In an ideal world, we would watch movies without any prior expectations, allowing ourselves to take what we see on its own merits. No pre-conceived notions about the actors, the director, the environment and so on. But that never happens, of course. We can’t escape what we already know, and that forms the basis of our judgements – judgements which end up being too harsh or too mild, based precisely on these extraneous things.
|The poster for Spanish markets
For instance, if it had starred almost anyone else, The Prince and the Showgirl would have been one of many movies made in the fifties; a period-piece comedy worth a few laughs and consigned to the archives of history. But it happened to star Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, and so it will have to be a movie that does get watched by film buffs at some point, and with a less indulgent eye.
Scripted by Terrence Rattigan, who also wrote the play on which it is based, The Prince and the Showgirl is the story of a Prince regent (played by Olivier) of a fictional Balkan country who visits London for the coronation of King George V in 1911, three years before World War I would break out. Events in Europe are on a boil, and the British Foreign Office is on tenterhooks, eager to ensure that nothing happens to precipitate the impending crisis. Northbrook, the Foreign Office attaché to the delegation from Carpathia (the aforesaid fictional country), tries to ensure the Regent is not crossed in any way, and when that means inviting Elsie Marina (played by Marilyn), an American blonde with a bit part in a revue at the Brixton, to spend an evening with the Regent, he does his job with a stiff upper lip.
But Elsie turns out to be a little more than the Regent bargained for, quite simply refusing to fall for his very transactional attempts to take her to his bed. The humour is strong in the scenes between the Prince, who Olivier plays to great comedic effect as a classic stiff Teutonic stereotype and the Showgirl, who Marilyn plays to even greater comedic effect as a very good-natured ingénue.
|The Showgirl seducing the Prince in Act III
The story progresses to a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, as well as a light exploration of the relationship between the Prince and his son, while the romantic track is given the proverbial short-shrift. Comedy ensues with a plot twist or two, and brings us to an ending that is happy, but realistic, and the Prince and the Showgirl go their separate ways, holding out only a possibility of meeting again when the Prince is freed from his regency and she from her acting contract.
If divided into parts, about sixty per cent of the film is thoroughly enjoyable comedy, with the rest being either a drag or superfluous. The scenes between Olivier and Marilyn are invariably brilliant sit-com stuff, and the ones between Marilyn and Sybil Thorndike (playing the Prince's mother-in-law) are charming and hilarious as classic 'misunderstanding comedy'. At the same time, there are diversions that are inexplicable, including a song, “I follow a dream” which is so incongruous I was left wondering if the director or producer had lost his mind.
Then I remembered that Olivier was the director and producer, and realised that he was probably just exacting a measure of revenge for the torture that Marilyn put him through during production, as is chronicled in My Week with Marilyn and in this article.
Be that as it may, on screen, Marilyn remains divine. The flawless shape, the seductive innocence of her face, the breathless whisper, and of course, the walk…that walk…
Would The Prince and the Showgirl have been better-regarded today had it not featured the great Shakespearean legend and one of the silver screen’s most enduring beauty icons, thereby raising expectations to unviable heights?
Yes, surely, but that’s life. That’s the movies.
|(L - R) Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller at the premiere.