The Prince and the Showgirl does feature an odd pairing, that of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, and a slow moving storyline, but I was always totally and completely enthralled and mesmerized by it all. A part of that has to do with the magnetism of Olivier and Monroe, their different acting styles make for a unique sexual friction between their characters, and the other part has to do with a storyline that throws so many different balls up in the air and somehow manages to juggle them all. It’s frothy and predictable, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t enjoyable or without artistic merit.
The story is set during King George V’s coronation and dignitaries from around the world are arriving for the event. Among them are King Nicholas and his father, Prince Regent, from Carpathia, who tour England before returning to the embassy. One of the stops is at a musical revue called The Coconut Girl. There Olivier meets Elsie Marina, an American showgirl who has a bit part in the musical, and is immediately in lust. While she initially comes off as a bit of a ditz, she reveals herself to be a street-smart and perceptive person. The Prince tries to get rid of her after the one-night stand doesn’t exactly go as planned, but she stays on for about three days and changes his life.
The story beats are predictable, but the performances, especially from Monroe, hit graceful and beautiful notes that keep the film feeling fresh and inventive. Olivier could always be relied upon to give a performance for an aristocratic man who is full of bluster and grandstanding. Big emotions from big men were his bread and butter. But the best performance comes from Marilyn Monroe. Frequently cast in her vehicles at 20th Century Fox as a sex goddess incarnate who just so happened to be funny, Monroe gets to demonstrate dramatic skills which typically went ignored outside of Bus Stop. Olivier practically screams Royal Shakespearean Company grandiosity, while she brims with a sense of playful sexuality; she also forsakes her typical fragility for most of the film for a determined and street smart tone. It’s nice to see her play smart after playing: dumb-as-a-brick (The Seven Year Itch), near-sighted slapstick (How to Marry a Millionaire), gold-digging-sexual-predator (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Those three films encapsulated her “dumb blonde” era, with only one of them actually qualifying as a legitimate “dumb blonde.” Here she is luminous, adult and smart. Radiant, sexy and magnetic, of course, but those were charms that exploded in front of the camera no matter what she did.
And the ending is most curious, but rather adult and oddly satisfying. After spending a few days playing Miss Fix-it to this group of royals, she announces that she cannot go with them back home because she has a contract with her stage show. The prince says that he’ll be tied for most of the year with his duties as his son reaches eighteen and becomes old enough to assume the throne. They agree that, maybe but only maybe, in roughly a year-and-a-half when everything is finally said-and-done to possibly meet up again and see if the spark is still there. We’re left hanging, and it’s a nice bit of genre manipulation which tells us that normally these two would get together and ride off into the sunset. It is a credit to Olivier’s steady hand as a director that this plays so sublimely and as a satisfactory conclusion to their affair. It always seemed too odd from the start for a fairy-tale ending.