Friday, October 24, 2008

Young Bess (1953)

Ann Seymour: Do not attempt to confuse me by using words beyond my understanding.
Bess: I am sorry, madame, but they are difficult to avoid.
~from Young Bess (1953)

Every generation has its own interpretation of the complex soul of Elizabeth Tudor. The 1953 film Young Bess, starring Jean Simmons as the future Elizabeth I of England and Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour, is a romanticized version of Margaret Irwin's historical novel. I read the book as a young teen, and first saw the film when it ran one night on the late movie back in the '70's. Although it is replete with 1950's technicolor glamor, Young Bess still surpasses many contemporary renditions of the life of Elizabeth I for its fairly authentic exploration of the unique situations of her youth. The focus is on her tragic involvement with her stepmother's husband Tom Seymour, who in the film is shown as being Elizabeth's overwhelming first love. Simmons and Granger, who were married in real life, are able to communicate the intensity of the dangerous infatuation while hardly touching each other. I remember, watching the film way back when, how my mother said, "Those old movies were so full of passion and no one ever took their clothes off."

While the film, like most films, can be picked apart from a historical point of view, Jean Simmons' portrayal of the teenage Elizabeth Tudor is positively brilliant. Jean is much prettier than the real Elizabeth, but her beauty does not prevent her from becoming Bess. She captures the combination of intense vulnerability and insecurity of a motherless girl whose paternity has been questioned. In Jean's first scene she projects with a flash of the eyes the strong will, the indomitable determination of the adolescent princess to survive at all costs. Always one feels Bess' sense of her dignity as the daughter of a king, a dignity which she will not compromise even though it strives against her longing to be loved.

Jean Simmons' Bess confronts her changes of fortune with incredible poise and self-possession, while emanating the very real anxieties that the daughter of Anne Boleyn had to face. One can understand in her portrayal why the love-starved girl became smitten with Tom Seymour. Yet in spite of her devastation at the tragic outcome of the highly inappropriate relationship, she keeps her head, and does not let herself be destroyed.

Charles Laughton is the best Henry VIII ever, a villainous old swine, conflicted over his past deeds, and especially torn in his feelings for "Nan Bullen's brat." Deborah Kerr is the lovely, gracious sixth queen, Katherine Parr, who tries to create a semblance of family life for the motherless Bess and her brother Edward. It is sad that because of Seymour, Bess loses the motherly guidance of Queen Katherine, and comes to the verge of public disgrace. In the last scene, as the new young queen greets her people, the inner pain and deep bitterness radiate from her face amid the triumph and promise of glory.



Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, why do you think we remain so fascinated with the Tudors that each generation has to have its own historical novels and movies?

elena maria vidal said...

I am not quite sure, Enbrethiliel. There seems to be a glut of Tudor books and films out there now. I think that to many people they are like characters in a soap opera, with Henry VIII as some kind of sex god.

Moggy said...

That movie is going to be aired on TCM soon! And I'll be recording it. It has a really wonderful exchange on Henry VIII's deathbed. Henry says, "Pray for my soul in Purgatory."

Someone else protests, "But your Majesty, you have outlawed Purgatory!"

The King muttered, "Don't argue with me, man."

elena maria vidal said...

That's one of the best lines in the whole movie.

Aron said...

I often wonder just how much of his "reformation" Henry VIII believe, as it were. I mean, leaving aside his repudation of Rome, it seems like he remained quite conservative...But I wonder, if in his own mind here ever wondered...wanted to go back...but felt he could not? Wondered and regretted what he had done for a relationship that was long over, and--from his perspective--worse than futile. If you see what I am trying to explain? It's sad, really, to think that the Wars of the Roses, so-called, cast such a long shadow. Indeed, one of my old history professors would maintain that the shock of Richard II's enforced abdication was the first blow that, in the end, led to the breach. <><