When Grandduke Charles, the prince-regent of Carpathia, a fictitious Balkan country which could start a European war by switching alliances, visits London for the coronation of the new ... See full summary »
When Grandduke Charles, the prince-regent of Carpathia, a fictitious Balkan country which could start a European war by switching alliances, visits London for the coronation of the new British King in 1911, and spends his one evening off at the Coconut Girl Club, the reputed stickler for protocol is so charmed by a clumsy American understudy that he orders his British attaché to invite her to the embassy for a private supper. Being overlooked and understanding German, she learns of the repressive attitude of the regent and the plans of his reformist, pro-German minor son, King Nicholas, to take over power by surprise, but doesn't dodge and tries to reconcile father and son. The queen-dowager decides to make her lady-in-waiting for the coronation day, so she stays in the picture to everyone else's surprise. Written by
It is interesting that a number of films set during the 1900s and early 1910s, both comedies such as 'The Assassination Bureau' and serious dramas such as 'The Riddle of the Sands' and the Robert Powell version of 'The 39 Steps', focus on diplomatic attempts to prevent the outbreak of a European war, even though we know that in real life such attempts were to end in failure. Perhaps this reflects a view that 1914 was the year that witnessed the modern age's loss of innocence and that the history of the twentieth century would have been immeasurably happier if the First World War had indeed been averted.
'The Prince and the Showgirl' is another comedy that looks back to the pre-1914 era as a lost golden age. It centers upon Grand Duke Charles, the Prince Regent of the Balkan state of Carpathia, who, while in London for the coronation of King George V, meets, and has a brief romance with, Elsie Marina, an American-born showgirl working in a London music-hall. Their association is encouraged by officials of the British Foreign Office, who are seeking to encourage the pro-British policies of the Carpathian government and to prevent a shift towards a pro-German stance which could threaten the peace of Europe.
Laurence Olivier is today- rightly- regarded as one of Britain's greatest heavyweight actors of the twentieth century, a man who (unlike some of his fellow theatrical knights) was at home in film roles as he was in the classical Shakespearean dramas in which he made his name. Marilyn Monroe is- perhaps wrongly- widely regarded as a lightweight Hollywood starlet whose main talent was looking decorative in a series of undemanding parts. When the two went head-to-head together, however, there was an unexpected result, with the lightweight beating the heavyweight by a knockout.
The above boxing metaphor was suggested by the numerous stories about the strained relations between Olivier and Monroe during the making of the film, supposedly caused by what he saw as the inadequacy of her performance. If those stories are true, I think that Lord Olivier should perhaps have looked more closely at the beam in his own eye than at the mote in hers. Although this is not Monroe's best film, there is nothing particularly wrong with her portrayal of Elsie, who comes across as a typical Monroe character- empty-headed and flirtatious, but basically decent. It was Olivier's Grand Duke who struck me as the main problem with the film.
Although Charles is supposedly the Hungarian-born ruler of a Balkan kingdom, he speaks English with the heavily guttural pseudo-Germanic accent normally associated with British actors playing Nazis of the 've haff vays und means' school. To strengthen the impression, he occasionally barks German interjections such as 'Himmel!', 'Dummkopf!' 'Schweinehund!' and even 'Donnerwetter!', an imprecation I have never heard a real German use. (The few extended examples of German dialogue in the film suggest that the Carpathians not only speak English with a German accent, but also speak German with an English one. To judge from Sybil Thorndyke's efforts, their French is even worse).
Given that his persona is uncomfortably close to the standard cinematic version of an SS officer (an association that must have seemed even more apparent in 1957 than it does today) and that his preferred method of solving the political problems of Carpathia is to imprison without trial as many opposition politicians as possible, Charles is not exactly love's young dream. His emotional coldness and obsession with formality and protocol suggest a caricature more than a real person. Caricature may be appropriate in certain types of comedy, especially satire, but in romantic comedy it seems misplaced, as the romances of real, or real-seeming, individuals are more interesting than those of cartoon characters. Moreover, for romantic comedy to work we need to be able to believe in both parties to the romance, not just one. While Monroe tries to make Elsie a real and likable person, Olivier seems content to draw upon a combination of two stock comic characters, the 'funny foreigner' and the 'stuffy aristocrat'. Although older man/younger woman love-stories were as common in the cinema of the fifties as they are today, this one seems particularly incongruous. Monroe was already in her thirties when the film was made, but the naïve and innocent Elsie seems much younger, whereas the middle-aged Charles seems a man old before his time, an impression created as much by his stiffness of manner and bearing as by his grey hair. The gap in the ages of Charles and Elsie seems considerably greater than the nineteen-year gap in the ages of the actors.
Halliwell's Film Guide praises the film for its 'good production values', that publication's normal shorthand for 'expensive sets and costumes'. Certainly, those elements are impressive, although Elsie's hairstyle and figure-hugging dress seem to reflect the fashions of 1957 more than they do those of 1911. There is, however, little else in the film that impresses. Perhaps Olivier himself was less than impressed by the film, as it was his first experience of directing other than his three famous Shakespeare adaptations, and it was to be his last until he directed a version of Chekhov's 'The Three Sisters' thirteen years later. My lasting impression will be of an unconvincing romance between two ill-matched characters and of an uncharacteristically poor performance from a great actor. 4/10
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