Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Laurence Olivier is often considered one of the greatest stage and screen actors of all time. Marilyn Monroe is often considered the screen’s greatest sex symbol, but a limited actress. The two performers thus occupy totally different ends of the spectrum, yet the two of them tried something different when they starred together in The Prince and the Showgirl, an adaptation of a play by highly regarded playwright Terrence Rattigan. Indeed, confounding the unusual casting pair, Olivier chose to direct the film himself, bemusing those who had associated his directorial abilities with the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Reportedly, it was not a happy production for the two stars. Monroe was anxious to expand her sphere of influence into production, and it was this angle that was played up in several studio announcements (one of which is included as an extra on the DVD). Despite the problems, the film remains a historically intriguing, if finally unsuccessful, comedy that rests on the clashing images of its two stars for an extended cultural thesis.
The plot of The Prince and the Showgirl follows a cultural clash. Olivier plays the Prince Regent of Carpathia, visiting pre-World War One England in order to attend the coronation of King George V in 1911. There he attends a play and backstage is introduced to the cast, including minor showgirl Monroe. He later sends a message inviting Monroe to attend a party at his residence. She attends, but discovers that she is the only guest and that Olivier intends to seduce her. He thinks that she will be a pushover, but she does not fall for his pitiful lines and spurns him, assaulting his masculine ego. He tries again, luring her with alcohol but tipsy, she spends the night apart from him. In the morning before he can get rid of her, she is apprehended by his mother, who believes she is someone other than she is. It now seems that Monroe may be seducing Olivier. Monroe, who speaks German, overhears a conversation between Olivier’s son and his German plotters. When pressed for information by Olivier, she sets out to make a reconciliation between father and son, but this may not be as easy as she thinks. However, the stuffy Olivier gradually warms to her charms and is affectionate to his own son for what may be the first time.
The thin film rests on the unusual casting of its lead actors. It trades on the supposedly popular belief amongst higher classes that Monroe is a low class, sexy pushover and seeks to invert this, revealing her to be just as wily in her inimitable naivety. She ironically represents America in the film, and has a paradoxical crassly innocent sexuality, the film stressing her curves in a tight fitting dress, as expected of a Monroe film. Yet it is her inherent simplicity and faith in human nature that can transform a stuffy Royal into a warm family man. Thus, there are two layers to their interaction – the interpersonal and the political, and it is on the political theme that the film seems most unsure and hesitant. At the basis of each is the notion of class – Monroe is an innocent and an American because she is unaware of the Royal etiquette that makes European social interaction such a formal affair. She speaks from the heart as it were, not from layers of pretence, and it is a shame that her honesty and simplicity is a magnet for men to try and take advantage of. However, she shows that she is ultimately able to hold her own and perhaps convert even the most cynical of womanizers to a man of true emotions. The film constantly wonders just how aware of circumstance she is. In that the film is yet another extension of her established image, and not the groundbreaking contrast it was perhaps intended as.
Rather than truly expand on that side of her persona, the film merely treads familiar ground in charting the cathartic effect that her presence has on an established order. Whereas farce may seek to have her tear down that order, here she slowly sets about to reform it from within, almost unwittingly. Her success is at an interpersonal level and the film fails when it tries to apply this to the idea of political reform. The context of pre-World War One European politics is essential to the film, but is played as background and the film never manages to incorporate the political context with any force beyond a suggestion of trouble in the Old World order represented by stern, impersonal and aloof Royalty. Olivier states that he cannot bear to be disconcerted, and therein lays a thesis of sorts – that European Royalty of the time would be caught unawares by an American presence it thought insignificant. Where this Europe would seduce the American, it is the American who seduces the European. This is never really integrated into the politics leading to the First World War. Sadly, the potential allegory here is dissipated in a slow, quaint comedy about the clash of manners – to put a dumb blonde amidst Royalty and see what happens. The Prince and the Showgirl emerges too lethargic a comedy despite the expected fine performances and remains a lesser Monroe film, neglecting even the grotesque comical potential of the end premise of father and son wooing the same woman.