The Prince and the Showgirl Uneven, but Charming
By Kristin Battestella
Screen goddess Marilyn Monroe and thee acting connoisseur Laurence Olivier unite in this fun 1957 mismatched romance. Though ill paced in some parts, the charm wins out here.
Chorus girl Elsie Marina (Monroe) meets the Prince Regent of Carpathia (Olivier) while he, his son Nicholas (Jeremy Spenser), and his mother-in-law the Dowager Queen (Dame Sybil Thorndike, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) are being entertained in London by British official Northbrook (Richard Wattis, The Belles of St. Trinian’s) ahead of the coronation of George V. When invited to the embassy by the Prince, Elsie is at first reluctant, then irritated by the political interruptions. She expects to be better wooed, but the Dowager Queen takes an interest in Elsie and makes her a lady-in-waiting, extending Elsie’s stay at the embassy. As the Prince warms to her, Elsie inadvertently becomes involved in European politics and royal affairs. Will the budding romance survive royal plots and obligations?
Director and star Laurence Olivier (Fire Over England, Rebecca, Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, I’ll stop) sets the 1911 pre-war London scene well with lots of royalty and politics. Some of the protocol can seem confusing to a contemporary viewer, and the style is a little too stuffy and RP with some anti American bits. However, there’s also a seemingly mocking tone or tongue in cheek to it all from writer Terence Rattigan (Separate Tables). Oh, these snotty old aristocrats and the flakey aides hysterically trying to please them! The Prince and the Showgirl captures the mood of the time and is still able to laugh at itself. Unfortunately, the mix of lighthearted love and dangerous political plots makes it seem as if Olivier is peddling two separate movies. The battle of wits between the two leads- which you could perceive as the king of real acting and the queen of pretty going head to head- is a lot of fun. She rejects his passes, and then expects better romance on his part. He charms, he shouts. Could it be love? The unique romantic comedy takes place largely in one stage like room- thanks to Rattigan’s source play The Sleeping Prince. The focus on the people with the pomp and circumstance outside merely hinted at is refreshing in opposition to all those modern Meg Ryan love in the big city repeats. The Prince and The Showgirl dries up when Olivier switches to a political triangle instead of these bemusing cat and mouse games. When turning to European intrigue and plots, the tale seems longer than needed at a full 2 hours, dragging in the middle when things should have gotten juicier. It’s uneven yes, and perhaps misguided in the end, but overall, the stars shine and keep The Prince and the Showgirl entertaining.
Though she has proven she can do more, Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot, Gentleman Prefer Blonds) is once again the dimwitted blonde who catches the eye of the Grand Ducal Prince backstage just because her dress strap rips. It’s a bit of a thankless start, but Elsie’s catching on and teaching the royals a thing or two is a lot of fun. Monroe’s physical comedy and runaround timing works onscreen-making silent and seemingly insignificant scenes fresh, lively, even slapstick. Elsie’s attempts to get the right titles and dialogue are wonderfully squashed with an ‘Oh, the hell with it!’ Monroe also sneaks in a few great zingers- total insults delivered with such marshmallow that you can’t help but like Elsie. Her great curves and soft focus stylings on the up close shots are noticeable, yes, but Monroe still looks lovely despite not being at her best again thanks to off screen illness and pregnancy troubles. Elsie’s drunken giggles also make us think its just Marilyn being herself, but again the comedy timing and played up wit wins out. I am, however, not sure why a somewhat out of place song is needed. Fans who like Monroe’s musical ways may be surprised by the turn of the century arrangement here. Of course, the entire premise of The Prince and the Showgirl is all-preposterous- a chorus girl meddling in European affairs and preventing war! But really, what tickles me most is how Elsie hobnobs with royalty while wearing the same dress for 3 days!
Surprisingly, I am not a major fan of Olivier, England’s favorite thespian maestro. From what I’ve seen, he always seems to be the same stuffy guy. Early on in The Prince and the Showgirl, he’s even a bit of an ass. Fortunately, the snotty serves a purpose here. The Ducal Prince must always be on form, always wearing the façade; he’s doing the protocol and going through the motions with a trumped up accent to seal the deal. After meeting this guy, I much prefer Larry’s mysterious Brit millionaire Max in Rebecca! We expect Elsie to be taken advantage of in this situation because we are used to politicians like this getting down and nasty with the babes. Though at the time it might have been accepted for such a dignitary to have an evening with a lady who understood to be gone in the morning, today we think of it as just horny old dude on the lamb relentlessly looking for a piece. All that and nevertheless The Prince and the Showgirl is bemusing, a Pretty Woman fifties-style with such an innocence to its implications. The Prince Regent and his son Jeremy Spenser (King & Country) shed their rigid ways; Olivier loosens up and eventually gets rid of that proverbial stiff upper lip. Today’s movies would have Elsie scandalously banging both the Regent and the sneaky teenager king in waiting- yowzha!
Okay, so the silly and fake London screen shots are obvious and on the cheap, but some of that old production of the time has its delights. The embassy set design is appropriately grand and lavishly styled with lots of gold and velvet and sweet staircases. And let’s not forget my favorite: candlestick phones, people! Maybe it isn’t on the scale of today’s standards, but the décor befits a title like The Prince and the Showgirl. The costumes are perfection- fun feathered hats, parasols, gowns high and low, colorful fabrics and over the top gaudy blue eye shadow to match. There are great men’s top hats and going to the opera styles, too. The monocle is a little typical, but fun nostalgia just the same. Nobody today has probably ever really seen one, yet it is just the right Old World touch here. Monroe’s aforementioned white dress and overall look is, however, seemingly 1911 by way of 1957, looking a little more of the time than the time really portrayed. Olivier’s blue uniform and red sash also look just like the Duke in Disney’s Cinderella! Though lovely and again fittingly majestic, the coronation scene is way too slow and marks the low point of The Prince and the Showgirl, inviting politics in to try and overshadow the charm of the leads. Is that its point in the larger scheme of the film?
Fans of Olivier, Monroe, or pre-war Europe onscreen will certainly enjoy The Prince and the Showgirl, though audiences new to the cast, the fifties colloquialisms, or the turn of the century protocol onscreen might find some things tough to understand. Even some of the fifties kitschy humor and tone might be lost to younger viewers of classic films, though the picture is certainly lighthearted and family friendly. It isn’t perfect, but classic connoisseurs and fans of pomp, circumstance, and opposites attract fun will enjoy The Prince and the Showgirl.