Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Here's one for the Nice Try department - Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier team up in a
coproduction - a classy costume romance to earn for themselves some of the money they (mostly she)
earn for the big studios. An ambitious and costly production, with the finest British craftsmen
available, and it ends up a little lacking in overall pizazz. It's still far better than average
for a '50s romantic comedy.
Elsie Marina, an American actress working in turn-of-the-century London (Marilyn Monroe)
has an accident with a dress strap while being introduced to the Regent of Carpathia (Laurence Olivier)
backstage, and is invited to a reception at the Carpathian embassy. The stuffy Regent is alternately
pleased and annoyed with her, but attempts to send her away keep getting delayed, by Northbrook,
the British liason (Richard Wattis), King Nicolas, the Regent's young son who is planning a coup
(Jeremy Spenser), and the Queen dowager, the Regent's mother (Sybil Thorndike), who insists on
spouting fluffy French that Elsie cannot understand. The resourceful showgirl (she stays several days
in the same dress, it seems) does understand German, however, which gives her an essential, if
inadvertent role to play in the avoidance of a World War, the reconciliation of a royal family,
and the softening of the Regent's chilly heart.
Don't let the sultry cover art fool you - there's nothing nearly so darkly exotic in The Prince
and the Showgirl, which plays out mostly among brightly lit drawing rooms and palatial
staircases. It's an old-fashioned three-act play which spends much of its time mulling over the
petty politics of an Eastern European monarchy. One of the leads is a British Embassy official
played by the veddy proper Richard Wattis (
The Abominable Snowman) who ties the show
together and has almost as much screen time with MM as does 'Laurence of Olivier' himself.
It's not a bad play, and Terence Rattigan's speeches are both witty and well-suited for Marilyn.
He uses the device of a large and ungainly medal being pinned and re-pinnned to MM's bosom, a
ritual that isn't tastless as it reads. Everybody seemed to think the sensuality in Marilyn's
screen persona was some out-of-control force of nature, when the truth was she understood it,
was reasonably comfortable with it, and after years of practice on the screen, knew how to turn
it on and off in appropriate doses. She's actually perfectly charming. In the middle of trying
to extend her range in shows like
Bus Stop, here she sticks with a
variant of her dumb blonde, who is of course an instinctual sage. Perhaps the class factor of
being billed opposite Laurence was achievement enough here.
The Prince and the Showgirl reinforces the old adage that whenever Marilyn appears on screen,
other actors cease to exist. She simply glows, and holds our interest no matter what she's doing.
True, as the center of the action we follow her almost all the time, but for all his methods and
acting finesse, Olivier just can't compete. It's not a matter of clashing styles, as they mesh
quite well in their shared scenes. Olivier does a fine job of creating a stiff martinet who warms
up in small stages. For her part, MM plays yet another free spirit with the reactions of a child, who
squeals and giggles whenever the mood strikes her. Yet she gives it enough gravity to be a conscious
choice - her Elsie is a goofball American abroad, but she's no Ditz.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff gives Marilyn Monroe some of the handsomest shots of her career - lit
better than most glamour photography, and dramatically sound, to boot. Some interiors in a large
London Hall are distractingly undercranked to get enough light, but elsewhere Cardiff effortlessly
mixes matte paintings and impressive sets. Notice how in the embassy set, there's always an awareness
of the time of day.
The usual gossip about The Prince and the Showgirl is that Laurence and Marilyn didn't get
along, she was intolerably late, etc. - the same old stories. I'd bet that Olivier blocked things out
and took care of the acting direction, while leaving the actual running of the set to Anthony Bushell,
an actor/director billed as both associate director and associate producer. With film roles going
back to the silents (and Boris Karloff's first English film, The Ghoul), he appeared in
A Night to Remember and as military men in scores of English films. Among his directing
work is the Hammer horror film Terror of the Tongs, starring Christopher Lee.
The Prince and the Showgirl stays light, and has its touching moments, but never strikes a
deep emotional note or really shakes us up. It's as if something transcendant is meant to occur
in the ballroom scene or the big church scene, but doesn't. The wrapup puts Elsie
on her way to becoming some kind of kept woman for the Regent, which doesn't seem as much fun as
it should. She could do much better, and appears more enchanted by the regal trappings than the man.
Warner's DVD of The Prince and the Showgirl is a minor disappointment. Released in 1957, this
should be a widescreen transfer, at least 1:66. It's also a Technicolor release, and it looks as
though an older element was used for the transfer, as opposed to going the admittedly expensive
route of reworking the film back from original elements. Most scenes look fine, but quite a few
have too much grain or are indistinct, (especially the optical of the opening titles) and the color is
nowhere as consistent as it should be. It never looks bad, exactly, but after seeing the
excellent no-compromise job done on the first batch of
Fox Monroe Movies, this is nothing
to write home about. Films released in Technicolor are always going to have this problem, and
remastering them properly can be a costly process. Up until now, the bean counters in the studios
have only approved a few titles, like The Wizard of Oz, for such treatment. Other dazzling
shows, like John Huston's Moulin Rouge, sit in disrepair awaiting restoration funds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Prince and the Showgirl rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: Newsreel, Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 4, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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