Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)

One of my favorite things about movies is when a unique pair of actors star in a film together.  Sometimes it's the rising young star matched with the older, mature actor.  Clint Eastwood (young) and Richard Burton (mature, distinguished) in the 1967 war thriller WHERE EAGLES DARE comes to mind.  Or Tom Cruise (young, cocky) starring with older veterans like Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN (1988) or Paul Newman in THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986). Newman himself had teamed with younger Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and THE STING (1973).  And even Hoffman was the young turk to older star Steve McQueen in PAPILLION (1973).

Other times it's a dream combination of actor and actress.  Hitchcock hit gold twice with the duo of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW (1954) and Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955). Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) is another dream team. But one combination that defies believing is the pairing of sex symbol Marilyn Monroe with the world's greatest actor Laurence Olivier in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957).

Written by Terence Rattigan based on his play, Laurence Olivier had performed THE  PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL on stage with his then wife actress Vivian Leigh (Rattigan's play was called THE SLEEPING PRINCE). THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL is an interesting film in which Monroe maybe upstages the great Olivier. It's reported that the two of them did not get along during the film (which Olivier directed and Monroe's company co-produced).  Sometimes that conflict offscreen makes the chemistry onscreen that much better. There's definitely a mystique about the unusual pairing with a new film coming out about the two stars and their acrimonious relationship called MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN (2011) with Michelle Williams playing Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier.

Set in 1911, the Regent of Carpathia (Laurence Olivier) arrives in London for the coronation of King George V and the Queen Mary. A new man in the Foreign Office named Northbrook (Richard Wattis) is assigned as the chaperone to the Regent during his visit.  On the night before the coronation, Northbrook takes the Regent to the Avenue Theater to watch The Coconut Girl. The Regent meets the performers backstage before the show. The show's star Maisie Springfield (Jean Kent) has entertained the Regent before but this time the Grand Duke is smitten by the curvaceous and sexy American showgirl Elsie Marina (Marilyn Monroe). After the show, Elsie is presented with an invitation by Northbrook to the Carpathian Embassy for a late night dinner with the Regent.

Elsie is leery of the invitation, having been involved with powerful men and late night parties before but the Regent is a bit different. The Regent is stern and uptight. He enjoys her company but keeps her waiting as he telephones dignitaries and ambassadors, trying to stave off a possible coup in his home country. He treats his son, the future King of Carpathia, Nicolas (Jeremy Spenser) like a child which leads Nicolas to seek alliances with the Kaiser in Germany, Carpathia's enemy.  The Regent has not known love since his wife died ten years earlier.

The Regent and Elsie's night together will become a comedy of errors as the Regent finally tries to seduce Elsie but is constantly interrupted by Northbrook (at Elsie's request) as well as son Nicolas and various servants.  Finally, the Regent tires of his ill-fated romantic night and asks to have Elsie driven home but Elsie passes out. The next morning, the Regent discovers Elsie's still in the embassy. Afraid of a possible scandal, he urges Northbrook to sneak her out but when his deceased wife's mother, the Queen Dowager (Sybil Thorndike) attendant falls ill, the Queen invites Elsie to be her temporary lady in waiting at the coronation. It's Elsie's one chance to pretend to be a princess as she rides in the procession to the coronation.

With photography by famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Director Olivier covers the coronation's rituals and music extensively, catching Elsie's wonder at the pomp and circumstance. Back at the embassy, Elsie prepares to leave when she overhears Nicolas talking on the phone in German, still plotting to overthrow his father. Elsie knows German, having grown up in Wisconsin, and warns Nicolas to behave. Nicolas warms up to Elsie, who becomes a sort of step-mother to the young king.  Nicolas invites Elsie to the Coronation Ball that night, much to the consternation of the Regent.  At the ball, Elsie helps to smooth over the rough relationship between father and son. Elsie also turns the tables on the Regent back at the embassy, seducing and charming him, showing the Regent how to loosen up and more importantly, be a good, loving father to his son. Will the Regent of Carpathia take the American showgirl back to his home country and wed her? You'll have to watch THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL to find out but Olivier and writer Rattigan play the relationship honestly and how it should be.

