Only a few days after I frowned at Katherine Jenkins’ half-hearted Marilyn Monroe “tribute”, BBC4 was nice enough to broadcast The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), so I could appreciate the genuine article. You get so used to thinking of Monroe as a Warhol print, or a fancy dress costume, or a conspiracy theory, it’s easy to forget that back in the day she was actually a very successful actress who appeared in a number of highly acclaimed comedies and dramas. She was also incredibly beautiful, of course… and she looks fantastic here in the figure-hugging white dress she sports throughout the movie (more about which later).
For those who don’t know, this story is set in London, during the coronation of King George V, in the year of our lord 1911. Monroe plays ‘Elsie Marina’, a wide-eyed American actress appearing in a show called “The Coconut Girl”, who experiences a rather embarrassing “wardrobe malfunction” while greeting a visiting dignitary, played by Laurence Olivier (who also directed). ‘Charles’, The Prince Regent of Carpathia, is twenty years her senior, and is clearly delighted by the brief flash of nubile flesh, as he promptly invites Elsie to join him at the embassy for “supper” that evening. The date itself is a tad disturbing, as he plies her with vodka, blanks her nervous attempts at conversation, then leaves her to eat by herself while he makes a phone call to his ambassador, in which he openly denigrates Americans in general, and orders the imprisonment of a political enemy without charge or trial… all within earshot of Elsie, as if she were totally insignificant! Then, once she’s all liquored up on champagne, he slimes his way over to put the moves on her. Um, did I mention this was supposed to be a romantic comedy!? I know times have changed, but for the life of me I don’t understand how Elsie could fall head-over-heels for this dictatorial date-rapist. When her friends ask her to explain the attraction, she admits that he really isn’t a very pleasant man at all, and the only defence she can muster is that he’s “cute”. Oy! Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome?
I’m afraid my enjoyment of the rest of the story was rather hampered by the creepiness of their courtship… I mean, Elsie is basically the rom-com equivalent of the girl in a horror movie who puts down her axe then runs towards the sound of screaming. It’s rather hard to root for someone so reckless and foolish. I also found it hard to overlook the fact that, for reasons too farcical to go into, she spends three days straight living out of the embassy, and never once pops home for a fresh change of clothes… so basically, she’s stuck wearing the very same evening dress (and underwear?) she fell asleep in that first night! They try to glam her character up for the coronation with some bling and a fancy wrap, but surely she would have been starting to whiff a bit by that point? As Cinderella fantasies go, it’s a rather strange and grubby one!
All that aside, I did enjoy Monroe’s performance here… and perhaps my frustration with the character stems from the fact that I kept seeing glimmers of intelligence beneath the surface, which gave the (ultimately false) impression that Elsie wasn’t as silly as everyone assumed… but I think that may simply stem from the fact that Monroe was smarter than the roles she was given to play at that time. I haven’t seen any of her dramatic work though, and I don’t know the first thing about her off-screen life, so I can’t really back that supposition up with any evidence. She doesn’t get a lot of physical comedy to do here, but she has a very amusing way of moving and posing herself… when she isn’t gazing at Charles with that soppy, soft-focus stare, I mean. Ick.
Oh, and a shout-out to Richard Wattis, who plays ‘Northbrook’, the ever-so-English civil servant assigned to the Prince Regent as an aide (and unofficial showgirl procurer). Although Wattis enjoyed a long and varied career as an actor, I’ll always think of him as the long-suffering Deputy Director of Schools in the original St. Trinian’s tetralogy. Bless ‘im.
Fun fact: The story surrounding the making of this movie is the basis for a new biopic called My Week with Marilyn, which will star Michelle Williams as the eponymous icon… and there really does seem to be a rather striking resemblance in the promo photo that’s been released.