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Sometimes discovering one good movie can snowball into three or four superior experiences -- that's why we track down movies by favorite directors and actors. I finally realized that writer (and sometimes director) Norman Krasna had written the story or screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table, Fritz Lang's Fury and Sam Wood's The Devil and Miss Jones. Then the Warner Archive Collection had released a disc of Bachelor Mother. It's one of those movies that a person ends up catching the end of several times, without ever seeing the rest of the show. Bachelor Mother so impressed me that I wanted to check out Princess O'Rourke, a wartime romantic comedy both written and directed by the talented Krasna.
Yes, Princess O'Rourke is an old-fashioned romance with dated values. Good for that: its rich characters are more than the sum of their bodily urges. Krasna scores on several levels of comedy and romantic feeling. It's also a wartime morale-booster, although such a sophisticated one that, if you're aware that there was this big war back 70 years ago, that's all you need to know. Princess O'Rourke is a gem of an Olivia de Havilland picture, and one of leading man Robert Cummings's best -- the New York Times reviewer thought Cummings was a new James Stewart in the making.
With the war raging in Europe, a certain un-named monarch is ruling in exile from London, and the Princess Maria (Olivia de Havilland) is staying in New York with her Uncle Holman (Charles Coburn). Holman's every move is concerned with the problem of marrying Maria off to an acceptably noble bachelor, to give the royal line a needed male heir. On a flight to San Francisco Maria takes too many sleeping pills and sleeps (chastely) in the apartment of airline pilot Eddie O'Rourke (Robert Cummings). She then spends the day with Eddie and his married friends Dave and Jean Campbell (Jack Carson & Jane Wyman), passing herself off as a penniless war refugee, "Mary Williams". After she helps Jean at a Red Cross volunteer clinic, the foursome goes out to eat and dance, and "Mary" and Eddie fall in love. Because the two friends will be leaving soon to serve in the Army Air Corps, Eddie proposes marriage - an offer that Mary turns down without explanation. But the next morning, after the secret service agents report on Maria's night on the town, Uncle Holman decides that a royal marriage to an American commoner might be a fine arrangement, diplomatically speaking. Eddie checks out with the F.B.I. -- and he comes from a family that has produced a bumper crop of male babies! But he can't quite picture himself as an honest-to-goodness Prince: "Prince... Here, Prince!"
Princess O'Rourke is a classic screenplay in every sense. It has only ten or so real scenes, all of which introduce original surprises to familiar material. The story reminds us of Dalton Trumbo's later Roman Holiday with a lighter tone and a different moral. The more practical princess played by Audrey Hepburn has an overnight fling with Gregory Peck, but their further association is an impossibility. De Havilland's princess identifies herself as a kind of reverse Cinderella. Good old American democracy is squarely on the side of ordinary Yankees who want to get married. A U.S. diplomat has some of the best lines: "Son, this is America. They can make young men charge a machine gun empty handed but they can't tell them who to marry."
Nervous about air flight and unschooled in American self-medication practices, Princess Maria ends up taking about six sleeping pills, making her into a very sleepy mystery woman (instead of dead, which seems like a real possibility). She learns to envy the common domestic life of Eddie's married friends Dave and Jean. Maria hears their "meet cute" story, while Dave jokingly complains that he somehow got roped into marriage after knowing Jean just ten days. The reality of the war is finally coming to roost, with Jean upset that her husband is leaving to fight. Maria also sees how America is responding to the war in the communal Red Cross volunteer meeting. An old woman (Ferike Boros from Bachelor Mother) has every skill the group needs, but "Mary" doesn't know how to sew, cook, or type, and ends up serving as a live dummy for first aid practice. Wartime life is a practical problem. When Eddie seriously considers marrying "Mary" after just one day, their biggest hurdle will be finding a refrigerator for their apartment -- with rationing underway there simply aren't any spares to be found.
Princess O'Rourke becomes a classic romantic comedy when marriage suddenly seems possible between a sheltered, multi-lingual Princess and a guy who thought he was proposing to a needy refugee. Eddie's ardor is cooled somewhat when he finds out that the domineering Holman is in charge, and that his new life will be like nothing he knows.
The final scenes take place in the upstairs bedrooms of the White House, where President Roosevelt (we only see his Scotty dog Fala) has invited the royal exiles. That's where Eddie is told the whole story. He'll be given a $150,000 yearly stipend, but as "Prince Consort" he'll have no official duties except to give Maria children. He won't be able to contribute to the war effort, so they probably won't see the Campbells again. But the last straw comes when Eddie is expected to renounce his American citizenship. He rebels, and asks Maria to marry him on his terms.
Princess Maria has already compared herself to a bird in a gilded cage. Now Eddie tells her that she's nothing but a slave. But she's sleeping in the bedroom where Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation. The delightful solution has Fala, The President, a cop from the street and a Supreme Court Justice conspiring to make things right.
The movie is beautifully judged for characterizations. De Havilland is first seen avoiding all human contact. This seems a bit unreasonable until we realize that her solution to not being able to marry for love is to remain an old maid. She's both sheltered and yet more worldly than her new American friends, an interesting contradiction. As per the conventions of the day, it takes a determined Yankee male to set her straight. This is Bob Cummings' best role (that I've seen). He's better than a substitute James Stewart, as Stewart would milk the scenes for bigger laughs and more sympathy. Cummings can be humiliated in slapstick scenes and have his masculinity challenged in others, but he bounces back as a romantic leading man, always seeming natural and sincere. Warners' supporting workhorses Jane Wyman and Jack Carson do great work with more substantial parts than usual. They're amusing but not clowns, and the movie is at its most touching when observing them in their own romantic daze. The restaurant-dance club scene is a beauty. Real big band singer Nan Wynn (who apparently dubbed Rita Hayworth on several occasions) sings a song about wartime separation, at which time Princess O'Rourke probably inspired tears in home front audiences.
Puffy old Charles Coburn seems to be a fixture in Norman Krasna comedies. His overbearing Holman is something of a villain here, telling the engaged couple that they cannot be alone together without a chaperone. The movie has already scored points off this cultured foreigner who don't know what a cherry coke is: Holman sits around worrying about royal fertility rates and inbreeding. A comic bit (now somewhat insensitive) shows eligible aristocrat Curt Bois paying a social call on Princess Maria, the object being matrimony. He has a glaring facial tic, which we are meant to associate with degenerate European bloodlines. Holman is delighted that Maria's prospective commoner Prince Consort will be a fine match, genetics-wise.
The best wartime morale-building comedies show off America as a magnificent country that can laugh at itself, even as they demonstrate our national unity: Hail the Conquering Hero, The More the Merrier, The Major and the Minor. Princess O'Rourke is an especially clever and touching example, that makes its fairy-tale premise seem more than possible.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Princess O'Rourke is an unrestored but acceptable transfer. The picture isn't quite as sharp as a newly redone title, and the first reel is a little dirty and has some surface digs that come and go. From then on the quality isn't really noticeable -- the show is clean and unbroken, and the audio track featuring Frederick Hollander's music is strong.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Princess O'Rourke rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.