For those that doubt that Marilyn Monroe was the movie icon of the 1950's, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL is another example of how mesmerizing her screen persona was.  Monroe stood out in small roles in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) and MONKEY BUSINESS (1952) but once she became a star, she never let go.  Monroe certainly was sexy and curvaceous and would spawn many imitators (Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren) but she became a very good actress which set her apart from the others.  Monroe's breezy, charming Elsie nearly steals THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL from Olivier's Regent.  Every time Monroe is on the screen, she commands the audience's attention. Much like Judy Garland, whatever personal demons Monroe had off-screen, she hid it on-screen with one captivating performance after another.

Olivier appears to have fun with his Regent character which is a far cry from performing Hamlet or Richard III.  With his monocle and absurd Eastern European accent and funny little laugh, Olivier the actor hams it up as the insecure, uptight ruler who has difficulty expressing his emotions. Olivier's scenes with Monroe are fabulous as his Regent is bewitched and befuddled by the commoner Elsie. As mentioned, the two apparently did not get along off-camera but Olivier coaxes a fantastic performance out of Monroe. As director, Oliver could have sabotaged Monroe's acting in the editing room but he gets a terrific turn out of her.  If Olivier were afraid of being overshadowed by Monroe, he doesn't reveal it in his acting or directing, playing up Monroe's sensuality and comedic abilities. This was Monroe's third film based on a play after THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and BUS STOP (1956).  But I think her strength was really in comedy and this may be her most complete comedic performance.

The supporting cast is good especially Sybil Thorndike as the Queen Dowager, the Regent's slightly bewildered and deaf mother-in-law who takes a liking to Elsie, not quite realizing her son-in-law's intentions or why Elsie is wearing the same dress in the morning as when they were first introduced the night before. And Richard Wattis is fun as the non-plussed English bureaucrat assigned to keep the Regent entertained.

Olivier had directed numerous stage plays and his film direction for THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL is like a play.  He shoots most of the film on one big set - the Carpathian Embassy. Olivier doesn't use a lot of fancy camerawork, preferring to let the actors roam around the enormous set.  And the screenplay is divided into three acts: 1) the Dinner Date; 2) the Coronation; and 3) the Coronation Ball. But the film never seems static like a play and Olivier keeps the plot moving along at a good pace.

I find it interesting that in most of her films, Marilyn Monroe was always paired with an older man.  It was almost as if no young actor could handle her star power.  Joseph Cotten in NIAGARA (1953), Robert Mitchum in RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954), and Tom Ewell in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH are all much older than Marilyn. The trend continued with Laurence Olivier in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL.  Even when she did act with actors her age like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), Curtis and Lemmon were dressed in drag for most of the film. It would  have been interesting to see Monroe act with a contemporary in a film like James Dean or Paul Newman. The closest she came was acting opposite the unfamous Don Murray in BUS STOP.

THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL is the only film that Marilyn Monroe made outside the United States (it was filmed in London) and it came at the tail end of her short film career.  But I think it was a turning point in her progression as an actress and showed what potential Monroe had. The fact that one of the greatest actors in theater and film Laurence Olivier directed her performance is no coincidence. As Elton John so eloquently sang about Marilyn Monroe in the song Candle in the Wind "your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."

1 comment:

  1. How strange. A film virtually ignored by their contemporaries, The Prince and the Showgirl is becoming (had become) an iconic tour de force of the talents of the two tormented leads who both suffered greatly by the stereotypical expectations of their era. Olivier as the serious Shakespearean, and Monroe as the voluptuous sex kitten. Yet there, where they both have the freedom to have fun with their roles, we see both for what they really were -- consummate actors performing their craft. Well done!