Marilyn: Behind the Icon
As Producer and Star, Monroe Dazzles in
The Prince and the Showgirl
Director Joshua Logan considered the collaboration of Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier “the best combination since black & white.” After renegotiating her contract with 20th Century Fox, Monroe hoped to gain legitimacy as a serious artist by producing her independent film, an adaptation of Terrance Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, and playing opposite a distinguished British thespian. In turn, she offered Olivier an opportunity to rejuvenate his dimming career with her youth, vibrancy, and commercial appeal. Olivier accepted the proposition on the condition that he co-produce and direct the film.
Although the production was fraught with turbulence, this preposterous pairing was an artistic success. Monroe received both the Italian David Di Donatello Prize and the French Crystal Star Award for Best Foreign Actress for her performance as Elsie Marina. “When you look at the film,” observed Arthur Miller’s sister, Joan Copeland, “it is apparent who won the battle, & it wasn’t Olivier.”
Distributed by Warner Brothers and re-titled, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the film sounded like a third-rate Edwardian musical, but the film’s trailer called it a “spicy adventure” with Monroe “in her happiest role.” The film’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall (a charity event hosted by Marilyn Monroe Productions to benefit The Milk Fund for Babies) featured two rows of Honor Guards dressed in period British uniforms flanking both sides of the red carpet.
As her first completely independent production, Monroe portrays the sweet and diplomatic showgirl — an innate sage — who reconciles members of a royal family and prevents a world war. Monroe herself was amused by the casting of Olivier as the pompous, arrogant Balkan Regent of Carpathia whose cold heart the showgirl thaws. With serious ambition, Monroe — aided by photographer and business partner Milton Greene — took Rattigan’s three-act drawing-room comedy out of the drawing room but essentially kept the plot intact.
The story takes place in London in 1911, where American actress Elsie Marina is performing. The play’s cast is introduced to the Regent of Carpathia. When the strap of her dress snaps as she curtsies upon their meeting, Elsie makes an impression on the Regent and soon receives a formal invitation to a reception at the Carpathian embassy. Upon arrival, she realizes it is a private affair and suspects the Regent is trying to seduce her. She outlines the steps the Regent will use in his seduction attempt to Mr. Northbrook (Richard Wattis), the British liaison coordinating the affair.
As Northbrook chases Elsie down the stairs and tries to convince her to stay, she indicates that she has fought her way out of many tête-à-têtes and is familiar with the moves of seduction. “‘It-will-be-more-fun-serving-ourselves-don’t-you-think?’” she recites, predicting the words of the Regent. “And then after supper, ‘Miss-Marina-you-must-be-very-tired-why-don’t-you-put-your-feet-up-on-this-nice-sofa?’”
Elsie is offended when she discovers she has been invited for a tryst. She tries to flee, informing Northbrook, “There’s a word for what you are, and it’s not Deputy Head of the Far Eastern Department!”
Before Elsie exits, the Regent arrives and convinces her to stay. The stiff and irritable sovereign alternates between delight and consternation with his beautiful guest who rebuffs his sexual advances and displays no tolerance for the vodka he serves.
Driven by her open emotions and American ideals, Elsie challenges his beliefs about love and politics. With his plan for a sex-filled evening cast aside, the Regent becomes exasperated by Elsie’s confrontation of his repressive politics and difficulties with intimacy.
Monroe shines in a charming scene during which Elsie serves herself from the buffet while the prince takes an urgent telephone call, a masterpiece of improvisation. Bored with the evening, she begins talking to herself and drinking champagne, slowly becoming intoxicated. Monroe was required to eat caviar and chicken salad in the multiple takes, so Olivier suggested she mime eating. Monroe insisted on the reality of consuming the food but requested apple juice as a substitute for champagne. Elaine Schreyeck, responsible for script continuity, assisted Monroe in directing the scene while Olivier acted in the background. Once again, Monroe stole the scene from Olivier.
