There she learns that Catherine is dying. Ned recalls Bess to speak of her illicit love before the high council. Instead, she admonishes Ned and the council as treasonous. Shortly thereafter Bess learns that Ned has imprisoned Thomas in the Tower of London where he awaits execution. Bess races to King Edward's side, encouraging him to write a letter of clemency. But before the letter is finished Thomas is beheaded, leaving Bess seemingly in great peril.
The last act of this magnificent melodrama is rather haphazardly slapped together. We learn from Mrs. Ashley that King Edward has died and that Bess' elder sister Mary is also on her deathbed. Bess, now regally rechristened Elizabeth I appears in the doorway and proudly marches out to the balcony to greet her kingdom. Historical inaccuracies aside, Young Bess is a sumptuously mounted melodrama. Miklos Rozsa's impeccable score punctuates the imperishable exquisiteness and perilous tumult of the Tudor dynasty with appropriate pomp and flourish. Charles Rosher's cinematography manages to evoke both the grandeur and moodiness of the period. Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary's art direction is grand beyond all expectation. Ditto for Walter Plunkett's magnificent costume design.
During this period in his career Stewart Granger was frequently typecast as the romantic suitor from England's distant past and for good reason. Like Errol Flynn and the swashbuckler, Granger's demeanor is a perfect fit for the period costume epic. There is a gentle regal quality to the man that is impossible to fake. Despite the fact that the film belongs to Jean Simmons, Granger proves the linchpin that makes everything else in the narrative work. Simmons is perhaps too pert, too brittle and too tart to be appreciated without Granger's counterbalance. The rest of the cast is inspired as well, particularly Charles Laughton's maniacal Henry and Deborah Kerr's saintly Catherine. Guy Rolfe delivers the first intelligent reading of Ned - neither sneering nor civil but a strangely conflicted amalgam of these two polar opposites. Kathleen Byron is terrifying as the cold blooded wife with an assassin's tongue.
The screenplay can get a tad wordy at times. I'm a critic who prefers exposition to action. I like character development with my crossed swords. There's plenty of the former but curiously none of the latter in Young Bess. In fact, director Sidney seems to cut away whenever action is called for. As example; a declaration of war from a fleet of French tall ships on the horizon and sailing for Lord Thomas' vessel almost immediately dissolves into a shot of his triumphant return - presumably after defeating his enemies on the high seas. Oh well, as pure entertainment Young Bess is more than a cut above the rest. It's a detailed and intelligent historical melodrama with much to offer.
The same is true of Warner Brother's MOD DVD. Young Bess is regrettably part of the Warner Archive Collection. I say 'regrettably' because by now it should be clear to those shopping the archive that these titles lack the higher bit rate of a standard DVD. Save a handful of 'remastered editions' most of the movies in this collection have been slapped to disc without anything being done to their digital transfers. Hence, quality is spotty at best and frequently disappointing. Nevertheless, Young Bess has weathered the years quite well. Its transfer is relatively clean and free of age related artifacts. Its palette retains the bold allure of vintage Technicolor, showing off the costumes and scenery to their full effect. Contrast levels are bang on. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented at an adequate listening level. Like all other titles in the archive, this one comes with only a theatrical trailer as an extra feature. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)