– Sir Laurence Olivier on Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
The Prince and the Showgirl
By Bryan James
The Prince and the Showgirl was Marilyn Monroe’s ticket out of Hollywood after her refusal to continue playing mediocre film parts chosen by the studio’s top brass who had little respect for her. This was evidenced by Marilyn not being given her own dressing room until she appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) – where she discovered that Jane Russell was being paid 10 times as much – despite Monroe’s major roles in Niagara, (1953), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Monkey Business (1952), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and a cameo in All About Eve (1950).
In December 1954, soon after finishing The Seven Year Itch, she formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc. with photographer Milton Greene, through which she bought the rights to Terence Rattigan’s “The Sleeping Prince”, the story of a young actress who meets and captivates the Prince of Carpathia, the play the film was based on.
I feel wonderful. I’m incorporated,”
Marilyn said after she formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc.
Meanwhile, her battles with Twentieth Century Fox continued and saw her refusing to make several films they had lined up for her, such as the role of song and dance girl ‘Curly Flagg’ in Betty Grable’s last film, How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), a film that wasn’t successful and has virtually disappeared. Fox placed her on suspension for refusing the assignment.
Marilyn, frustrated with the studio, moved to New York and began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. When Fox relented a year later, she returned to Hollywood to star in “Bus Stop” (1956). (However the practice of offering her parts she didn’t want continued throughout her time with Fox and later included Heller in Pink Tights (1960), which she refused to make, describing the role as “rubbish”.)
Soon after “Bus Stop” and a marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, the couple headed for London, along with Milton Greene, to begin work on the film version of ‘The Sleeping Prince’ (a play in which Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played the leads on the London stage in 1953). How all this was negotiated is unclear but we do know Marilyn had a lot riding on the project and was desperate to prove herself as an actress – her whole reason for leaving Hollywood. Terence Rattigan had agreed to write the screenplay, the cream of British stage and screen were lined up to take part – what could go wrong?
The first, and probably the key to all the other problems was, to Marilyn’s unhappy surprise and without being consulted (it was her company), Olivier had been appointed director of the film, thereby radically changing the equal relationship of co-stars that she was expecting to an unequal one of director and star. In addition Larry’s attitude to acting was the complete opposite of Marilyn’s Actors Studio philosophy. He hated ‘the method’ and prefered to act “from the outside in”, delighting in extravagant makeup with different voices and accents and on record as saying, “I can never act as myself, I have to have a pillow up my jumper, a false nose or a moustache or wig. I cannot come on looking like me and be someone else”.
As filming progressed and Olivier assumed the role of director more, Monroe began to felt insecure, resulting in the familiar problems of insomnia, lateness and sickness. The problems were compounded by the presence on set of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, whom Marilyn depended on and consulted between takes about her performance – much to Olivier’s annoyance, sometimes sarcastically asking Strasberg “How was that for you?” after a take.
Nevertheless, as with her other films, notoriously Some Like it Hot, none of this is apparent on the screen and we are left with a charming and rather delightful comedy that shows off the exceptional talents of both Marilyn and her co-star and director, Laurence Olivier – not to mention the stallworth cast, especially Dame Sybil Thorndike.
The film, however, received a mixed reception, as you can read from some of the reviews posted below, perhaps people were unprepared for a comedy with Sir Laurence involved. It’s said that comedy is more difficult than drama – and it is usually under-appreciated for sure when it comes to critics and handing out awards.
In England, where the film was made, it was nominated for five BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Awards):
Best British Actor: Laurence Olivier,
Best Foreign Actress: Marilyn Monroe,
Best British Screenplay: Terence Rattigan, and
Best British From Any Source.
Monroe Won a Golden Plate (Italy) for her performance and was nominated for Top Female Comedy Performance (Golden Laurel) and
Sybil Thorndike won Best Supporting Actress, National Board of Review, USA 1957.
– Sources: IMDB, Wikipedia, Daily Telegraph
“The title of the Anglo-American The Prince and the Showgirl could well have alluded to the genuine stations in life of stars Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. The film casts Olivier as Charles, prince regent of Carpathia, who is in London to attend the 1911 coronation of King George V. Monroe is deceptively dizzy American chorus girl Elsie Marina, who while performing in a West End revue catches Charles’ eye. The prince arranges for Elsie to attend an “intimate supper” at his hotel suite. Though Elsie successfully wards off Charles’ advances, she drinks too much bubbly and ends up falling asleep.
Olivier directed as well as starred in The Prince and the Showgirl; he knew he had his work cut out for him in dealing with the mercurial Marilyn Monroe, but he managed to hold his temper and to extract a delightful comic performance from the actress.”
– Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
“This is, along with Some Like it Hot and Bus Stop, Monroe’s finest dumb-blonde characterization. She manages to be be both incredibly funny and poignant at the same time. She is especially good early in the movie. I laughed out loud at her attempts to say all of the royal personages titles correctly. Olivier, for his part, could play a stuffed shirt Prince Regent in his sleep. Still he does bring some originality and certainly prestige to the movie.
In my opinion though. it is Sybil Thorndike as The Queen Dowager who walks away with the movie. Every scene she appears in is the better for it. Her bearing and line delivery are priceless. And I quite agreed with her near the movie’s conclusion when she asks Elsie if she ever wears any color other than white. Monroe looks good in the dress, no doubt about that but like Eric, I would have preferred a bit more variety.” – Movie Buff: Patrick Nash
Sybil Thorndike said Marilyn was the only one on the set who knew how to act on film and be natural. She chided Olivier when he became impatient with her, pointing out that she was in a strange country, a long way from home and that he should be more understanding.
New York Times original review: 14 June 1957: “What is perhaps the most diverting piece of casting in many a year – Britain’S Sir Laurence Olivier with Hollywood’s Marilyn Monroe – turns out to be the most diverting and original thing about their film, “The Prince and the Showgirl,” presented at the Music Hall yesterday. The mere thought of Britain’s great Shakespearean playing a romantic lead opposite Hollywood’s most famous and least pedantic blonde is sufficient to start the mind imagining some highly potential comic scenes. And the mere sight of them together is equally rewarding for a while.
Lodged in spacious, ornate chambers which are aptly designed to simulate a royal suite in the Carpathian Embassy in London at the time of the coronation of King George V, these two get going quite nicely as an overly stuffy Balkan prince and an American showgirl whom he is wooing with the old after-theatre-supper routine. Sir Laurence, in exquisite haberdashery, makes an amusingly clumsy would-be rake, and Miss Monroe in a skin-tight white creation makes a suitably gauche and cautious dame.
The elements, lifted in person by Terence Rattigan from his play, “The Sleeping Prince,” give promise of developing amusement, despite the vague familiarity of the scene.
However, we’re bound to tell you Miss Monroe never gets out of that dress and Mr. Rattigan never swings out of the circle in which he has permitted his thin plot to get stuck. Although he has made some feeble nudges with a hint of a dark conspiracy on the part of the prince’s unloved gosling to overthrow his dad, and although he has tossed in a dowager queen to make a few haughty, humorous cracks, he has not let his story do much more than go around and around and then come to a sad end. The prince goes back to his country and the showgirl goes back to the Gaiety.
Furthermore – and this is disappointing – his characters do not have enough to do to allow a diverting demonstration of their elaborate acting skills. Sir Laurence is kept pretty much a stuffed shirt, wearing a monõcle and speaking in Teutonic accents that are unpleasant and hard to understand. And Miss Monroe mainly has to giggle, wiggle, breathe deeply and flirt. She does not make the showgirl a person, simply another of her pretty oddities.
However, under Sir Laurence’s direction, Sybil Thorndike plays the dowager queen with delightful fuzziness and hauteur, Richard Wattis makes a starchy minister and Jeremy Spenser is insufferably snippy as the prince’s son. The settings are elegant in color and some bits of footage of the last Coronation are intercut.
The main trouble with “The Prince and the Showgirl,” when you come right down to it, is that both characters are essentially dull. And incidentally, the scene shown in advertisements of Sir Laurence kissing Miss Monroe’s shoulder does not appear in the film.”
– Bosley Crother, New York Times
“The crew thought she wasn’t acting – until the rushes start showing up.”
“For me, this is Monroe’s greatest performance – just as “Camille” is Garbo’s. In Camille you never catch Garbo acting, every line feels tossed off or thrown away except the big ones, which get the full heartcry the script calls for. In Monroe’s film her every line flows from her with an assurance she matched only in “Bus Stop” and never feels acted.
Jack Cardiff fills the screen with glowing color to match the decor and costumes and much of my delight lies in having the full screen aglow, wall to wall and top to bottom with luscious light – light focused often on MM’s sheer glory. Olivier’s line readings are great fun, a grotesque joy, but MM reads like an angel and steals the show with her heartfelt method realism. What can one say about her that isn’t less than she deserves here?
For the horrors behind the filming, you might turn to Colin Clark’s “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set with Marilyn and Olivier” where this angel’s neuroses are revealed in full. More on behind the scenes And yet Sybil Thorndike, her co-star here as the Queen Mother, said of MM during the shooting that she was the only one on the set who knew how to act on film and be natural. The crew often thought she wasn’t acting – until the rushes start showing up.” – Donald A Newlove – Amazon