When the Regent attempts to take Elsie into his arms with a corny line, she bursts into laughter and pushes him across the room. “That’s just terrible!” she cries. “Don’t pull the ‘Grand Duke’ with me.” His attempts to send her home are delayed by King Nicolas, the Regent’s teen son (Jeremy Spenser) with reformist principals, and the Queen dowager (Sybil Thorndike), the hard-of-hearing mother of the Regent’s deceased wife.
Both are entirely enchanted with Elsie’s warm and child-like charm. The dowager speaks French to Elsie who fakes understanding and inadvertently leads the elderly lady into believing Elsie is the friend of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The next morning, Elsie greets the Duke with a declaration of having fallen madly in love with him. “You do need more love in your life, so now you’ve got it,” she says adoringly. Elsie accepts the dowager’s invitation to accompany the royal family to the coronation of King George V and later accepts the young king’s invitation to the coronation ball. Gradually softened by Elsie’s blunt honesty and democratic values, the Duke falls in love with her.
Originally from Milwaukee, Elsie is fluent in German and overhears the young King’s plans to overthrow his father’s government. This grants her the inadvertent role of preventing a World War, reconciling a royal family, and softening of the Duke’s hardened heart. Elements of the plot paralleled Monroe’s relationship with her audience. The public, like the Regent, initially saw her as merely a sex symbol; and Monroe, like Elsie, is humanized when she reveals intelligence and soulfulness beneath an attractive surface.
At the coronation ball. Elsie and Nicolas sit on the grand staircase where they are composing a manifesto to present to his father. The Duke invites Elsie to dance, and as they waltz, she negotiates reconciliation by relaying Nicholas’ conditions, including a general election. When the Duke balks, Elsie promotes the advantages of a democracy.
Elsie presents Nicholas’ manifesto to the Duke. It proclaims support of his father contingent upon several conditions. While the Duke considers a response, Elsie turns the tables and trumps him with a beautifully staged seduction scene; employing the same manipulation he used the previous evening. She pours him vodka and asks if he would be more comfortable reclined on the sofa. Elsie has also arranged for the valet to be accompanied by an orchestra of servants playing romantic music out in the hall.
Alone with Elsie, the Duke arrives at a solution to the conflict with his son. He will release the jailed dissenter, gain public favor, and win the general election. Serving as a diplomat, Elsie successfully averted war.
The Duke outlines his plan to abdicate his throne to Nicholas in eighteen months, and Elsie replies that her contract with the theatrical troupe will also end in eighteen months. Alas, only the ending of their respective responsibilities will allow them to finally be together. In a sad realization, Elsie reckons, “So there we are.” The Duke alludes to the potential for unexpected events to keep them apart.
“This is goodbye,” the Duke sadly concludes. “Au revoir,” Elsie whispers, tears filling her eyes. As the Duke presents Elsie with the parting gift, she bites on the medal with her teeth to distinguish it from the others presented to her by his family. The Dowager bids a final farewell to Elsie, giving her a medallion, an autographed photograph, and a suggestion of “an occasional change of dress.”
Elsie and the Duke exchange a final farewell from a distance. Forlorn, she leans against the doorframe and watches the royal family’s departure. She collects her parting gifts and takes a final look at the embassy, her mind filled with memories of the past two days. With a borrowed raincoat over her gown, Elsie retreats through the long reception hall and exits the front doors. Jack Cardiff’s camera focuses on the rear of her body walking away; however, unlike in Niagara, the camera’s focus in not on sexualizing the character, but instead on her sadness.
Monroe’s co-stars were primarily classically trained actors of the British stage with scant motion picture experience. With twenty-six films behind her, Marilyn found herself the most polished film veteran among her troupe. Dame Sybil Thorndike (1886-1976) portrayed the sagacious, near-deaf Queen Dowager.
