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Better luck next time. Only not with me, of course.


The Prince and the Showgirl
(1957)

Probably more famous for the much-reported difficulties that Laurence Olivier had with co-star Marilyn Monroe than the film itself. It’s either testament to Oliver the director that she is easily the most enjoyable part of the film or an indictment of Oliver the actor that his titular Prince is played with all the warmth, and certainly the demeanour, of a leg of cold ham.

Monroe was 31 when the film was released, Olivier 19 years her senior (playing 45-ish). It’s fair to say that Olivier’s flirtation with Hollywood stardom had been brief; Rebecca had shown a dashing, intense leading man not-quite-comfortable with such duties, while 49th Parallel gave us that rarest of his big screen personas; dashing, relaxed and highly charismatic (a shame then, that he appears only in the first section of the film). The fifteen years or so between were notable for a triumvirate of Shakespeare adaptations that he directed, starred in and (two of the three) produced. He won Best Actor Oscar for Hamlet, which also took Best Picture (and he was nominated for Director) in 1948. Four years earlier he had been nominated in the same categories for Henry V. Richard III, tow years before Prince, didn’t go down quite as well, and he had to settle for an Actor nomination alone. So what was the attraction of Prince, even given the Terrence Rattigan screenplay (based on his stage play)? It was far from his beloved Bard, and the presence of his co-star seemed like shameless chasing of big audiences. A few years later, with Crassus in Spartacus, an era of notable and not-so-notable supporting roles would be ushered in.

Monroe, meanwhile, had been a bona fide star for a mere four years, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch making the biggest impression. Cast to her strengths, her brand of airheaded innocence made for irresistible comedy, but no one was coming forward with tales of how easy she was to work with. Certainly, the combination of the two performers looks like a marriage of opposites on paper, let alone the production itself.

Olivier’s problems with his lead are reportedly the reason for his absence from film directing for another 13 years. His presence in the film is not so strange when one learns that he had played the role on stage (with Vivien Leigh in the Monroe role); he was in place when the Monroe came aboard and she had no say (despite having quickly become a major player who could allegedly demand 75% of the film’s profits; whether this was gross is unclear).  Still, Olivier clearly knew how to make his lead’s assets feature prominently, both in terms of personality and physicality. The Monroe butt is in prominent display throughout (sealed in a figure hugging dress, of which there were several versions made to support the star’s fluctuating weight at the time).

If the production appeared thorny ground from the off, the results weren’t favoured either. Critically Prince wasn’t much loved, and commercially it merely scraped back its costs (it also inspired My Week with Marilyn, released a couple of years ago).

Set in London against the backdrop of the coronation of King George V (1911), Prince concerns the relationship of the Carpathian Prince Regent, Charles (Olivier) with actress Elsie Marine (Monroe). Whom he initially invites to the Carpathian Embassy for supper; she discovers it is a pretext for a one-night stand. Nothing goes according to his plan, and her stay extends beyond Charles’ comfort zone, as she strikes up friendships with the young King Nicholas (Charles’ son, played by Jeremy Spenser) and the elderly Queen (Charles’ mother-in-law, played by Sybil Thorndike). Charles is a rigid, stern figure and his relationship with the incumbent king is fraught. The British government wishes to protect its interests in Europe, where tensions are rising, but Nicholas is keen to depose his father with the help of German contacts. Of course, the involvement of Elsie provokes less than predictable results for all concerned.

Olivier, as mentioned, really is a terrible old luvvie here. His performance is highly theatrical; all exaggerated mannerisms and elongated (semi-) Eastern European accent. There’s nothing to convince you that he’s falling for Elsie, just as her sudden announcement that she is in love with him is mystifying (to be fair, she states she doesn’t know why but this makes it no less baffling). Monroe fares much better, certainly in respect of her familiar little-girl-comedy act. She comes up short, however, when we’re asked to believe that she speaks fluent German and the mask of her ignorance is dropped for insightful suggestions (it’s not as if the script is asking us to believe she’s a brainiac; Charles refers to her as having “the mind of a backwards child”).  There are definitely occasions when the free-and-easy versus starchy-and-uptight yield amusing results (“It’s your medals; they’re tickling me”) but Olivier isn’t versatile enough at comedy to make the most of it (perhaps Mike Myers could remake it…)

The failure of the romance is one thing, but Olivier’s lack of economy in the storytelling is a bigger problem. This sort of material should be rendered with a lightness of touch, rather than stagey leadeness. There’s a scene of Elsie being overcome by the beauty of Westminster Abbey that seems to go on for about five minutes. And the song Monroe wails at one point is rather dreary too.

Rattigan begins by taking some potshots at the abuses of power and status, with a fairly pronounced sexual set-up established (there are a number of quite overt references to sexual activity throughout the film, which must have been a touch risqué for the mid-to-late 1950s) but then drops any subtext for fairly run-of-the-mill plotting.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find it quite the chore to sit through that some would have you believe (this was the second time I’ve seen the film, but little had stuck in the mind from my first viewing). The strange clash of approaches between Olivier and Monroe is fascinating. And there are some highly enjoyable supporting turns, including the estimable Richard Wattis as the put-upon embassy official Northbrook. Thorndike and Spenser are also good (the latter, in particular, manages to make a potential brattish character sympathetic).

One might point to the abrupt, non-committal ending as a reason for the film’s failure, and I don’t think it helps. But really, do you want to see these two together? Tellingly, there is a much stronger rapport between Elsie and the young king. Ultimately. the problem may have been Olivier’s autonomy; a more comedy-minded director might have staged the action less ploddingly and elicited a more sympathetic turn from the leading man.

***

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