At Pinewood Studios, the greatest combination since black & white was embroiled in a bitter battle between classical and Method acting — the established school versus the new school, the pre-war acting generation versus the post-war generation. Olivier believed in a technical approach: delivering a line and executing a movement. As a devout Method actress, Monroe explored her own sense-memories to discover her character’s motivation and flesh out character development. She searched for realism in her performance while Olivier was trained in memorizing lines verbatim. Monroe questioned Olivier’s resistance to allowing her to develop the character with her own nuances and mannerisms instead of re-creating the performance his wife, Vivien Leigh, had interpreted in the stage version.
During a televised interview for the BBC, the commentator asked Dame Sybil if Monroe was difficult. “No, not at all,” she vehemently protested. “She’s a dear, and she’s a most charming person. She’s got a wonderful instinct. She is married to the camera. I never found any difficulties with her.” During an early screening, Dame Sybil turned to Olivier and said, “Larry, you did well in that scene but with Marilyn up there, nobody will be watching you. Her manner and timing are just too delicious. We need her desperately. She’s really the only one of us who knows how to act in front of a camera.”
The Prince and the Showgirl was completed in less time than scheduled, came in under budget, and required only two days of reshoots, Oliver and Monroe reshot only two scenes in two days with no need for multiple takes. Olivier struggled to infuse wit and sparkle into the scene of their meeting and eventually conceded that Monroe’s Method inspiration of thinking of Coca Cola and Frank Sinatra to motivate her acting was the best approach. “God! Needless to say, it worked,” Olivier wrote. “Enough to make a man cut his throat, enough for this man, anyway.”
Monroe preferred the film’s first edited edition and voiced serious concerns about the final version. In memos, she objected to the slow pacing of the first third of the film and believed the comedic scenes had been “flattened out” by a substitution of “inferior” takes with “flatter performances lacking the energy and brightness that you saw in New York.” Monroe also took exception with the editing: “Jump cutting kills the points, as in the fainting scene.” She added, “The story gets lost in the coronation scene” and that “American audiences are not as moved by stained glass windows as the British are, and we threaten them with boredom.” Warner Brothers Studios stood firm with no major editing changes.
None of the on-set tension between the co-stars transcended to film. The Prince & the Showgirl ranked tenth in the year’s top moneymakers and garnered many awards in Europe and Great Britain. Monroe was nominated for Best Foreign Actress by the British Academy Awards, and the film received nominations for the British Academy Award in the categories of Best British Actor, Best British Film, Best British screenplay, and Best Film from any source.
“Marilyn Monroe…has never seemed more in command of herself as a person and comedienne,” lauded the New York Post. “She manages to make her laughs without sacrificing the real Marilyn to play-acting. This, of course, is something one can expect from great, talented and practiced performers.”
“Marilyn Monroe’s acting promise soars to a triumphant peak in The Prince and the Showgirl…” announced the New York World Telegram and Sun. “The movie is also a comic delight, matching the surprise bestowed upon us by Marilyn. She is captivatingly kittenish in her infectious mirth. Her love scenes are played as a girlish game. She romps through slapstick and turns solemn moments into part of her fun.” Critics finally saw beyond her body and celebrated the skills she had mastered at the Actor’s Studio.
“I just don’t think I tried terribly hard to get on with [Marilyn],” Olivier explained with honesty near the end of his life. “Her personality was strong on the screen. She gave a star performance. Maybe I was tetchy with Marilyn and with myself because I felt my career was in a rut.” In the end, Olivier concisely and accurately assessed their performances: “I was good as could be; and Marilyn! Marilyn was quite wonderful, the best of all. So. What do you know?”
“It’s making money, but that’s the crazy thing,” Monroe told photographer George Barris about the film a few weeks before her death. “I’ve been asked to sell it to TV, but I’ve refused. I feel it’s one of my financial assets and I want to hold onto it…it did very well in Europe; I got the French and Italian awards.”
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.